When a recent exposé unmasked a 94-year-old Minneapolis resident as the commander of a Nazi-led unit and as an SS officer during World War II, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter faced a vexing dilemma: Who should be bumped off the center’s “Most Wanted War Criminals” list next year to make room for him?
Fortunately for him, a spot just opened up. Laszlo Csatary — the longtime top man on the list for his alleged role in deporting 15,700 Jews to Auschwitz from a ghetto in Hungarian-occupied Slovakia — was charged with war crimes in Hungary on June 17. He will be tried within 90 days, at which time his name could be dropped as a wanted Nazi.
Michael Karkoc, a Ukrainian immigrant and retired carpenter, was not even on the list before The Associated Press located him living quietly in Northeast Minneapolis. His discovery, followed by Csatary’s indictment, highlights the sometimes quirky process by which a usually anonymous and elderly individual living quietly somewhere, but with a dark secret, can suddenly find himself posted everywhere as one of the world’s most wanted human rights offenders.
In any given year, who gets bumped “depends on how many people are brought to justice,” explained Efraim Zuroff, the Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter. In addition, old Nazi war criminals don’t just fade away; they also die. “Two of those people might pass away this year,” Zuroff said of the present list members. But don’t fear for the list’s demise. Despite the passage of time since World War II, said Zuroff, “There’s no shortage of names, there are plenty of people who should be brought to justice and whose names are known.”
J. Edgar Hoover, who launched the world’s first most wanted list in 1950 with the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted,” may enjoy pride of authorship of this unique publicity and marketing device. But the Wiesenthal Center’s “Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals” is not far behind in terms of prominence.
All of which highlights a series of questions about the state of Nazi hunting some 68 years after the Nazis’ defeat: What does it take to catch a Nazi nowadays? Who makes the list? What kind of heinous act warrants first place? And what happens when someone is brought to justice or dies?
Zuroff, director of the center’s Israel branch, and author of “Operation Last Chance: One Person’s Quest To Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice,” has spent countless hours developing a system to classify the remaining Nazis at large.
The center’s annual list, he said, is not necessarily a roll call in absolute terms of the world’s worst surviving Nazis. Rather, he said, these are “the people we hope will be brought to justice in the coming year.”
Three factors determine where someone falls on the list. The first is command responsibility. For example, Csatary was a senior officer in the Hungarian police force at the time his crimes were committed.
The second determining criterion is whether one personally committed murder. Csatary did not, which brings Zuroff to the third standard: the scope of the crime. “He didn’t commit murder himself,” Zuroff said. “But he was responsible for the death of more than 15,000 people. That gives him top priority.” Csatary, 98, is currently under house arrest in Hungary, awaiting possible extradition to Slovakia to stand trial.
Zuroff’s main task is pressuring governments into taking action against those whose crimes have already been denounced or exposed. Until that initial exposure, the center has little or no role to play and must rely on individual government agencies. The case of Csatary, pursued from beginning to end by Zuroff and his team, is an exception. “That’s our victory!” Zuroff exclaimed when asked about the news.