Thomas Komoly

Hungarian Zionist hero Ottó Komoly commemorated

From today, when you visit Budapest , you can see the exhibition “LÉLEKMENTŐK – (Soul Rescuers) Ottó Komoly and the life-saving activities of the Hungarian Zionist movement during the period of emergency” in the Holocaust Memorial Centre (HDKE), at the Páva Street synagogue. HDKEs goal was for Nathan Kohn (Komoly Ottó), who is highly respected in Israel, to become widely known in Hungary as well, and to take his rightful place among the greatest Jewish rescuers.

The exhibition was opened by Victor Orbán’s Deputy State Secretary Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky, and the event attended by many diplomats, including Israeli Ambassador Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, the British Ambassador, and more than twenty foreign diplomats representing embassies and diplomatic bodies accredited to Budapest.

Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky emphasized the loss that befell the Hungarian nation with the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews, and went on to described the life and achievements of Ottó Komoly:
He was born in Budapest under the name Ottó Kohn in 1892 into an assimilated merchant family. Under the influence of his father, Otto Kohn took an active role in the Zionist movement at a young age. After the First World War, he obtained a degree in civil engineering at the Budapest University of Technology and got married. In 1931, he changed his surname from Kohn to Komoly. “The name change was driven by such practical aspect that in Zionist public matters the name Kohn, as the name of the proposer, caused a backlash from the start, and often harmed the case in which he acted,” wrote his wife Lila in her memoirs. From the mid-1930s, Ottó Komoly first participated in the management board of the Budapest and national Zionist organizations. His moderate views on Zionist politics and his individuality, which always strived for compromise, made him the best candidate for the presidency of the Hungarian Zionist Association in 1940.


Despite serious protests from the Hungarian Jewish leadership, the deportations began in May 1944. Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky emphasized the loss that befell the Hungarian nation with the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Regrettably, Hungary could not defend its Jewish citizens. Ottó Komoly and his Zionist colleagues tried to prevent deportations, but later only managed to slightly improve the conditions. Ottó Komoly also participated in compiling the passenger list of the much publicised Kasztner Train. Although he could have, he did not leave on it himself. As he explained in his last letter, the moral concerns that arose proved to be stronger: “For my part, I could not decide to go with them. I would feel morally dead if I left my post now.”

In September 1944, Friedrich Born of the International Red Cross entrusted Ottó Komoly, the president of the Hungarian Zionist Association and, from 1943, the Budapest Rescue Committee, with the leadership of Section “A” of the International Red Cross. This exhibition pays tribute to his establishment of 52 children’s homes, saving around 6,000 children and their 600 carers. They also supplied the ghetto and Jewish hospitals with food and medication. Late in December 1944, he moved into the Ritz Hotel, notionally protected by the International Red Cross, but he was taken by the Arrow Cross fascists for “supplying information” on January 1, 1945. He was never seen again, probably shot and thrown into the Danube.

In the summer of 1948, President Zoltán Tildy posthumously awarded Ottó Komoly the silver degree of the Hungarian Order of Freedom, which his wife received in Tel Aviv. In the state’s subsequent Soviet era, just as the history of the Zionist resistance, the memory of Ottó Komoly also became taboo. His name is mentioned on the memorial erected on the wall of the Dohány Street synagogue in honor of the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust and the former members of the Budapest Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee.

A small cult was built around the person of Ottó Komoly after the war, the Zionists considered him their greatest martyr, while he was also respected in Neolog and Orthodox circles. A recent plaque placed at the entrance of the Jewish Museum and Archives opposite his one-time residence draws attention to his life-saving activities and martyrdom.

In Israel, he is remembered, among other things, by the grove planted in 1951 on Mount Herzl, the symbolic tombstone raised among the trees, and by streets named after him in Haifa and Netanya, as well as in moshav Yad Nathan named after him, created in 1953 and founded by Hungarian Jews. Since the post-90 regime change, the government is pleased to report the present renaissance in Jewish life in the country.

Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, the Ambassador of the Jewish State spoke next, saying that Ottó Komoly, who has not been heard of for decades, must be brought into the collective memory, because that is what he deserves. He also praised the merits of Ottó Komoly, and then touched on the importance of the generations living today feeling the horror that happened to the Jews during the Holocaust, since that way they will be able to stand up authentically in the defense of humanity. As an example, he mentioned that a film was recently shot in Budapest, in which the well-known Israeli actor Adir Miller played a role. The artist told Yakov Hadas-Handelsman that upon seeing the actors and extras dressed in Arrow Cross uniforms, a chill of terror ran down her spine bringing her closer to the horror of what happened.

Ottó Komoly’s nephew, Tomi Komoly, who lives in England, and his grandson Oded Fürst, who lives in Israel, also spoke about personal aspects and memories within the family.

After the speeches, András Zima, director of the Holocaust Memorial Center, gave a guided tour of the items on display. As he said, Ottó Komoly showed incredible humanism and superhuman helpfulness, while defying the sharpshooters patrolling the streets, he saved people as long as he could. The head of the institution added: Ottó Komoly, who has been unheard of for decades, must be brought into the collective social memory, because that is what he deserves. Just as the Poles do, we also have to appreciate such heroes, he said. We also learned from András Zima: the exhibition was designed for roll-ups (that is, on vertical canvases that can be rolled up) so that they can be exhibited elsewhere in the country later. They did this in the hope that the public opinion of the country should be drawn to his heroism and self-sacrificing life.

About the Author
Refugee from Hungary in 1956. Having studied and now living in the UK in retirement. In touch with events in Hungary today through annual visits.
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