Budapest — Trained by life in surmounting grief, Marika Weinberger focuses on the silver lining in the recent decision in Budapest not to try Hungarian war criminal Laszlo Csatary in connection with the murder of her nine uncles in 1941.
“At least now I won’t need to testify and relive the pain,” Weinberger, 84, told JTA in a phone interview from her home in Sydney, Australia. She says she is nonetheless prepared to do “everything necessary to bring Csatary to justice.”
Weinberger claims that Csatary, a former police officer who was arrested last month in Budapest, was responsible for deporting her uncles to a killing site in Ukraine. Yet prosecutors in Budapest last week dismissed her claims without ever speaking to her, raising concerns by Weinberger and others about the seriousness of the investigation.
The Federation of Jewish Communities in Slovakia has called publicly for Csatary’s extradition to that country based on information it claims to have that points to Csatary taking property from Jews in Kosice, a city in eastern Slovakia. Those charges also are being investigated, says Martin Kornfeld, the federation’s CEO.
Kornfeld adds that he has no indication that alleged acts of cruelty by Csatary to Jewish prisoners were being investigated. He notes that the acts were addressed in Csatary’s 1948 conviction in absentia by a Czechoslovakian court for torturing prisoners at Kosice.
The office of Budapest’s chief prosecutor, Dr. Zsolt Grim, did not respond to interview requests for this article.
According to Weinberger, her father told her that Csatary had organized the deportation of her mother’s nine brothers from Kosice on Aug. 19, 1941.
Her testimony was part of the file that the Simon Wiesenthal Center had prepared on Csatary that led to his arrest last month. The center’s research implicates Csatary in the deportation of 300 people from Kosice in 1941 and another 15,700 in 1944.
Csatary was arrested after London’s The Sun newspaper published an expose about him. Csatary had fled to Canada in 1949 after the Czech court sentenced him in absentia to death for war crimes. He returned to Hungary in the 1990s after Ottawa revoked his citizenship.
Last week, the Budapest Prosecutor’s Office dismissed Weinberger’s testimony and dropped the charges from 1941, saying Csatary was not in Kosice at the time and lacked the rank to organize the transports. The Hungarian prosecution team is said to be continuing to probe allegations pertaining to the allegations from 1944.
Weinberger, a former vice president of the Sydney Jewish Museum and a past president of the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, stands by her story.
“I was young, but I remember the name Csatary,” she said. “It surfaced when my father was trying to find out what happened to my uncles.”
Weinberger says she even recalls the weather on the night of the deportation, adding that “I remember it better than I remember what happened yesterday.”
According to Weinberger, her father found out that on Csatary’s orders, four of her uncles were recalled from forced labor to Kosice for deportation with her remaining five uncles and another 300 people.
“To think that Csatary went to all that trouble to have them murdered,” she said. “No one bothered to ask me what I know. Now he’s off the hook.”
As the conversation progresses, the memories shake Weinberger’s determination to look at the glass as half full.
“It’s a big disappointment,” she acknowledged. “I was recently very ill and I thought I wouldn’t live much longer, but I drew solace from knowing that the man who killed my uncles would be brought to justice.”
Quickly regaining her composure, she says, “Actually, I’m not surprised they dropped the charges. I’m sure they would’ve found a way to ignore my testimony even had they agreed to hear it.”
Weinberger was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 along with other family members. Only she, her sister and an aunt survived the Holocaust.
The dropping of charges pertaining to 1941 “and other points” lead Kornfeld, the Slovakia Jewish federation’s CEO, to believe that “Hungarian authorities are trying to avoid a decision on Csatary in court and are trying to find points that make the trial positive for Csatary.”
What is known is that in 1944, at the age of 29, Csatary owned a large house in one of Kosice’s most affluent neighborhoods – one that Kornfeld says was well beyond his salary at the police force. By the end of World War II, Kornfeld adds, Csatary also owned a foreign-made luxury car that few Czechs could afford.
“Our opinion is that it looks like Csatary took a lot of money and/or property from Jews from Kosice and that this was [used as] part of his business in Canada,” where Csatary was an art dealer, Kornfeld says.
Meawhile, Efraim Zuroff, the New York-born Nazi hunter who tracked down Csatary in Budapest, says he is “very perturbed to learn that no one from the prosecution had spoken to” Weinberger. He adds, “This dismissal raises questions about the objectivity of prosecutors.”
The dismissal has Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, facing challenges of his own related to the case.
Citing the dismissal, a well-known Hungarian lawyer this week called on the Budapest Prosecutor’s Office to indict Zuroff. Futo Barnabas told the conservative newspaper Magyar Nemzet that “There are now valid grounds to charge Zuroff with deliberately making a false accusation.”
The charge, which is meant to discourage libelous complaints, carries a five-year prison sentence in Hungary.
It is not uncharted territory for Zuroff. Last year, a Hungarian court summoned him to answer libel accusations leveled at him by Sandor Kepiro, a suspected war criminal whom Zuroff had exposed.
Zuroff was found not guilty; Kepiro stood trial in Hungary and was acquitted last year. The acquittal was appealed, but Kepiro died last September before the start of the new proceedings.
Peter Feldmajer, president of Hungary’s Federation of Jewish Communities, says that indicting Zuroff for accusing Csatary “would be an act of insanity.”
“It is for a court to determine whether accusations are justified,” he said of the charges against Csatary. “To try someone for accusing a convicted war criminal of deporting Jews, this is madness.”
Zuroff stands by his work, saying that the Simon Wiesenthal Center is doing the Hungarian people and government “a tremendous favor by giving them the opportunity to honestly confront the bloody history of the Holocaust in court.”
Weinberger, following the developments from Sydney, continues to count her blessings.
“I’m glad,” she said, “that I left Europe and went to the farthest corner on earth that I could find.”