On a Saturday in August 2013, a 98-year-old man named László Csatáry died in a hospital in Budapest, Hungary. The cause was pneumonia, his lawyer later confirmed. At the time of his death, Csatáry was facing charges that nearly 70 years ago he "intentionally assisted the unlawful executions and tortures committed against Jewish people" in the Holocaust.
In 1944, Csatáry -- a police officer from a village near Budapest -- was serving in the northeastern city of Kassa as commandant of an internment camp where, with the help of Hungarian police, the German Gestapo was rounding up thousands of Jews for deportation. According to prosecutors, Csatáry was particularly zealous in this task. His indictment alleged that he "regularly beat the interned Jews with his bare hands and whipped them with a dog whip." When a freight train bound for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp stopped in Kassa to collect Jews, Csatáry is said to have "prohibited cutting windows" into the train's stifling wagons.
After the war, Csatáry disappeared. Tried in absentia and sentenced to death by a Czechoslovak court in 1948, he managed to avoid authorities and live quietly as an art dealer in Canada for nearly 50 years. When Canadian authorities identified him in 1997, he fled again and faded from public sight -- until he was found, finally, in Hungary more than a decade later.
Media outlets the world over carried news of Csatáry's death. He was "one of the last remaining Holocaust war crimes suspects," the BBC reported. His name "figured prominently on an authoritative list of suspected Nazi war criminals," underscored the New York Times.
Two days later, Efraim Zuroff -- author of that "authoritative list" and the man largely responsible for tracking down Csatáry -- sat in his modest office in Jerusalem, feeling spent. "This Csatáry death just totally exhausted me," Zuroff sighed over the phone. He had spent the morning fielding calls from reporters and people claiming to have information about other Nazis on the lam.
Zuroff is the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), a Los Angeles-based, multimillion-dollar Jewish human rights organization. More often, though, More often, Zuroff goes by something flashier: "chief Nazi hunter" or "last Nazi hunter."Zuroff goes by something flashier: "chief Nazi hunter" or "last Nazi hunter." For some three decades, Zuroff, 65, has solicited and cataloged information on alleged Nazis living freely around the world. He has then helped find them and campaigned for their prosecution.
Zuroff's hunt for Csatáry began in September 2011, when he received an email from an anonymous source in Hungary offering information in exchange for money. The two agreed on a price, and the source handed over Csatáry's Budapest address. (Zuroff will not identify his source or how much the SWC paid him.)
Weeks later, Zuroff met with a Hungarian prosecutor and turned over the information: "We said, 'Listen, we are almost sure this is him.… So confirm it and let us know and bring him to justice.'" After authorities told him that Csatáry had indeed been found, Zuroff hurried to prepare a list of potential witnesses: Holocaust survivors who had spent time in Kassa (now called Kosice and located in present-day Slovakia). Then, in April 2012, Zuroff put Csatáry at the top of his annual, much-cited "Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals" list1 -- giving the suspected war criminal more notoriety than ever and putting the heat on Hungarian prosecutors to act.
When authorities still did not move as quickly as Zuroff wanted, he turned to the Sun, a British tabloid (famed for its buxom "Page 3" girls) with an average daily circulation of just over 2 million. Zuroff had worked with Sun investigators before, sending them information about flailing cases and hoping the paper would kick up some dust.
The Sun sent a team to track Csatáry. One day, Zuroff explained with a chuckle, "they knocked on his door, and he came to the door in his underwear, and they photographed him." The pictures,2 showing a thin, wrinkled Csatáry, were published in the Sun in July 2012. They spurred widespread calls for Csatáry's prosecution, but they also roused indignation from critics who argued that it would be too difficult, so many decades after the war, to present reliable evidence of Csatáry's alleged crimes -- or that the moribund man should just be allowed to die. "He is 97 after all.… What Zuroff is doing is simply a circus act," Tibor Zinner, a legal historian who had helped the Hungarians research Csatáry's case, told the media.
When authorities finally placed Csatáry under house arrest, Zuroff was careful to address any pity that the Sun's images might have engendered. He diligently repeated what he had said many times before: "The passage of time should not afford protection for Holocaust perpetrators."
FEW WOULD DISAGREE that Zuroff has pulled the storied enterprise of Nazi hunting into the 21st century. Unlike the hunters of postwar fiction, Zuroff's days are not spent combing the bucolic hills of Argentina, chasing mustachioed Nazis. Rather, Zuroff publishes his "Most Wanted" lists and speaks passionately at news conferences. Sturdily built and typically clad in a suit, rimless glasses, and a kippah, Zuroff is a salaried employee and a grandfather of nine.
As other hunters have retired or died, Zuroff has emerged as the last man standing. More often than not, when an alleged Nazi is unearthed in some far-flung Polish backwater or humdrum American suburb, journalists interview "Effie," as his friends call him, and quote him authoritatively in the next day's news. The typical depiction of Zuroff is one of a swashbuckling bounty hunter: a guarantor of justice and a historical avenger.
But increasingly, Zuroff and his work are up against more than bad guys or the realities of nature, which dictate that efforts to find Nazi criminals will soon end. He is also contending with critics -- including retired hunters, several prominent Holocaust historians, and even some Jewish community leaders -- who view him as an irritant or a zealot. They believe that he should bow out of the fight, admit that enough is enough, and stop dragging wizened old men into courtrooms, no matter how ghastly their past deeds. "Almost everyone in the Nazi-hunting business, including the vast majority of historians, politicians, and I dare say most Holocaust survivors, [has] realized there [are] better ways to commemorate the Holocaust," László Karsai, who has served as director of the Hungarian Jewish Museum's Holocaust Center, told the BBC after Csatáry died.
Zuroff, however, dismisses calls to move on. Similarly, senior historians at both the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum told Foreign Policy there is "no statute of limitations" on genocide. Speaking of Nazi trials, David Silberklang of Yad Vashem adds, "It's finally after all these years letting what should have been done decades ago to be done."
Posters for Efraim Zuroff's latest campaign in Germany to solicit tips on the whereabouts of former Nazis say, "Late, but not too late."
Poster courtesy of Efraim Zuroff
In 2013, Zuroff began a new public relations offensive to solicit money from German companies to use as rewards for information about Nazis at large. Also, in July, he launched an "unprecedented poster campaign" in Germany, littering Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne with posters reading "SPÄT, ABER NICHT ZU SPÄT" ("Late, but not too late") and pointing people to a toll-free tip hotline. The campaign comes on the heels of German judicial authorities announcing a belated push to bring former death camp guards to trial.
Zuroff has given his latest effort the oxymoronic title "Operation Last Chance II." It's a nod to an earlier project -- and also in keeping with media reports, which for years have carried headlines proclaiming this or that legal proceeding "the last Nazi trial."
"This is really the last chance," Zuroff protests, "for real this time."http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/01/26/closing_the_books_the_worlds_last_nazi_hunter