The discovery of László Csatáry, the 97 year old former commander of the Kassa (now Košice in eastern Slovakia) ghetto, living quietly in a residential district in Budapest, drew international headlines in July. In the following article, I attempt to place both his case and the dilemma facing the Hungarian prosecution service in context. It is followed by an interview with Ádám Gellért, a Hungarian jurist who has studied the evidence against Csatáry.
László Csatáry was an administrative case officer in the Košice police, who was appointed commander of the Košice ghetto in April 1944, and then commander of one wing of a brick factory where around 12,000 Jews were concentrated, prior to deportation to Auschwitz and other death camps. Only approximately 1,000 came back alive.
Csatáry was found by reporters from a British tabloid newspaper following a tip- off from the Jerusalem office of the Los Angeles based Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Center had informed the Hungarian authorities of Csatáry’s presence and address in Budapest in September 2011. Since then, Hungarian prosecutors have been searching the files in Hungary, Slovakia, and Israel, in an attempt to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to put him on trial.
The legal picture is extremely complicated. After the war, so-called Peoples’ Courts were established in Hungary, including a mixture of trained judges and delegates appointed by political parties, often with no legal background. They began to function as early as January 1945, while Budapest was still besieged by Soviet forces. They dealt initially with war-crimes cases, sometimes in a professional manner, while on other occasions their procedures appeared amateurish and their decisions influenced by political pressure. One of the most controversial verdicts was the death sentence and execution of former Prime Minister László Bárdossy, who was found guilty, inter alia of declaring war on the Soviet Union in 1941. By 1 January 1948, the courts had sentenced 295 people to death, of whom 135 were actually executed. It is a little known irony of history that Hungary executed more alleged war criminals than Germany. László Csatáry escaped first to Germany, then to Canada after the war, where he was granted citizenship in 1955, claiming to be a Hungarian from Yugoslavia. He lived quietly as an art dealer in Ottawa for some forty years, raised his family, and left in October 1997 when the Canadian authorities began researching his past. He was stripped of Canadian citizenship in August 1997, and moved back to live in Hungary.
The new Csatáry revelations follow the acquittal in July 2011, and death two months later, of Sándor Képíró, a captain in the Hungarian gendarmerie, who was accused of ordering the killing of 30 Jews and of being accomplice in 6 other deaths committed by his subordinates in Novi Sad on 23 January 1942. That case collapsed due to the lack of solid evidence. The testimony of the sole witness for the first incident was found to be contradictory and unreliable. For the other accusations no evidence turned up.
When the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, they replaced the moderate Miklós Kállay government with a quisling government led by Döme Sztójay. The new Interior Minister was Andor Jaross, and his deputies were László Baky and László Endre. All three were noted anti-Semites, and lost no time organising the concentration and deportation of Hungary’s still largely intact Jewish population, with the help of a small German detachment of deportation (Sondereinsatzkommando Eichmann) experts, headed by Adolf Eichmann. All three were executed after the war.
In 1942 the so-called Wannsee conference was held in the Berlin suburb of the same name, where plans for the deportations and killing of the Jews of the German-occupied territories were drawn up. Hungary’s own mini “Wannsee” was held in the Interior Ministry building in Budapest on 7 April 1944, shortly after the German occupation, with Eichmann present. According to the plans agreed there, Jews were to be isolated from non-Jews, their homes and belongings taken from them, and concentrated in ghettos or brickyards throughout the country. Between May and July 1944, around 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported from the then much larger area of Hungary, and most were killed at Auschwitz, (Oswiecim near Cracow, in today’s Poland).
The process began in the east, and the first ghetto was established at Munkács (now Munkachevo in western Ukraine), followed soon afterwards by Košice. All transports went through Košice, which was a major railway junction, as it still is, with tracks leading directly to Poland and to Auschwitz. Gendarmerie commander László Ferenczy moved to Munkács to personally oversee the process, which was carried out by the Hungarian gendarmerie (rural police) and the regular, urban police force, under the watchful eyes of the German occupiers. Orders concerning the ghettos and deportations were signed by the Minister of Interior. Adolf Eichmann visited Munkács in late April. László Endre visited Košice on 24 April, just a short distance away.
Four main sources of information about László Csatáry’s wartime activities have so far been made public. One is the City Archive in Budapest, a smart modern building in Teve utca (Camel Street), behind the National Police Headquarters. Here in a battered file marked V-99377, 1946, are the proceedings of the trial of Dr György Horváth, deputy head of police in Košice from September 1943 to January 1945. Horváth was found guilty of war crimes, and sentenced to death. In October 1946 that sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, with hard labour. The hundred and twenty pages of his file are full of references to Dr László Csatáry, both in witness testimonies and in the statements of the accused. Anyone who feels sympathy for an elderly man, hunted down for misdeeds committed or not committed, 66 years ago, or doubts the wisdom of another war-crimes trial after the failure of the prosecution of Sándor Képíró, should spend an afternoon here. The archives are fully open to the public. The testimony makes shocking reading.
“Dr Horváth appointed a police officer called Dr Csatáry as commander of the so-called left-wing of the brickyard. This person constantly patrolled with a dog-whip and hit anyone with it who strayed across his path. He carried the whip in his braces, and Dr Horváth saw this, just as he saw him when he hit the Jews with it, but never, on a single occasion, did he tell him off, or try to prevent this inhumane behaviour.”
(Jenő Schwarcz, an 18 year old apprentice, told the court. He was deported with his family in the first of the four transports, trains of cattle wagons, from Košice between 15 May and 3 June 1944. Both his parents were killed at Auschwitz.)
“Police office Csatáry wore full uniform in the camp, but always carried a dog whip as well, and especially liked to hit youngsters. When the children saw him coming, they would start to run, but Csatáry, who was tall and lean, was too quick for them, and ran after them, whipping their heads. The Jewish Council filed numerous complaints about this to the deputy Police Chief, who did nothing about it.”
(Elemér Szász, 48 year old gendarmerie officer, interned at the brickyard, accused of listening to BBC radio.)
“The camp commander was Dr László Csatáry, a police case officer. The commander ordered all kinds of work to be done in the ghetto without tools, for example digging the ground, which had to be done with bare hands, and carrying bricks etc. (…) Dr Horváth must have known about the sadistic behaviour of his staff. When Csatáry entered the ghetto, everyone ran away from him in panic. It was common knowledge that he was a sadist.”
(Rózsi Weiszer, 45 year old housekeeper.)
“The loading into wagons began at 8 in the morning, but the train only set out the following morning. I was taken with the fourth transport to Auschwitz (…) They said that 65 people should go in our wagon, then they pushed in another 19, obviously at the order of the accused. Before the fourth transport left, there was an epidemic of dysentery in Kassa, and the chief medical officer wanted to use that as a reason to stop it leaving. The accused did not allow that to happen though. Csatáry went in front of the accused, beating children with dog-whip.
In response to the accusations against him, György Horváth pleaded not guilty. He saw Csatáry once with a dog-whip, he admitted, and asked him why he carried it. To chase dogs away, when he was riding his motorbike, was the explanation. Horváth told the court he ordered Csatáry not to carry the whip, as it was unworthy of his police uniform.
There were also some examples of attempts by the non-Jewish population to protest, or disrupt the deportations. In one, related by an eye-witness, a delegation of priests, led by a Jesuit, arrived at the camp to protest against the conditions in which the Jews were being held. To no avail. Those who tried to escape – just five in three weeks – were shot dead on the barbed wire where the inmates hung their clothes.
László Csatáry has so far given one interview, published in the Hungarian daily Magyar Hírlap on 20 July. He was asked why he worked as liaison officer between the Hungarian police and the Germans.
“It was an order. Anyone who serves in uniform knows what happens to you if you refuse an order. But why would I have refused? They wanted an interpreter, not an evil-doer… But it was not a pleasant task.”
“I only entered the brick factory and the ghetto a couple of times. In both places the Germans were in charge. Anyone who tells you something different, and says that I as a Hungarian, was in the driving seat, is not telling the truth.”
Far from persecuting Jews, he said, he helped some to survive. By refusing to allow detectives to flush them out of the caves where some were hiding, at the foot of Bankó hill.
Csatáry has now been questioned by prosecutors and is under house arrest in Budapest at the time of writing, pending investigation for “extreme cruelty as a war-crime”.