If Kepiro was not going to be put on trial, the libel suit against me might be the only opportunity to expose his crimes in a Hungarian courtroom.
On January 23, 2007, I was one of the speakers at the annual memorial service in the Serbian city of Novi Sad for the victims of the January 23, 1942, mass murder of at least 1,246 residents, mostly Jewish, Serb or Roma, by the Hungarian military and gendarmerie. I was invited because I had recently tracked down one of the officers responsible for organizing the murders and exposed him as living in Budapest. Thus it was only natural for most of my remarks to focus on Dr. Sandor Kepiro and the importance of bringing him to justice, despite his advanced age and the 65 years that had passed since the crime. Given the fact that he had already been convicted in connection with this atrocity by a Hungarian court in January 1944 (and had never served his sentence), it seemed a foregone conclusion that if Kepiro remained reasonably healthy he would be held accountable for his crimes.
More than four years were to pass, however, between my public call on the Hungarian authorities to bring him to justice, and last week, when his trial finally opened in Budapest on May 5. In the interim, it had become increasingly clear that what for me was self-evident, was seen very differently by those authorities.
It began with the fact that the 1944 verdict against Kepiro could not be found in the local archives. Luckily, I was able to obtain a copy in Belgrade, initially of a Serbian translation and later of a Hungarian original. Then came the decision to deny our request to implement his original sentence of 10 years in prison, since it had been cancelled by a Hungarian court, shortly after the German invasion of Hungary. Our argument that the court had been forced to do so by the Nazis was rejected. Instead, a criminal investigation was started, on March 7, 2007, and the race against time intensified.
Months went by with little progress, a fact attributed to delays in the receipt of critical evidence from the Serbs, who insisted they had already sent the material. Awarding Hungary a failing grade in the Wiesenthal Center’s annual report on the investigation and prosecution of Nazi war criminals − specifically, for the failure to prosecute Kepiro − also did not produce the desired result.
In the meantime, about a year ago, the case became even more complicated for me personally, when Kepiro initiated a libel suit against me for publicly labeling him a Nazi war criminal and putting him on our annual “Most Wanted” list. It would be hard to describe my sense of disgust and utter frustration at this development, but the situation also had a possible silver lining: If Kepiro was not going to be put on trial, the libel suit against me might be the only opportunity to expose his crimes in a Hungarian courtroom.
The cases that immediately came to mind were those in which defendants have been able, to some extent, to turn the tables on their accusers, and highlight their crimes. Granted that, in view of the alarming rise of right-wing extremism in Hungary, this might be a very dangerous gamble, especially given the fact that the libel case was a criminal one and the punishment might be incarceration for up to two years. But I did not have many options and the threat of a European arrest warrant can also be persuasive when it comes to showing up to face trial.
All of this came to a head in early May, ironically during the week of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Not only was Kepiro to be finally put on trial this past Thursday, but two days earlier, the verdict was going to be rendered in the libel case against me. Although I felt on fairly solid legal ground, there was always the danger of falling victim to the new political winds blowing in Hungary, following the 2010 victory by a huge margin of the conservative Fidesz party and the shocking gains made by the right-wing Jobbik extremists. In fact, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps I would be acquitted, so that Kepiro as well could be spared conviction or at least punishment.
That might indeed ultimately be the case, but at least I was acquitted to my great relief and to the consternation of Kepiro’s attorney, who already announced his intention to appeal the verdict. A prominent figure in right-wing political circles, attorney Zsolt Zetenyi has on at least one occasion spoken disparagingly of “the Jews” and clearly views his defense of Kepiro as a mission.
The libel case, to be honest, was merely a sideshow, compared to Kepiro’s trial, whose opening last week drew dozens of representatives of the foreign and local electronic and print media. For me, it was a bittersweet event, with great satisfaction and joy, mingled with the sad memory of the victims, whom no legal proceeding can ever bring back to life.
The fact that Kepiro was being prosecuted at age 97 poses an obvious problem, but his alert and strong answers in court and his determination to try and clear his name will hopefully make this trial much more understandable to the broader public than that of John Demjanjuk, for example, who did his best to undermine the totally justified effort to hold him accountable. Before the trial began, several dozen young adults, members of Hungary’s Faith Church, which has staunchly supported our efforts to bring local Nazi war criminals to justice, demonstrated against Kepiro wearing yellow stars, a heartwarming gesture which underscored the educational significance of such trials.
As I sat in the courtroom and listened to the reading of the indictment, I breathed a deep sigh of relief at the end of an emotionally wrenching week, grateful for having been able to help make this event take place at long last.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and author, most recently, of “Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice” (Palgrave/Macmillan).