Revealed: the Scots pensioner and the Nazi war crimes investigation
FOR more than 60 years Steven Brandon has lived peacefully in rural Berwickshire, an ordinary existence in stark contrast to his life as Istvan Bujdosoin in war-torn Hungary during the Second World War.
At his modest prefab bungalow in the small village of Earlston, the elderly Hungarian spoke about his police service in his homeland and recalled the most tumultuous period of his life to refute what he views as a grossly unfair and baseless accusation.
A small, thin man with sharp features and large round glasses, Brandon is remarkably sprightly and sharp-minded for his age and remains proud of his wartime role as a police sergeant in the Hungarian gendarmerie.
"I was a driver in the army, then joined the gendarmerie, where I was also a driver. I have never committed any crime, and for Dr (Efraim] Zuroff to suggest otherwise is offensive. There were thousands of police officers in Hungary. Are we all war criminals?" he said.
The 88-year-old is a well-known and respected figure in the locality who came to the Borders in 1948. There he married a Selkirk girl, raised a family and worked as a mill mechanic. He is popular with the Hungarian community in Scotland and for some years now has organised events to celebrate Hungary's national day. A Hungarian patriot, he has erected plaques at hotels in Selkirk and Galashiels to commemorate the visit of the famous Hungarian leader, Lajos Kossuth, who visited the area in 1856.
"He (Kossuth] was a great man and is a hero in Hungary who fought for freedom and democracy," Brandon said, while showing a photocopy of an old article from the Kelso Chronicle detailing Kossuth's visit.
Inside his home, he has one room where he keeps memorabilia, including a large Hungarian flag which he unfurled and posed beside. One wall in the room is covered in photos and letters, and it was here that an investigator came across a grainy sepia photograph in 2005 that resulted in Nazi hunters tracing a man ranked as one of the world's most wanted Second World War criminals.
That man is Dr Sandor Kepiro, 94, a former Hungarian police captain currently living in Budapest. He is fourth on Nazi hunter Dr Efraim Zuroff's wanted list, after concentration camp doctor Aribert Heim, whose personal papers were recently found in Egypt, SS camp guard John Demjanjuk, known as Ivan the Terrible and living in the US, and Alois Brunner.
Brandon served under Kepiro and they remain close friends. It is this relationship that prompted Zuroff to call for an investigation into the former's role during the spring of 1944.
An investigator visited Brandon, spotted the photograph of Kepiro and from there Zuroff and his team traced Kepiro to Budapest, where he lives across the street from a synagogue.
Kepiro was one of several gendarmerie officers prosecuted in Hungary for their role in the mass murder in 1942 of 1,200 men, women and children in Novi Sad, Serbia. The victims were mostly Jews, but included Serbs and Gypsies.
Kepiro was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for his role in the murders, but the Nazis, who occupied Hungary shortly thereafter, annulled his conviction in 1944 and returned him to service. Zuroff said that after the war in 1946, Kepiro was again prosecuted for war crimes and convicted in absentia, but by this time had disappeared to South America. Serbia is currently trying to extradite Kepiro – who denies committing war crimes – to stand trial for his role at Nova Sad.
But Brandon robustly defended both himself and Kepiro and said that neither of them had committed any offences during their service in the gendarmerie.
"Kepiro was my captain. I joined the police in 1943 and was posted to Miskolc in November 1943," Brandon said. "I was there until December 1944. I was Sandor's driver and we became good friends. We were there for traffic control and to keep order among the population. We became known as the 'peace guards'. We were not involved in the transportation of Jews and I never saw anyone mistreat Jews in Miskolc. Hungarian soldiers and German soldiers rounded up the Jews, not the police. I thought that what happened to the Jews was terrible, really terrible. We actually believed at that time the Nazis were taking them to Palestine. What you have to bear in mind is that the situation back then was very difficult for many people. The Nazis forced people to do things, as it was in Holland and Belgium. People sometimes had no choice."
As the Allies approached Hungary towards the end of 1944, Brandon said the Nazis forced him and Kepiro to flee to Austria so he left Miskolc with Kepiro and drove him in an Opel Kadett car to the city of Linz in Austria, where they stayed until 1947.
"I worked on a farm and Sandor worked on a railway. It was on the farm that I first learned about the concentration camps. It was an SS officer who told me. I could not believe what they had done," Brandon said.
In 1947, Kepiro left Austria for South America while Brandon came to settle in Britain and build a new life. He moved to Hampshire before relocating to Scotland, where he has lived happily ever since. In 1957, he changed his name from Istvan Bujdoso to Steven Brandon. He explained that he did so over fears that his young children would be bullied at school.
Brandon remains friends with Kepiro and insists that his associate played no part in the killings at Nova Sad and that the truth has been distorted.
"He (Kepiro] was there but did not kill anyone and was appalled at what happened. He reported his fellow officers for breaching an order not to shoot and was charged with disloyalty. That was the crime he was convicted of and that conviction was later revoked."
Nothing and no one can shake Brandon's belief in himself or the nation of his birth. Even above his front door a small flag has been painted in the colours red, white and green.
Hungary's chilling role in mass murder
HUNGARY'S role in the darkest events of the 20th century is not widely known, and it is a chilling story.
During the 1930s the central European country became more dependent on trade with Germany to help alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. Hungarian politics drifted strongly to the right and the nation adopted foreign policies which were supportive of Nazi Germany under Hitler and Mussolini's Fascist Italy.
Following pressure from Germany, Hungary officially joined the Axis powers in 1940 and the following year its forces joined the Wehrmacht in its invasion of the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa.
In July 1941, the Hungarian government transferred responsibility for 18,000 Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenian Hungary to the German armed forces. These Jews without Hungarian citizenship were sent to a location near Kamenets-Podolski, where, in one of the first acts of mass killing during the Second World War, all but 2,000 were shot.
Hungary then passed the 'Third Jewish Law' in August 1941, prohibiting marriage and sex with Jews.
Six months after the mass murder at Kamenets-Podolski, Hungarian troops killed 3,000 Serbian and Jewish hostages near Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, in reprisal for resistance activities.
In March 1944 Nazi troops occupied Hungary and deportations of Jews to death camps in Germany and Poland began. The infamous SS colonel Adolf Eichmann went to Hungary to oversee deportations. Between May 15 and July 9, Hungary deported 437,402 Jews; all but 15,000 went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. One in three Jews killed there was a Hungarian citizen.
Of the 800,000 Jews residing within Hungary's expanded borders of 1941, only 200,000 – around 25% – survived the Holocaust.
In December 1944 the Red Army encircled Budapest and the Nazis were expelled. A few pro-Nazi Hungarian units left with the Germans and fought until the end of the war. In Landsberg in Bavaria, where Hitler had written Mein Kampf, it was a Hungarian garrison which stood in parade formation to surrender as US forces.
Most wanted: the Gecas case
THE most wanted Nazi war criminal to have lived on Scottish soil was Anton Gecas.
The innocuous looking pensioner ran an Edinburgh guest house for many years. But his sedate existence in the capital masked a horrific past.
Gecas was wanted by Nazi hunters for his part in the execution of 34,000 Jews, Soviet citizens and prisoners of war while with the 12th Lithuanian Police Battalion. Although the then Justice Minister, Jim Wallace, authorised extradition proceedings, Gecas was deemed too ill to face trial and died in Edinburgh in 2001, aged 85. Lithuanian prosecutors had asked the Scottish authorities to help them in their bid to bring the butcher to justice.
Sixteen witnesses identified Gecas as playing a crucial role in 11 massacres in Lithuania and Belarus during the Second World War. Far from just obeying orders, the evidence shows Gecas volunteered to lead shooting parties and on at least five occasions was seen shooting Jews himself.
The number of suspected war criminals in Scotland is unknown. In 2006 there were reports that two men, believed to live in the Central Belt, were the subject of a probe by the Crimes Against Humanity Unit, the department of the Metropolitan Police that took over the case load.
The 1991 War Crimes Act allows British courts to try anyone living here for crimes abroad in the Second World War.
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