Monday, January 19, 2009 – Novi Sad City Hall
Acceptance Speech by Dr. Zuroff
Mayor Pavlićić, members the city council, H.E. Ambassador of Israel Artur Kol, His Grace Bishop Irinej, Chief Rabbi Yitshak Asiel, President of the Jewish community Dr. Ana Frankel, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great privilege to accept the honorary citizenship of Novi Sad, a city with a long history of over 300 years, a city of great political and cultural influence which became known as “Srpska Atina” (The Athens of Serbia), a city which before the Holocaust had a flourishing Jewish community and continues to be the home of Serbia’s second-largest Jewish community.
I do not view this honor as something personal. More than anything else, I believe that it constitutes recognition of the importance even today of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. It reinforces the important principles that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators and that old age should not shield merciless killers from being held accountable for their heinous crimes.
These principles were fostered and kept alive for decades by Simon Wiesenthal, the man who became the symbol of quest for justice for the victims of the Holocaust and whose name our institution proudly bears.
But Simon Wiesenthal was not only a Nazi-hunter. More than anything else, he was one of the unique individuals who survived the Nazi concentration camps and instead of returning to his previous career as an architect, chose to devote his life to the sacred mission of preserving the memory of the Holocaust. His was a daunting task, in a postwar world in which there was little willingness to even listen to the survivors, let alone track down the killers and bring them to justice. His dedication and perseverance to the causes of memory, education and justice remain a strong inspiration.
Today, there is no longer a danger that the Holocaust is about to be forgotten and much progress is being made in taking legal action against those responsible of more recent cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing. But unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice, primarily because of a lack of political will. Surprisingly, even at this relatively late date, it is not that hard to find the murderers and the evidence against them, as it is to make sure that they are prosecuted and punished for their crimes.
The most obvious example, is the case related to the mass murder which took place here in Novi Sad 67 years ago, the famous “Razzia.” Why hasn’t Sandor Kepiro been prosecuted and punished yet for his crimes? Not because he is innocent!! He himself admits that he was here, on that terrible day of January 23, 1942, as an officer of the occupying Hungarian forces. And we all know that it was they who carried out the mass murder of innocent Jewish, Serb, and Gypsy residents of Novi Sad!! Kepiro is still living unpunished in Budapest because there is no political will in Hungary to bring him to trial and without political will there cannot be any justice.
The mission of those seeking to bring the Nazis and their collaborators to justice is often quite difficult. Personally, I have often encountered the hatred of those who would seek to defend and protect them, and there are various dangers and many frustrations. And that is why the decision of the Novi Sad City Council and today’s ceremony mean so much to me. My hope is, that their message about the importance of justice for the victims of the Holocaust will be heard loud and clear, especially in Hungary, and throughout the world.
From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of my family in Israel who unfortunately could not join us here today – Hvala Novi Sad.