The Képíró trial: Indictment and verdict

By Hungarian standards the trial itself was fairly speedy. It began on May 5 and by July 19 a panel of three judges arrived at a verdict. On June 29 Zsolt Falvai, the prosecutor in charge of the case, outlined the prosecution's position. He asked for immediate incarceration, not a suspended sentence. He also described the events of January 1942 as the prosecution saw them. Colonel József Grassy, who was in charge of the raid that started on January 18, thought that the undertaking wasn't successful. New, more severe steps must be taken. A raid was not enough, "they must purge" (tisztogatás) Novi Sad of the anti-Hungarian elements. That meant the immediate execution of suspected persons. Sándor Képíró had doubts about the legality of such a move and asked his superior to give that order in writing. The officer refused. Képíró then followed orders and as a result his men executed six people. Képíró was also guilty of ordering his men to transport thirty Jews to the place of execution. The prosecution maintained all along that the accused, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, knew full well what kind of fate was awaiting the men and women he rounded up. Thus, it can be ascertained that Képíró was responsible for the death of at least 36 people.

As for the validity of the 1944 sentencing of Képíró, the prosecution took the position that because of the annulment it must be considered to be null and void. However, the testimony of János Nagy at the 1948 People's Court should be taken at face value. This stance was essential for the prosecution because it was Nagy's testimony that provided evidence of Képíró's order to transport the thirty people.

Béla Varga, the judge in charge of the three-man panel, also briefly outlined the events in and around Novi Sad in January 1942. According to him, prior to Képíró's involvement hundreds or perhaps thousands of people had been executed. But "the military leadership tried to keep that a secret." Thus Képíró, who was an officer in the gendarmerie, "probably didn't know about [the murders] because [the army officers] kept him in the dark."

The first two days of the raid (January 21-22), the judge continued, went off without any atrocity being committed. Képíró was in charge of 50-60 men who constituted a "search team." The judge emphasized that "the men under Képíró were not his own men and therefore he didn't know them. So, how could he be responsible for their actions?" In addition, Varga proposed that there might have been some confusion over the difference between "purge" (tisztogatás) and "retaliation" (megtorlás). The leaders of the search units received a list of names and "Képíró had no way of interfering."

The judge further told the court that on January 23 at 11 a.m. there was a change in policy. The people who were rounded up were no longer taken to the headquarters of the military youth organization (Levente Movement) for interrogation but were taken straight to the bank of the Danube where they were executed. To this day no one knows who gave this order. According to the judge, Képíró on the morning of January 23 couldn't have known about the changed order. By 3 p.m. the executions were halted, but by that time 800 people had been killed.

The judge found Képíró's saving his Jewish landlord and landlady a very important mitigating fact. Képíró's rescue mission was taking place at the same time that four people were killed by the Hungarians. However, there is no proof that those involved were Képíró's men, although eyewitnesses claimed that the men had feathers in their caps, as members of the gendarmerie did. But that meant nothing because border guards also wore feathered caps. Moreover, said Varga, the executions were conducted for the most part by the military and not the gendarmerie.

In the judge's opinion the court couldn't take into consideration the verdict of the 1944 court proceedings because "the military judges were not looking for individual responsibility; rather the verdict was based on collective guilt."

The next day came the acquittal. The judge emphasized that Képíró was not acquitted because the court found him innocent of the charges but because the charges were unsubstantiated. There was reasonable doubt about some of the evidence presented by the prosecution.

In addition to his objections to the prosecution's case the judge added a few more points. For example, the court received a copy of the 1944 verdict from Serbia but because the last page of the document was missing, which most likely contained details on the document's authenticity, the Hungarian judges disregarded its contents. The same thing happened to another copy from Jerusalem. The judges found its authenticity questionable "for formal reasons." There was a third copy, but it was authenticated properly. The court decided to use the document, not as a "public document" (közirat) but as a "document" (irat). (Please don't ask me to explain this distinction!) Moreover, since both the 1944 verdict and the preceding court proceedings were annulled, the court couldn't even refer to the contents of those documents. The same thing happened to the testimony of János Nagy from 1948. The court procedures of the People's Court were suspect in the first place. Moreover, János Nagy died in 1981 and therefore he could not be questioned and his testimony compared with that of Képíró.

Thus, the only facts the court could be sure of were that Képíró was present at the raid at Novi Sad and that he was in charge of 50-60 people, members of the army and the gendarmerie. Because Képíró asked his superior to give the order to "purge" in writing,  he "didn't consider this order implementable as far as he and his men were concerned." The judge, who a bit earlier talked about the inadmissibility of the 1944 verdict, by the second day of detailing his opinion mentioned that "Képíró learned only at the trial of 1944 what kinds of executions had taken place."

There are a lot of unsubstantiated assumptions in this argument. How does the judge know that Képíró was unaware of the murders prior to his arrival in Novi Sad? How can he say that Képíró couldn't be responsible for the actions of the men under him? Moreover, if his men did absolutely nothing wrong, why did the judge even mention the relationship between Képíró and his men? How does Judge Varga know that there was confusion over the meaning of "purge" and "retaliation"? And finally, although he refused to consider the charges brought against Képíró and his co-defendants in 1944, he referred to them several times when it suited him. For example, when he said that Képíró learned only during that trial that executions had taken place.

All in all, I think that both the prosecution and the judge were at fault here. The prosecution did a sloppy, unprofessional job while the panel of judges gave the accused every benefit of the doubt, often to the point of ridiculousness. Hungarian jurisprudence needs a serious upgrade.


  1. Professor you write ** “Hungarian jurisprudence needs a serious upgrade” **.
    Yes indeed it does. The Hungarian prosecutors seem to have two agendas one of which is to win a successful prosecution (when ordered) and to suppress prosecutions (also when ordered). These activities are political and have nothing to do with the Administration of Justice
    Why this prosecution was ordered, I have no idea. Was it done to show the rest of the world that Hungary is greater than Serbia as it prosecutes its own war criminals and does not need the ICC in The Hague.
    The problem is once again ‘Double Jeopardy’. As I read the situation Képíró was tried and found guilty by a court convened by a ‘De Jure’ government of Hungary. That is a government which was not under military occupation by a foreign power and was accepted by the world as the legal government of Hungary.
    Kepiro was later released and his conviction quashed. The important facts which I cannot find are the dates of Kepiro’s arrest, trial and conviction and the date of the sentence being quashed. I think that if Kepiro was released at sometime after ‘Operation Margarete’ on 19th March 1944 which placed Hungary under a ‘Puppet Government’ but before ‘Operation Panzerfaust’ (the full military occupation of Hungary) October 1944 and the appointment of Ferenc Szálasi as ‘De Facto’ ruler then his release was made by the ‘De Jure’ government this could raise questions about the first trial. If his conviction was quashed after ‘Operation Panzerfaust then the original trial and conviction must stand.

  2. Odin: “The important facts which I cannot find are the dates of Kepiro’s arrest, trial and conviction and the date of the sentence being quashed.”
    Here are the dates you are interested in. Képíró found guilty on February 14, 1944 and the verdict was declared null and void on February 18, i.e., before the German occupation.

  3. Odin, Sorry it is in Hungarian but by Kepiro’s own words.
    1942. január 21-22-23-án részt vettem az újvidéki razziában.
    1943. augusztus 1-én századossá léptetett elő Horthy Miklós kormányzó úr, valamint ugyanezen a napon kineveztek a kiskunhalasi szárny parancsnokának.
    1943. szeptember elején jött a távmondat, hogy azonnal induljak Újvidékre, mert Tóth József őrnagyot kell helyettesítenem, aki az újvidéki járőrvezető iskola parancsnoka volt, s most törzstiszti tanfolyamra ment. A járőrvezető tanfolyam záró szemléje november végén volt, ahová Temesváry vezérőrnagy is kijött, mint a csendőrség kiképzési parancsnoka. A tanfolyamon a hallgatóima ,,általános igen jó” eredménnyel vizsgáztattam le.
    1943. december 3-ra idézést kaptam a VKF Bíróságától Szegedre, előzetes kihallgatásra. Ettől a dátumtól kezdve 1944. június 1-ig eljárás folyt ellenem, ezért nem szolgálhattam. (Ezt az ügyet külön írtam le.)
    Also, you should read

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