BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Laszlo Csatary, a former police officer indicted in June by Hungarian authorities for abusing Jews and contributing to their deportation to Nazi death camps during World War II, has died. He was 98.
Csatary died Saturday of pneumonia in a Budapest hospital, said his lawyer, Gabor Horvath B.
Hungarian authorities have said Csatary was the chief of an internment camp set up in a brick factory for around 12,000 Jews in Kosice — a Slovak city then part of Hungary — in 1944, beating them with his bare hands and a dog whip regularly and without reason. He also had been charged with "actively participating" in the deportation of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.
According to the indictment filed by Hungarian prosecutors, on June 2, 1944, Csatary rejected a request by one of the deportees to allow a ventilation hole to be cut into the wall of a railroad car on its way to a death camp and crammed with around 80 people.
"With his actions, the accused willfully assisted in the illegal killings and torture carried out against the Jews deported from Kosice to the concentration camps in areas occupied by the Germans," the indictment said.
Csatary denied all those charges.
Holocaust survivor Edita Salamonova, whose family was killed in the Auschwitz death camp after its deportation from Kosice, said she remembered Csatary well.
"I can see him in front of me," Salamonova told The Associated Press in an interview in Kosice last year. "A tall, handsome man but with a heart of stone."
Salamonova remembered Csatary's presence at the brick factory, which has since been torn down, and would make sure to keep out of his sight when he was around.
"One had to hide. You never knew what could have happened anytime," said Salamonova, who was able to return home after enduring several Nazi camps.
Gusztav Zoltai, a Holocaust survivor and managing director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, told the AP:
"How could I forgive? I lost 17 members of my family during the Holocaust, including my parents. I have no right to forgive! If I do, I'd violate their memories. But reconciliation is our duty."
Hungarian rabbi Zoltan Radnoti said in an interview that scarring from such atrocities never disappears, but "we have to focus on the prevention, teaching our children, grandchildren in a way that they would never think about racism again."
Csatary was sentenced to death in absentia in Czechoslovakia in 1948 for similar war crimes. Last month, a Budapest court suspended the case against him because of double jeopardy, as the charges filed by Hungarian prosecutors were similar to those in his 1948 conviction. Hungarian prosecutors appealed the decision and a ruling was pending.
Slovakia recently changed the 1948 conviction to life in prison — the death sentence is banned in the European Union — and was considering an extradition request for Csatary.
Csatary's case and his whereabouts were revealed in 2012 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish organization active in hunting down Nazis who have yet to be brought to justice.
In 1949, Csatary arrived in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, became a Canadian citizen in 1955, and worked as an art dealer in Montreal. He left Canada in 1997, after it was discovered that he had lied about his Nazi-era past to obtain citizenship, and authorities were close to deciding his fate in a deportation hearing.
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, said it is "deeply disappointed" in Csatary's death ahead of his possible trial in Hungary, where he had lived since leaving Canada, and said the case cast doubts on Hungary's commitment to punishing war criminals.
"It is a shame that Csatary, a convicted ... and totally unrepentant Holocaust perpetrator who was finally indicted in his homeland for his crimes, ultimately eluded justice and punishment at the very last minute," Zuroff said in a statement.
Sandor Kepiro, another Hungarian suspect tried for war crimes after his whereabouts was disclosed by the Wiesenthal Center, died in September 2011, a few months after being acquitted due to insufficient evidence. His verdict also was being appealed when he died.
Csatary was born March 4, 1915, in the central Hungarian village of Many. Information about his family and funeral arrangements were not immediately available.
AP photographer Bela Szandelsky contributed from Budapest.