A man named Josip Benko helped to bring the industrialized age to the northeastern Slovenian region of Prekmurje, and became one of the area’s leading citizens. But in a show trial after World War II, he was executed by the Communists – only to be fully rehabilitated nearly half a century later.
Benko was born in 1889 as the son of a butcher and an innkeeper. As a young man, he grew the family’s business into a modern meatpacking plant, one of the first industrial facilities in the agricultural region, which was then a part of Hungary. Unusually for an industrialist, Benko was not a political conservative and in 1919 he even supported the short-lived, radical Mura Republic.
After Prekmurje became a part of Yugoslavia, Benko expanded his meatpacking business. His factory became one of the largest in the country; it exported its canned meats – in some cases as far as the United States – and made its own ice, a rarity for the time. Benko helped to establish a regional bank and published a popular local newspaper. In 1927, he was elected Mayor of Murska Sobota, the region’s largest town. During his time in office, he helped to bring electricity, a high school, and a courthouse to the town. He also maintained close ties to the government in Belgrade and in 1931 became a member of the Yugoslav Parliament. By then, he was firmly established as one of the leading citizens of Prekmurje. He financially supported several community organizations – at a time when business owners in Slovenia were rarely noted for their community involvement.
During World War II, Benko provided members of the Partisan resistance with food. But after the war, the newly installed Communist government began to view the successful, popular businessman as a threat. In a show trial, the Communists accused Benko of collaborating with the enemy. At first, the was sentenced to 12 years in prison. A higher court then sentenced him to death – and on June 15, 1945, Benko was executed.
It wasn’t until 1992 that a retrial in independent Slovenia found him not guilty. Almost fifty years after his execution, the man who had done so much for his native Prekmurje region was finally cleared of all wrongdoing.