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Holocaust Remembrance Day: how a Nazi hunter tracks down war criminals 75 years later

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Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter from Simon Wiesenthal Center, pauses during an television interview at the criminal court in Hamburg, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.
Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter from Simon Wiesenthal Center, pauses during an television interview at the criminal court in Hamburg, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.   -   Copyright  Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved   -   Markus Schreiber
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In June 2013, former police officer Laszlo Csatary was indicted for contributing to the deaths of 15,000 Jews who were sent to the death camp in Auschwitz in 1944. Aged 98, he had spent most of his life since World War II in Canada, working as an art dealer.

Csatary would never face trial for his crimes. On August 12, 2013, he died of pneumonia in a Budapest hospital.

Key to tracking Csatary down and bringing him to trial was the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and its chief Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff. Speaking to Euronews ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, he described the case of just one of the frustrations of the job.

“There have been quite a few dozen in which some legal action was taken against them. To be honest, very few were actually punished. But I think that to expose them is probably a far more painful punishment than ultimately to put them in jail,” he said.

Zuroff has been personally hunting down and bringing to prosecution dozens of former Nazis and Nazi collaborators over the past four decades, from rank-and-file officers and camp guards to camp commanders who began new lives after the end of the war in 1945.

(AP Photo/MTI, Bea Kallos)
Alleged Hungarian war criminal Laszlo Csatary covers his face sitting in a car as he leaves the Budapest Prosecutor's Office after he was questioned by detectives on charges of war crimes during WWII(AP Photo/MTI, Bea Kallos)

'A lack of urgency'

Many lied to US and Canadian authorities in order to relocate to North America, while others remained in Europe - and while in many cases governments have helped to track down and convict Nazi war criminals, in others they have not acted fast enough.

On 22 January, 2020, an American Michael Karkoc died aged 100 while he was under investigation for his alleged involvement in a massacre of Jews in Chlanlow, Poland, in 1944. Zuroff said that the American and Polish authorities acted “with a lack of urgency”.

But while the old age of many actors and perpetrators in the Holocaust often robs victims of justice, longer life expectancy has also made it possible for Zuroff to find and bring to justice those who took part in the murder of Jews seven decades ago.

(Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)
93-year-old former SS guard Bruno Dey in the concentration camp Stutthof near Danzig is sitting in the regional court in Hamburg, Germany, Oct.17, 2019.(Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)Daniel Bockwoldt

“When I started investigating Nazi war criminals we thought it was going to be a short-lived effort [...]. How’s it possible that I was born in 1948 and I am still hunting Nazis. It’s absolutely mad on a certain level,” he said.

“But the extension of life expectancy has enabled us to re-find people in their early 90s who are in good health and can stand trial.”

This includes the case of Bruno Dey, a 93-year-old former SS guard in the concentration camp of Stutthof, near Danzig, who has been charged with aiding and abetting the murder of 5,230 people. Dey was 17 and 18 years old when his alleged crimes were committed.

You can watch our full interview with Efraim Zuroff in the video player above