Efraim Zuroff
Featured Post

Nazis in their nineties: not too old for justice

Two cases of nonagenarians revealed as war criminals, one by investigative journalists, the other via a paid informant

Two unusual news stories published this month regarding Nazi war criminals living in two different continents sent a powerful and somewhat surprising message regarding the ongoing search for the perpetrators of the Holocaust and related crimes committed by the collaborators of the Third Reich. The first story, which was researched and written by Associated Press Berlin bureau chief Dave Rising and reporters Randy Herschaft in New York and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, broke two weeks ago and was datelined Minneapolis, Minnesota, where a Ukrainian Nazi collaborator named Michael Karkoc currently resides. The second story was published five days later out of Budapest, where Nazi collaborator Laszlo Csatary was charged by Hungarian prosecutors in connection with his role in the deportation of approximately 15,700 Jews from the city of Kosice (then under Hungarian occupation, today Slovakia) and its environs to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in the spring of 1944.

It would be only natural to link the two cases, given the chronological proximity of the publication of the news stories, and the three basic similarities between them. What was striking about both cases, and no doubt was an important factor in the very extensive coverage of the cases all over the world, was first and foremost the age of the suspects. Karkoc is ninety-four and Csatary is ninety-eight, making him the oldest suspected Nazi war criminal ever officially charged with war crimes. In addition, neither was a German or an Austrian, but rather both were Eastern Europeans, who volunteered to join the forces in cooperation or under the jurisdiction of the Third Reich and are accused of participating in war crimes against innocent civilians. A third similarity is that after World War II both chose to emigrate to Anglo-Saxon democracies, Karkoc to the United States and Csatary to Canada-ostensibly to flee Communism, but also to escape possible prosecution for their wartime activities.

Yet in reality, the cases of Karkoc and Csatary are quite different, due to the identity of their victims, their current legal situations and the manner in which their crimes were revealed. The Karkoc case was initially discovered by a British retired clinical pharmacologist and amateur Nazi war crimes researcher, who found that the Ukrainian, who had served as an officer in the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, was living in the United States. That fact alone would not have been sufficient, however, for the case to warrant any serious attention, without evidence of active participation in war crimes. Thus it was only the excellent research effort by the Associated Press reporters that turned this case into one with potential for legal action by producing documentary evidence that the unit which Karkoc commanded actively participated in the mass murder of Polish civilians in the village of Chlaniow and the town of Podhajce (prior to World War II in Poland, today in the Ukraine).

The Csatary case on the other hand, resulted from the initiative of a local informant who gave me the pertinent details on his whereabouts, only after ascertaining that the Wiesenthal Center’s “Operation Last Chance” project, which offers financial rewards for information leading to the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals, was still in effect. Unlike Karkoc, who has never been prosecuted, Csatary was convicted in absentia in Czechoslovakia in 1948 (and sentenced to death for his crimes), and was stripped of his Canadian citizenship in the nineties for concealing his wartime activities in Kosice when he emigrated and subsequently obtained citizenship. These proceedings created a body of evidence against Csatary which we can assume was helpful in convincing the Hungarian authorities to indict him.

If we compare the legal situation of the two nonagenarians, the chances of successful legal action are much better in the case of Csatary in Hungary, who has already been charged and whose trial is likely to begin within the next three months. As far as Karkoc is concerned, the US government has not yet taken any legal steps against him, and given the fact that the average deportation case against a Nazi war criminal usually takes four to five years, the only hope might be to convince another country to seek his extradition for war crimes, a process which could be completed much more quickly. This dichotomy is quite ironic, since the US has the world’s best record over the past decades in terms of the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, whereas Hungary’s record is mixed, with some notable failures like the outrageous acquittal two years ago of gendarmerie officer Sandor Kepiro, who helped organize the massacre of more than 1,250 civilians in the city of Novi Sad, Serbia on January 23, 1942.

Yet despite these differences, the exposure of Karkoc and the impending prosecution of Csatary send a powerful message, that the hunt for those who committed Nazi crimes can still record successes, despite the advanced age of many of the perpetrators. In that regard, the stories of this month remind us that the issue is not a person’s chronological age, but rather their physical and mental health. Both Csatary and Karkoc are reasonably healthy, and therefore it would be a terrible mistake and an abdication of our obligation to their victims to ignore them simply because the former was born in 1915 and the latter in 1919. In that regard, I also want to add that we are currently investigating a case of a ninety-nine year old Nazi collaborator accused of actively participating in the mass murder of the Jews in two Eastern European locations, as the quest for justice continues in the race against time.

About the Author
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center's Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.