Sandor Kepiro and the question of Hungarian justice

Every democracy claims its judiciary is independent, but there is no doubt that the courts also reflect local political opinions and prejudices.

Sandor Kepiro 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sandor Kepiro 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Three months ago, Hungary made history when the first trial of a local Nazi war criminal since the country’s transition from communism to democracy, opened in Budapest. The man was charged with responsibility for the murder of 36 people in a January 23, 1942 massacre carried out by Hungarian military and gendarmerie in the city of Novi Sad – in Hungarian-occupied former Yugoslavia – under the guise of a search for local “terrorists.”
The suspect in question, Dr. (of law) Sandor Kepiro, was among the officers who organized the mass murder and was personally responsible for the roundups and arrests of hundreds of Jewish, Serb and Roma residents of a section in the city’s center. They were initially taken to a large theater in the center of Novi Sad, where a committee of Hungarian officers determined whether any had been arrested by mistake. All the others were marched to the banks of the Danube, where they were shot. Those not killed by the bullets, drowned in the river.
The shooting went on for several hours, until a light plane landed on the river (which was frozen; the Hungarians had brought a cannon to make a hole where the victims were shot, so the bodies would fall in) and high-ranking Hungarian officers emerged and stopped the murders, which had never been authorized by the high command in Budapest. Up to that point, at least 1,246 individuals, among them many women, infants, and children, had been murdered, the majority Jews, the others Serbs and Roma.
THE CASE against Kepiro looked especially strong. Although he personally denied any wrongdoing, he admitted having been in Novi Sad with the Hungarian forces on that day, and in fact was initially prosecuted in independent Hungary, along with the 14 other officers involved, for insubordination. In the course of that trial, which concluded on January 22, 1944 with the conviction of all the defendants, Kepiro’s role and activities were fully clarified, and the fact that at least six people were murdered in the area under his control during the roundups was no doubt a factor in his lengthy prison sentence.
In addition, there was testimony by a Hungarian officer in a trial conducted in 1948, that Kepiro had sent a truckload of 30 persons directly to the banks of the river to be shot, rather than to the collection point, and two days before his current trial opened, I was acquitted by a Hungarian court of libel charges that Kepiro had levelled against me for exposing his crimes.
In short, Kepiro’s conviction appeared almost certain, but in fact, the opposite occurred. This past July 18, Judge Bela Varga announced that although Kepiro may not have been innocent, the prosecution had failed to prove his guilt. In this respect, the key element was Varga’s highly questionable decision to totally disqualify all the evidence gathered in conjunction with Kepiro’s 1944 conviction as well as the incriminating testimony from 1948.
What is particularly telling in this regard was the judge’s basis for doing so, which was scandalously selective. He disqualified the 1944 verdict, for example, because it had been subsequently canceled by a Hungarian court, but neglected to mention the obvious reason for the cancellation, which only took place after Hungary was occupied by Nazi Germany. As far as the 1948 testimony was concerned, he claimed that the witness must have either been tortured or testified under duress since Hungary was then under communist rule – without presenting any evidence whatsoever to prove his claim. In other words, when it suited him, he took into account the political circumstances at the time, and when it didn’t serve his purposes, he neglected to do so.
EVERY DEMOCRACY claims its judiciary is independent, but there is no doubt that the courts also, to a large extent, reflect local political opinions and prejudices. The jubilant response in the courtroom by dozens of fascists who had come to support Kepiro is only the tip of the iceberg of a nasty wave of historical revisionism that threatens to engulf Hungary – a country that, like its post-communist counterparts, is having severe difficulties in acknowledging the role of local Nazi collaborators in Holocaust crimes and imparting that painful fact to the younger generation.
While significant progress has been made, especially following the opening of Budapest’s excellent Holocaust museum – a beacon of historical truth in an increasingly dreary landscape – the landslide victory of the right-wing FIDESZ party and the strong showing by the extremists of Jobbik in last year’s election have significantly altered political realities, all of which make the verdict in the Kepiro case of far greater significance than his personal fate.
The good news is that the prosecution has appealed the decision. The bad news is that this step is no guarantee that justice will indeed be achieved and historical truth adequately defended.

The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office. His most recent book, Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice, relates how he discovered Sandor Kepiro living in Budapest, as well as many other Holocaust perpetrators all over the world.