The Kepiro Affair

Dr. Efraim Zuroff
By Dr. Efraim Zuroff
I very much doubt whether A.M. had the slightest idea that his good deed would ultimately enable the exposure of one of the most important unpunished Nazi war criminals in the world, but that is often the nature of good deeds. In his case it was the sheer chutzpa of a social acquaintance in Scotland, an elderly Hungarian who bragged about his role as a master-sergeant of the Hungarian gendarmerie in the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz, that prompted his email in February 2005 to the general information address of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

“Hi, I have been watching closely all the recent horrifying publicity surrounding Auschwitz, in particular to the excellent BBC programme broadcast last night concerning the Hungarian Jews… It is well known that a Hungarian citizen Istvan Bujdoso… was a member of the Csendor (gendarmerie) during the war… He is not slow to tell tales of how involved he was in the mass Jewish deportations, with vivid descriptions of the trains, etc….

“It seems to me that this man has escaped any form of justice… and it saddens me that he has been able to settle in Scotland and boast about his involvement. Perhaps you could pass this information on to an interested person who may be able to investigate further.” And in an ending which ultimately proved to be incredibly ironic, our Scottish informant expressed two wishes, the first of which luckily did not come true: “I would dearly like to see this man close his mouth and perhaps even show a measure of regret for the part he played in the Holocaust.”

As it turned out, Mr. Bujdoso has yet to express any regret for his own role in the crimes of the Holocaust, but it was his apparently irrepressible urge to talk about that “heroic” period of his life, which ultimately paved the way for the discovery of a far senior colleague.

As welcome as the information from Scotland was, (it’s not every day that we get a full original name and a specific allegation which in theory could be investigated,) it was missing three major components, which initially hindered our efforts to verify the suspicions.

We lacked a date of birth, a current address, and most important, the place in Hungary where he had participated in the deportations. During the next few weeks, I corresponded with AM in the hope that he could provide us with the missing information. He ultimately sent me Bujdoso’s new name, a recent photo, and current address, but was unfortunately unable to determine the site of his crimes, which basically stymied our investigation. We scoured rosters of Hungarian gendarmerie and examined various research avenues but were unable to find out where he was stationed in the spring of 1944.

Thwarted by the lack of this information, the investigation was virtually dormant for months until a Scottish journalist named Michael Tierney came to Israel to write a cover story for the Glasgow Herald on Nazi-hunters. In the course of my interview, I told him about our “Scottish” suspect and inquired whether he might be willing to attempt to elicit the missing information from him. Michael did not need much convincing. Obviously sympathetic to our efforts, he immediately agreed and I suppose that the prospect of a hot “local” scoop also worked in our favor.

Months passed, however, before any progress was made. He originally hoped to obtain the missing biographical data from a detective friend, but the search for the missing date of birth proved much more difficult than originally anticipated. In early summer 2006, however, there finally was a breakthrough. He had contacted Bujdoso directly and was going to Selkirk to interview him, ostensibly for a feature about Hungarians in Scotland. I did not get my hopes up too high, having been disappointed numerous times by the results of such missions, and thus waited impatiently for the results, hoping for the best but very aware that the results might well prove disappointing.

This time, however, there was very good news. Not only had the journalist determined where Bujdoso served, the latter also bragged to him-in response to a question regarding the identity of a young Hungarian gendarmerie officer whose photograph was on Bujdoso\'s wall- that he was in contact with that person, a much higher-ranked gendarmerie officer named Sandor Kepiro. In fact, Kepiro had visited him in Scotland two years ago and the two comrades were still in regular phone contact.

It did not take me long to determine just how serious that information ultimately proved to be. I did not recognize the name Sandor Kepiro, but when I went to Yad Vashem to consult with Dr. Gavriel Bar-Shaked, the resident expert on Hungary, he could not believe his ears. Kepiro, he explained to me, was a major Hungarian war criminal who was among the gendarmerie and army officers responsible for the mass murder of over 1,200 civilians (mostly Jews) in the city of Novi Sad on January 23, 1942.

In fact, he had already been convicted twice by Hungarian courts for his role in this atrocity. In January 1944, he had been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and in 1946, he had been sentenced (in absentia) to 14 years incarceration, but in fact he had hereto never been punished. When the Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944, Kepiro was pardoned, promoted and returned to his duties as a high-ranking gendarmerie officer. After the war, he escaped and had not been heard from since, which is why the news from Scotland was so surprising.

But one piece of information was still missing-where was Kepiro presently living? So once again, we asked Michael Tierney to get back to Bujdoso for the missing details on our new suspect. Within a day, we already knew that Kepiro had returned home to Hungary, and with the help of friends in Budapest, I was able to track him down to a lovely brownstone on 78 Leo Frankel Street, right opposite a local synagogue(!). It turns out that he had fled to Austria in 1945 and three years later had escaped to Argentina, where he lived until 1996. Kepiro claims in fact, that in that year he asked at the Hungarian Embassy in Buenos Aires whether he could return home without facing prosecution and was told that it was OK.

On August 1, 2006, I submitted the documentary evidence and the information concerning Kepiro\'s current whereabouts to Hungarian prosecutors and asked that his sentences be implemented as quickly as possible. The prosecutors replied that they obviously would have to review the two verdicts, but if either was for genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, all of which have no statute of limitations, then rest assured, Kepiro would finally be punished.

If only it were that easy. Six months later, believe it or not, neither verdict has yet been found in the Hungarian archives and the case is currently pending. Luckily, with the help of Dr. Antonijevic of the Museum of Genocide Victims in Belgrade, I was able to obtain a copy of the 1944 verdict from the National Archives of Yugoslavia (Novi Sad was Yugoslav territory occupied by the Hungarians when the murders took place and today is in Serbia), but the prosecutors indicated that the 1944 conviction, which was for violating the regulations of the Hungarian armed forces, was no longer applicable and thus the case remains in limbo. The 1946 verdict was apparently for war crimes, but it disappeared from the archives and thus the court finds itself in a judicial quandry. Under those circumstances, I decided to expose him publicly, which has turned the case into a local cause celebre.

When Hungarian Foreign Minister Kinga Goncz visited Israel this year, I demanded that the government initiate an inquiry into the possible cover-up by Hungarian diplomats of the information regarding Kepiro\'s whereabouts in Argentina and his subsequent decision to return to Budapest. What initially appeared to be a case of an escaped Nazi war criminal who had disappeared without a trace, is increasingly looking like a huge cover-up by government officials, and this too is part of the ongoing search for historical justice and truth.

In late January, I was invited to be the main speaker at the annual memorial sponsored by the Novi Sad municipality for the victims of the 1942 massacre held on the banks of the Danube, not far from the exact spot where most of those killed were shot by the Hungarians. What made this year\'s ceremony particularly meaningful was its contemporary relevance. With Kepiro exposed, there suddenly was a practical target for the pain, trauma, and frustration of those \"orphaned\" by the Hungarians.

Was my appeal for justice heard in Budapest? Less than two weeks later, I learned that Kepiro had been invited to speak at a conference on the history of the Hungarian gendarmerie which was scheduled to be held in the educational center of the Ministry of Justice. The topic of his presentation was \"How I \'became\' a war criminal?\" While the ministry withdrew its invitation to host the conference in the wake of this news, a more important question is how twice-convicted but unpunished Hungarian war criminals are free to give lectures at respectable conferences despite the fact that their Holocaust guilt has already been unequivocally proven in a court of law?