The Human Spirit: Continental justice

The legal troubles facing Efraim Zuroff and Melanie Phillips are an obvious attempt to silence eloquent advocates of the Jewish people.

By
April 1, 2011 14:09
Barbara Sofer

Barbara Sofer 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Efraim Zuroff, the Jewish people’s most distinguished Nazi hunter, will appear in court in Budapest on April 6. But he is not testifying against an alleged Nazi. He will be sitting in the chair of the accused.

In London, eminent journalist Melanie Phillips needs to visit the police. But she isn’t writing another muckraking story. She has been reported to the police, accused of using insulting language in a column referring to the murderers of Udi, Ruth, Yoav, Elad and Hadas Fogel in Itamar.

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Hungary recently took on the presidency of the Council of the European Union, a proud moment for the country which joined the EU in 2004. As eyes turn to this rising leader, Hungary – a country with a nefarious Holocaust history – should be ashamed to be holding this mock trial against an Israeli Nazi hunter.

Zuroff heads the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel branch and has inherited the late Simon Wiesenthal’s weighty mantle. Six and a half decades after the Holocaust, Zuroff hasn’t given up the pursuit of its perpetrators.

His campaign, like his autobiography, is aptly called Operation Last Chance. All of us can sleep better knowing that those responsible for the Holocaust sleep less well with Zuroff and his colleagues on their tails.

Operation Last Chance offers cash incentives for tips.

Letters with information arrive at the Wiesenthal Center every month. Some are hoaxes and others are attempts to settle personal scores. But there are also messages that contain valuable information.

So it was in February 2005, when Zuroff received a tip from a man in Scotland. The writer was disgusted to have attended a social event where a former Hungarian Nazi bragged about his war exploits.

Zuroff contacted a Scottish journalist who agreed to follow up the story. The braggart willingly shared the details of his personal history, and when the journalist inquired about the photo of an officer in uniform mounted on his wall, he learned that this was a portrait of Dr. Sandor Kepiro, an esteemed former comrade in arms in the Hungarian gendarmerie.

Zuroff checked the name at Yad Vashem, where the Holocaust researcher responded with an uncharacteristic expletive. He knew exactly who Kepiro was: a lawyer who had been convicted twice but never imprisoned after the war for his role in a rogue operation murdering thousand of civilians, mostly Jews, but also Serbs and Roma, in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), in January 1942.

In Novi Sad, victims were rounded up and taken to the banks of the Danube. It was so cold, 30º below, that the Hungarians brought in a cannon to break the ice before they shot the thousands of men, women and children.

The young lawyer presumably was worried enough about the repercussions of the action that he had requested orders in writing. According to Zuroff, Kepiro was advised that such orders are better not committed to paper. Kepiro carried them out anyway.

To find Kepiro, it turned out, was easy. He had been living in Argentina, but with the fall of Hungary’s communist government (which had reportedly convicted him in absentia of war crimes), he was no longer at risk of prosecution. He moved back to Hungary to enjoy his golden years.

With the help of Righteous Gentiles in Hungary, Zuroff found Kepiro’s name – he hadn’t bothered to change it – in the Budapest phone book.

Kepiro was then 93 and you might assume that he was too old for us to prosecute. But when Zuroff learned that Kepiro was the organizer of the local block party in his apartment complex, he decided that was one party too many for a mass murderer. Zuroff called a press conference across the street from Kepiro’s home at a local synagogue, and urged Hungary to bring him to justice.

In the meantime, Kepiro has sued Zuroff, alleging that the Nazi hunter had made statements about the case as fact rather than opinion.

Zuroff’s trial began in October. Kepiro was interviewed outside the courtroom and showed no remorse. He had just been following orders, doing his job “gathering up terrorists.”

The continuation of Zuroff’s trial was scheduled for December, but when Kepiro, who is now 96, didn’t show up, the Hungarian judge threw out the case. Kepiro appealed successfully. Hence, Zuroff must appear again in Hungarian court. If convicted, he could face a fine and up to two years in prison.

Last month, Hungary belatedly decided it would try Kepiro, too. His trial is scheduled for May 5, a month after Zuroff’s.

WHICH BRINGS us to Melanie Phillips. In her book The World Turned Upside Down, she says we live in a world where truth and lies, right and wrong, victims and aggressors are inverted. QED.

Writing on her blog (she calls it a diary) on the website of The Spectator, the Orwell Prize-winning columnist indeed used strong language to describe the murderers in Itamar, as well as chastising her fellow journalists for reporting the terror attack as if it were a house break-in gone wrong. Her exact words: “So to The New York Times, it’s not the Arab massacre of a Jewish family which has jeopardized ‘peace prospects’ – because the Israelis will quite rightly never trust any agreement with such savages – but instead Israeli policy on building more homes, on land to which it is legally and morally entitled, which is responsible instead for making peace elusive. Twisted, and sick.”

The word “savages,” in the context of referring to those who sawed off the head of a three-month-old girl, seems to have so offended the sensibilities of a British group called Muslims4UK that it complained to the British Press Complaints Commission and the police.

In both cases, legal action, so-called lawfare, is an obvious attempt to silence eloquent advocates of the Jewish people. At the very least, for Zuroff and Phillips answering these complaints is a nuisance. Beyond the nuisance is a threat and an attempt to inhibit their freedom of expression. The British press sets the tone of continental media coverage. Because Hungary is now leading the EU, its courtroom becomes a showcase of continental justice.

Ironically, Hungary has announced that one of its social goals for the presidency is to develop an EU strategy to promote integration of Roma people, who were targeted along with Jews and Serbs for slaughter on the frozen Danube.

Neither Phillips nor Zuroff frightens easily. But they shouldn’t have to defend themselves without the full support of the Jewish people. To me, that means that the State of Israel stands by their side.

I call on the government to support Phillips and to heed her summons – loud and clear on the IBA’s Saturday night news round-up – to present Israel’s case with strength and eloquence. I’m sure she would be glad to help outline a plan.

I call on the Foreign Ministry to communicate to its counterparts in Hungary that we see the trial of Zuroff as an insult to the Jewish people. Ambassador to Hungary Aliza Bin-Noun must be in the courtroom representing all of us on April 6, and on May 5, too, reminding a forgetful continent that the hunt for our murderers goes on.

“I’m often asked when I’m going to let go,” I’ve heard Zuroff say. “My answer is always the same: when the last Nazi or collaborator is dead. Imagine that the person I’m seeking murdered your grandparents. Would you ever give up?”

The writer lives in Jerusalem and focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.


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