Last week I traveled to Novi Sad, Serbia to participate in a Holocaust-related memorial. Under normal circumstances, I doubt whether I would have been willing to fly to Belgrade and drive almost 100 kilometers to attend a ceremony, which takes place annually, but this year's event had special significance.
On January 23, 1942, the Hungarian gendarmerie and army carried out the mass murder of 1,246 residents of Novi Sad - men, women, and children - as part of a series of executions of Jews, Serbs and Gypsies in the Voivodina district which Hungary had annexed as a prize for its collaboration with Nazi Germany.
The murders were carried out with unusual cruelty. Thousands of local civilians were rounded up and taken to the banks of the Danube River which runs through the city, where they were forced to line up to await their execution. Historian Randolph Braham writes in Volume IX of Yad Vashem Studies, that most of those murdered were shot "into the Danube whose ice was broken by cannon fire.
According to eyewitness accounts, many of the victims, including children, begged to be killed because the 'cold was unbearable.'"
What made the memorial marking the 65th anniversary of this horrific slaughter of particular significance, in comparison to those of previous years, was the fact that six months ago, I had discovered that one of the key perpetrators of the murders, who had hereto escaped punishment, was alive, healthy, and living in Budapest.
In fact, Dr. Sandor Kepiro, who was one of the gendarmerie officers who had actively participated in carrying out the operation, had already been convicted twice for this crime. His first conviction was in late January 1944, but in the wake of the Nazis' occupation of Hungary in March, he was pardoned, promoted, and sent back to Novi Sad. He was convicted a second time in 1946 (and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment), but by this time he had already escaped to Austria, from whence he fled to Argentina in 1948. Kepiro claims that in 1996 he was told by officials of the Hungarian Embassy in Buenos Aires that he could go home, which apparently meant that he would not be punished for his crimes.
SIX MONTHS ago, I tracked him down to a fashionable brownstone at 78 Leo Frankel Street in Budapest, across the street from a synagogue and not far from the banks of the Danube. Last August 1, I submitted the pertinent evidence to Hungarian prosecutors, hoping that Kepiro would be immediately arrested and punished, but unfortunately, that did not happen.
In fact, the Hungarian judicial authorities have hereto been unable to even find copies of either one of the verdicts against him and appear to be in no rush to take legal action in this case.
Needless to say, every day which passes without a decision to hold Kepiro accountable, brings this criminal closer to successfully eluding justice.
That is the reason that I travelled last week to Novi Sad, apparently the only place where the deep trauma of the murders committed on that fateful day 65 years ago continues to reverberate.
Hundreds of people gathered at the monument to the victims on the banks of the Danube for the ceremony which this year, more than anything else was an anguished cry for justice to finally be achieved in the Kepiro case.
THIS WEEK when Hungarian Foreign Minister Kinga Goncz visits Israel, it is imperative that her Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni raise the Kepiro issue in a polite but forceful manner, emphasizing Israel's concern and outrage that this Holocaust perpetrator remains unpunished. Her failure to do so would effectively destroy any remaining hope that Kepiro will ultimately be held accountable for his crimes since if the country which purports to represent the victims of the Shoah remains silent in this regard, the Hungarians will realize that their perpetrators can indeed, literally, get away with murder.
For those who doubt the value of bringing elderly Nazi war criminals to justice, I would like to share a story regarding Kepiro which I related at the memorial at Novi Sad. According to his 1944 verdict, a copy of which I was able to find in Belgrade and make available to the Hungarian prosecutors, when Kepiro was informed regarding the nature of the operations which he and his men were expected to carry out on January 23, 1942, he asked for the orders in writing. When he was told that such instructions would only be transmitted orally, he carried them out anyway. In other words, Kepiro, who is a lawyer, did not mind carrying out the mass murder of innocent civilians, but he wanted to make sure that he had a solid alibi. Ultimately, even that did not matter and he went ahead and participated in the wholesale massacre.
Moral monsters like Kepiro do not deserve any sympathy for having reached an elderly age, nor does the passage of 65 years in any way diminish their guilt. That is the message from Novi Sad that must ring loud and clear this week in Jerusalem, if there is any hope that justice will finally be achieved for the victims of January 23, 1942.
The writer is Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.