BUDAPEST — News that the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s most-wanted Nazi war criminal is living freely in Hungary is the latest incident to spark fears that the country is veering alarmingly to the right.
In particular, there are concerns that anti-Semitism, largely dormant under Hungary’s communist era that ended two decades ago, is again rearing its ugly head under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The newest case involves 97-year-old Laszlo Csizsik-Csatary, accused by the Nazi-hunting Wiesenthal Center of organising the deportation to their deaths of some 16,000 Jews during World War II.
Since being forced to leave Canada, where he had escaped to after the war, in 1996, the former policeman’s whereabouts were uncertain until the Wiesenthal Center last September informed Hungarian authorities that he was in Budapest.
After British tabloid The Sun drew international attention to his case this weekend, Hungarian prosecutors issued a statement on Monday that appeared however to limit severely the chances that the old man will end up in the dock.
The events “took place 68 years ago in an area that now falls under the jurisdiction of another country — which also with regard to the related international conventions raises several investigative and legal problems,” a statement said.
Almost exactly a year ago, a court in Budapest acquitted Hungarian Sandor Kepiro, 97, of charges of ordering the execution of over 30 Jews and Serbs in the Serbian town of Novi Sad in January 1942.
In the verdict, a Budapest judge cited a lack of tangible, credible evidence against Kepiro, noting that much of the prosecution’s case rested heavily on old testimonies and verdicts from previous trials in the 1940s.
The Wiesenthal Center, which had also listed Kepiro as the most wanted Nazi war criminal and helped bring him to court, described the verdict as an “outrageous miscarriage of justice.” Six weeks later Kepiro died.
Recent months, meanwhile, have seen something of a public rehabilitation of controversial figures, most notably of Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s dictator from 1920 until falling out with his erstwhile ally Adolf Hitler in 1944.
In May, a square in a park in the town of Gyomro was renamed in his honour, a life-size statue has been erected in a village and in the city of Debrecen a marble plaque honouring him was restored at his old school.
Anti-Semitic writers like Albert Wass and Jozsef Nyiro, a keen supporter of the brutal Arrow Cross regime installed in power by the Nazis in 1944, have also been reintroduced into the curriculum for schools, meanwhile.
Other incidents include the verbal assault of a 90-year-old rabbi, Jozsef Schweitzer, when a stranger came up to him in the street and said “I hate all Jews!”
The decision by the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, Orban ally Laszlo Kover, to attend a ceremony in May honouring Nyiro, prompted Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to return Hungary’s highest honour in disgust.
Holocaust survivor Wiesel, 83, said “it has become increasingly clear that Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary’s past.”
The speaker of Israel’s Knesset followed this up by withdrawing an invitation to Kover to a ceremony in July in Israel paying tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved Jews during World War II.
Others have also made clear their disgust, with Akos Kertesz, an 80-year-old prize-winning Jewish Hungarian writer, in March going as far as applying for political asylum in Canada.
And in January internationally acclaimed Hungarian-born pianist Andras Schiff said he would no longer perform in his native country because of the increasingly hostile environment not only for Jews but also other minorities like Roma.
“On the Internet I have been insulted as a ‘filthy Jew’,” Schiff told a German newspaper. “I am disgusted at how anti-Semitic baiting has become acceptable in Hungary.”