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New Holocaust Book Deals with Kapo Trials in Hungary

László Bernát Veszprémy’s new book, Kápók a múlt fogságában (Kapos in the Prison of the Past), about the history of the Hungarian-Jewish functionaries of the Nazi concentration camps who were tried by the People’s Courts, was presented to great interest at the MCC Scruton Café in Budapest. The book was published by the Committee for National Remembrance (NEB), and the discussion at the MCC Scruton was moderated by Ádám Szöőr, Deputy Director of Communications of the MCC, who had a discussion with Áron Máthé, historian and Vice-Chairman of the NEB, alongside the author. Veszprémy is a historian, Holocaust researcher, editor-in-chief of the MCC’s Corvinak magazine. His earlier books on the deportations (The Bureaus of Annihilation), the history of the year 1921 in Hungary (1921) and the Jewish Council (Bereft of Council), which were all published by Jaffa.

In response to a question from Szöőr about what the kapos were, the author explained that kapos were prisoners in the Nazi camps who performed functions of one kind or another in exchange for certain privileges. There were many types of kapos, the literature uses the word quite liberally: some were in charge of all the prisoners in the camp, some were block and barrack supervisors, cleaners, Jewish policemen (jupos), but there were also gravediggers and those who cleaned up the bodies. Of course, the fact is that many of the kapos unfortunately abused their power, abused, killed and raped their fellow prisoners, so their names are now swear words. But Veszprémy was confronted with the fact that the sources he examined did not take him back to the Nazi camps of 1944, but to the interrogation rooms of the Communists in 1945-49, and he ended up learning more about the dark methods of the Communist police than about the kapos themselves.

Szöőr asked how fair these trials were? According to Veszprémy, although there were some trials that did not contain elements of show trials, even here the problem of aggrieved, vindictive witnesses or inaccurate recollection still arises. However, some of the trials were outright conceptual. The Communist newspaper Szabad Nép reported on these cases in great headlines, sometimes the leading news story of the day was a kapo trial. The newspapers got their hands on confessions made at the investigative stage, often coerced, and then wrote as fact: such and such a kapo had beaten and killed people, stated as a fact. No one cared that this turned out to be untrue during the trial, no correction was given, and often the acquittals were not even reported on. Many kapos were acquitted after a new trial, and as communists apparently only needed to write about the fact that another ‘Jewish fascist’ had been convicted (at the first trial).

Some were clearly show trials, for example in the trial of Klára Iczkovics, finally it turned out that the accused was not who they thought she was, so we can speak of a case of mistaken identity. The trial of Vilmos Weisz, the kapo, was a case of false witnesses being exposed: two witnesses for the prosecution gave incriminating testimonies, and then the people’s prosecutor – himself a Holocaust survivor – stood up and said that the witnesses had been to see him the day before, as the people’s prosecutor, and at the time they said they knew nothing about the case. These statements were excluded from the trial and were not used. But we can also mention the trial of Adolf Fremd, the kapo, where it turned out that the political detective was not only a Holocaust survivor, but also a survivor of the camp where Fremd was a kapo, and had a personal conflict with him. The research could be extended, and the author has found new cases of the kapo trials since the book was published, but he feels that the new details no longer enrich the story, and that the overall picture is still comprehensible.

What was the atmosphere like at the kapo trials? Veszprémy pointed out that it is rarely possible to deduce the mood from the minutes, but it is clear from the recollections of legal defenders and people’s judges that the trials were often conducted in an angry atmosphere, the audience “listened” to the trials in a heightened state, disturbed, shouting, even to the point where the defending lawyer felt he could not deliver his defence speech. There was a case of a (Holocaust survivor) lawyer being attacked, spat on by the listeners, saying: how can you think that as a survivor you are defending a perpetrator? Veszprémy also pointed out that the people’s judges who were “inherited” from the Horthy regime may have been biased: fearing that they too would be brought to trial, they were overeager, sending many to the gallows or to prison.

(Text: translation from Mandiner. Photo: MCC)