Thomas Komoly

Yom Hashoah reflections: An overdue commemoration of Ottó Komoly.

One of the children's homes - photo courtesy of Revesz family
One of the children's homes - courtesy of Revesz family

Just over 80 years ago on 19th March 1944 the German army, and with it the Eichmann Commando, entered Hungary. The Hungarian Zionists (HZA) decided that armed resistance was impossible and their target should be delaying and minimising the intended ‘final solution’. The Jews of Hungary should not become ‘The Seventh Million’. By the end of June approximately 437,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, and only the Jews of the capital city, Budapest, remained.

The subsequent six months led to desperate efforts to save and support them. Many people will recognise from this period the name Raoul Wallenberg. The Swedish diplomat has taken his rightful place in history for his efforts to rescue Hungarian Jews. Few, however, will recognise the name Ottó Komoly, President of HZA – yet they should. Komoly’s work – both on his own accord and in support of Wallenberg and other international diplomats: Carl Lutz, Angelo Rotta , Valdemar and Nina Langlet, Friedrich Born and Hungarians Gábor Sztehlo and Margit Slachta, (who have all been named the Righteous Gentiles and had places named after them in Budapest), saved a perhaps incalculable number of Hungarian Jews including 5,500 children from murder. He is one of the relatively few Jews who rescued other Jews.
My book Orphans of the Holocaust* contains his private diary, together with appendices and some five hundred footnotes creating a context for the events. There are very few if any records such as this diary of the time which is real-life evidence, created nightly as events took place. It is valuable from the historical and academic point of view.

Komoly was involved in almost every rescue effort in Budapest**. As a decorated military officer from WW1 he was respected by Hungarian government ministers. He also became a peacemaker between the traditional Jewish leadership, the religious (Orthodox and Neolog) factions and the Zionists. He was also the main contact for the Palestinian Zionist leadership in Istanbul. His commitment to Zionism also led him to publish books and articles as well as give lectures on the subject. He was, undoubtedly, an outstanding Zionist thinker of Hungarian Jewry.

Under the auspices of the International Red Cross he created and operated 52 orphanages and provided clothing, medical and food supplies, liaising with chalutzim*** for furnishing and managing the homes and transporting people and supplies. He rejected multiple opportunities to save his own life, and was ultimately murdered by the Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists two weeks before the liberation of Budapest.

Through the pages of the diary, I came to know the man behind the heroic activities which among other achievements led to the saving of thousands of children’s lives, and I would like to introduce to you this person.

Ottó Komoly (1892-1945), President of the HZA, was in the habit of keeping a private diary from the mid-1930-s onwards. Each page contained two days, each day split into two, indicating professional and private events. In 1944 the professional entries slowly reduced and eventually disappeared, as the Jewish disaster unfolded. He did not have too much time to make the entries – but the information and the feelings conveyed are priceless. His widow Lila left Budapest in 1947 and was able to take with her several belongings, including his diaries. I thought that the contents deserved to be made public internationally, as there are very few if any records of the time, created as events took place and, therefore, are completely free from any bias. His grandson Oded Fürst scanned them for me, and I have prepared an English translation for publication.

The private diary contains some 500 names, of which I have managed to identify approximately half. Looking at those names an interesting picture emerges. Not surprisingly the largest group (73 names) consists of Jews both from religious and secular organisations , while there are 25 young Zionists (chalutzim) supporting Ottó’s work in various capacities. The next largest ‘group’ is that of 30 government officials, followed by 20 sympathisers (church and others) and members of the socialist and related underground (such as Tildy, Szakasits, Ferenc Nagy and Bajcsy Zsilinszky). International contacts amount to 15 individuals which include Wallenberg, the Swiss consul Lutz, the Papal Nuncio and the Spanish consul Sanz Bris. There are also 12 Hungarian military leaders and 6 members of the German hierarchy in Hungary at the time.

The main issues Ottó notes initially relate to the treatment of refugees from German occupied countries (Romania/Slovakia/Poland), submissions to government about the condition of men in forced labour units and the operating permit of the HZA and individual requests for assistance. He is making contacts at high level with the ministries of Interior, Exterior, Economy and Education, and he even finds time to write an article on Zionism in Hungary, and to celebrate Pesach (Seder on April 7). After the German entry the emphasis shifts to action in the provinces regarding the rounding up and deportations, trying unsuccessfully to interrupt or at least slow down the process. There is ongoing contact with Zionists in Istanbul (and Joel Brand’s mission to them through Eichmann’s initiative – see below) and he is in the midst of the problems arising out of the introduction of the anti-Jewish laws about wearing of the Star of David and concentration of Budapest’s Jewish population in 2000 buildings. Komoly is one of the central figures (together with Rezső Kasztner and Ernő Szilágyi) of the now well-known case of the train eventually delivering 1684 Jews to Switzerland as part of Eichmann’s proposition of ‘blood for goods’ (‘Blut gegen Waren’) and the awesome task of selecting the passengers who will be allowed to legitimately leave Hungary for Switzerland.(Eichmann during the deportations had his own grand plan. Following his belief in the powerful international connections of Zionists, he offered to ‘sell’ the last one million Jews in exchange for certain goods handed over to Germany outside of Hungary. This later became known as ‘Blood for Trucks’ – although in addition to 10,000 trucks to be used on the Eastern Front, he also demanded materials such as coffee, tea, soap etc. for civilian purposes).
Eichmann and his close circle were intent on extracting maximum financial gain from rich Hungarian Jewry. It is likely that Kasztner pretending to have the necessary leverage through the ‘powerful international Jewry’ (while himself being very clear that this was no more than a poker player’s bluff) met with Eichmann’s probably false promise of eventually delivering the one million Jews. Both required some evidence, which led to the now famous ‘Kasztner Train’ arrangement).

On April 25 he writes: “The situation now is that I am on the list submitted. I have a terrible moral nausea”
and later notes: “I could never step on the land of Eretz Yisrael with head held high if I chose now to save my own life”
We find on May 2: “Constant fatigue, ongoing worrying, I can’t stand the non-stop onslaught of people, the inevitable injustice of selection”.
And on May 3 “… constant contemplation of the injustices of the selection at night, and also the inherently dangerous nature of the trip”

In progressing these matters Ottó is liaising with the Executive Committee of War Veterans , the Pro-Palestine Committee and its head Moshe Krausz (where he is also a member), the Jewish Community Leadership (later becoming the Judenrat headed by Samuel Stern), Association of Hungarian Jews, Welfare Bureau for the Jews of Hungary, and maintains his roles on the HZA Public and cultural committees, the Kerem Kayemet L’yisrael or KKL National Committee, and the Religious Education Committee. His other Jewish roles include links with the Transylvanians and Transcarpathians, provincial and Budapest rabbis, Women’s International Zionist Organisation (WIZO), the Revisionists , the chalutzim, and the Polish aliya crew.

Whether the cause is the stressful existence or not, there are increasing mentions in the diary of headaches, tiredness and dizziness, the use of painkillers and sleeping pills and stimulants like coca pellets. An underlying likely serious health issue is suggested by the fact that he records two visits by doctors representing insurance companies who refuse to accept him, and anticipating refusal from a third party about to examine him.

In the midst of all this there are mentions of attending private Hebrew lessons, visiting his parents’ grave, being out and about during bombing raids, responding to the arrests of Kasztner and Hansi Brand, dealing with book keeping for taxation, and playing chess with his daughter Lea late into the night. Willingly or otherwise, he gets involved with domestic affairs like repairs to window shutters, phone and typewriter, bringing wood from the cellar and mincing meat, filling pancakes in the kitchen. An amazing list of commitments.

The private diary entries stop towards the end of June, coinciding with the departure of the Train. Probably the strain was telling, and he must have felt in need of concentrating on other matters. It restarts in October, fortunately for us, just before the Nyilas (Arrow Cross) putsch led to the most horrifying excesses of the period.

However, I must mention that in the summer of 1944 some of the more sober government members and some leaders of the clergy, some hiding opposition politicians, and even members of the armed forces began to consider what may happen after the increasingly likely military defeat of Hitler. These individuals began undercover discussions partly as a wise political move, partly as a way of generating an ‘alibi’ for posterity, and they saw fit to look for the participation of a Jewish representative. Their choice fell on Ottó Komoly, the obvious leading person who could bridge over the divided factions of the Jewish community with his human qualities and the respect he commanded from all. His participation in a set of meetings with this group from August 21 to September 16 have also been recorded partly by himself immediately after the meetings, and partly as reports to the Va’ada soon after with secretarial help, and published both in Hungarian and English.

The notes originating from these meetings are not only depicting the events in this period subsequent to Horthy’s suspension of deportations, but also demonstrating Ottó Komoly’s status as a politically significant representative of the Jewish community alongside Tildy and Szakasits (both future presidents) and the communists, and in the eyes of the progressive members of the Hungarian government (including the son of the Regent Horthy). It also implies that had he survived, he would have had a substantial role to play in any post war arrangements, representing Hungarian Jewry, in a future cabinet. How his survival and probable aliya to Palestine might have affected the future political scene in Israel, I shall leave you to speculate on.

The private diary restarts in October, just a few days before Horthy decides to follow the Romanian example and change sides in the war to join the Allies. By then the Allied landing has taken place, the Red Army entered Hungary and reached close to Budapest, and the International Red Cross (ICRC) empowered its delegate Friedrich Born in Budapest to put abandoned Jewish children under his protection and to house them. He formed Department ‘A’ headed up by Komoly, for organising accommodation, supervision and provision of food, clothing, and medication for the children, and invited him to occupy the ICRC office at Mérleg u.4 for this purpose. A few days later the Arrow Cross and Szálasi are in power. Komoly’s whole focus shifts to this new task, while continuing other work too.

Sunday, October 15th
“On the way to Mérleg u., I see German soldiers with submachine guns divert traffic at entrance to Váci u. I hear two hand grenades explode. Strong preparedness at the chain bridge as well. News arriving at Mérleg u.: Armoured units on Elizabeth Bridge, all tram traffic was stopped, – Hungarian soldiers on the Danube bank, ready to fire, and tanks. Váci u. full of German tanks. At 12 o/clock Nádor u. 3. Stern, Wilhelm, Knapp Elek – they know nothing important. At 12:30 Vadász u. meeting about deportees. I am reporting on yesterday’s achievements. As I’m leaving, I hear that the Hungarian radio reports that Horthy made a declaration that he had requested a truce. In the afternoon we listen at Bársony’s for a while to the radio. I cancel my appointments in the afternoon. Phone Stern, I reach Rezső in Pannonia. In the evening we learn that the broadcasting centre was occupied by the Germans; a new government was formed: Szálasi head of state.”

Monday, October 16th
“Upon arriving at Chain Bridge up-ramp we see a startling picture: people with raised hands are driven by German soldiers toward the Danube; others are chased into the bus station waiting room. Later arrivals communicate that ‘Communists’ and Jews were machine gunned and brought further groups continuously, shot and killed them on the banks of the Danube and threw them into the river. Born and Schirmer arrive in the afternoon: they are going to Grell at the German embassy, to do something. The news: random evacuation of yellow star houses with brutal activities; Városi Theatre as a place of concentration, locking up of yellow star houses, abolition of exemption from wearing yellow star, obligation to move back to yellow star houses. Evening radio news: the Governor withdrew the ceasefire request, resigned, handed over power to Szálasi. We sleep in the office in makeshift arrangement. (In addition to us, 4 chalutzim and 3 from the Born office)”

Tuesday, October 17th
“Stern makes several calls – this worries me. He also stays here for the night. Incoming news: yellow star house evacuation continues, some individuals on the run show up; interior minister makes sharply anti-Jewish statements on the radio; unreliable news about the bombing of Kőbánya, and that the Russians are at Monor. Born and Schirmer promise action at the Interior and Foreign Ministry and the PM’s office, no success so far at the German embassy. About 24 sleep here tonight. News that some houses on Népszínház Street staged armed resistance, tanks fired at these houses. Bedtime towards 10. (I on my desk, Lila on 4 chairs)”

His diary entries reflect this new situation very much. Something like 120 addresses appear over the next two months, mostly properties to be inspected and negotiated about for rental or purchase to become orphanages. He also needs to get involved personally with lawyers for these transactions. Many of the people he meets are their owners, and chalutzim whom he requests to furnish the properties, and often employs to manage the homes and take care of the children. Over 5000 children find shelter through this action, and more than 500 adults also receive protection under the ICRC logo. There is an ongoing need for food and medication to be supplied to these homes, and with the young Zionists** they extend these activities from November to assist people in the ghetto, in old age homes, to the 15,000 labourers sent to Austria (Strasshof) and the Jewish hospitals in Budapest. All of this required financing, the source of which became largely the American Joint Distribution Committee (JOINT) through its representative in Switzerland Saly Meyer with whom constant contact was required. Money at times arrived through illegal routes in suitcases, and Ottó frequently refers to the cumbersome task of handling this, without spelling out the details. A further problem largely handled through the chalutzim, was warehousing and transportation of furniture and food, and through his contacts with the young Zionists he unavoidably became aware of their activities in the Columbus Street Camp, the bunkers where they kept their weapons, and their issues arising in the Glass House which they used to carry out their illegal printing activities for protective documents – thereby clashing with Moshe Krausz. Komoly himself also had frequent confrontations not only with Krausz but also with Stern (head of the Judenrat) and Born, all of whom were trying to insist on following peacetime and bureaucratic standards in their activities, despite the unique dangers of the time. As if all of this was not a massive overload, he was forced to move his office and private residence each twice, control the ICRC office administration, follow the fate of the train’s passengers, and try to do some of his professional work relating to irrigation and sewerage.

The diary entries reflect this late October: “Try to relax after lunch, I’m totally shattered…
There are many, many requests to be refused.”

No wonder that when one reads the 1946 book of Teri Gács, the head of Hungarian WIZO, of these times titled “We Call to Thee from the Depths” one can read:
“There were already a few people in the small room. We had a hard time finding a tiny space to sit. The hours passed. We looked at the clock with fear from time to time. It’s already four o’clock. We shouldn’t be on the street after five. Maybe Komoly forgot about us. Would not be a surprise. We can start all over tomorrow.

He did not forget. He came in at a quarter past four, virtually stumbling through that door. I hadn’t seen him in weeks and now I didn’t want to believe my eyes. Could this completely broken, aged, totally exhausted man be Ottó Komoly? Gone completely grey, with reddened tired eyes, flabby mouth, the obvious external signs of overwork and exhaustion. He greets us, then sits down, taking moments before he can talk. He strokes his forehead with his limp hand, then begins to speak softly, quickly.”

As time rolls on, more desperation takes over. There’s the ongoing fight to intervene in deportations, financial discussions regarding the ongoing need for foreign moneys and financing the purchases, dealing with the police and deportees in the transfer camps and the newly developing ‘international ghetto’ protected by the neutral embassies. At the end of November, the government sets up the ghetto for 70,000 and the fight begins to keep the children out of it – and later to bring children out who have been unavoidably moved in with no support. In the meantime, his apartment becomes a temporary shelter occasionally for as many as 15-20 people, forcing him and his wife to sleep in armchairs and on top of tables. Communication becomes an additional problem: although notionally he has a car and driver at his disposal, it often does not turn up and he has to make several daily journeys by tram and on foot. Judit Molnar in one of her articles analyses several days and finds that he often covers 20-40 kms, and risks being hit by the increasing artillery fire of the Russians now within reach of the capital.

The entry on November 13:
“Total desperation,. Outrage against Born at the line he takes on deportations, threats.. Unbearable stress, breakdown due to a stubborn request.. I’m terribly tired. They’re gathering up people and an endless line of them marches West on foot. Despite every attempt there is no trace of Ilonka. Motorcycle purchase for Red Cross. Request from hospital doctors”

And on November 14:
“Deportations continue, Jews are being gathered from the houses, now without age differentiation.”

In the midst of it he has issues about close family members. Two of his brothers are in dangerous situation and he only manages to rescue one, (but not my father), a sister-in-law is taken away on the foot march towards Auschwitz (and ultimately ends up in Bergen Belsen where she perishes) one sister commits suicide to avoid deportation and an elderly aunt dies and he needs to bury her. He himself has to undergo an interrogation by the Gestapo but not harmed.

Late in November and in December the emphasis shifts onto more desperate action such as rescuing the elderly from the Hegyeshalom death march and bringing children out of the ghetto back to the orphanages. The diary entries reflect this:

He writes on November 16: “Terrible news of methods of deportation and its horrors. I ask Born again to send a Committee to Hegyeshalom to deal with the return of over-age persons”
And on November 23: “I’m terribly nervous. The news is bad. Eichmann threatening and continues with the deportations”

The entry on December 7:
“News: Aunt Matild died on Nov. 14 (admitted on the 6th.) 4:15 in the afternoon to the Swedish Embassy (Aczel, Wallenberg, Balog, Forgacs), from here to Sandor-u.16. Council – Born for discussions. I’m very tired, I can barely follow the topics”

And on December 10:
“Report from people brought down from Svábhegy, about escapees from Wesselényi Street Hospital. (I know of 4 out of the 80 concerned: they jumped into the Danube before the rest were shot)”

Monday, December 11:
“I can barely achieve anything, Born is useless”

Wednesday, December 13
“Virtually no one in the office, everyone is busy with their own problems). Until 5:15 dealing with affairs of various parties. 5:30 in Filler-u. Negotiation with Born about hospitals and orphanages. Solymossy postponed the relocation of homes that are still outside the ghetto to the 22nd. Unwilling to agree more concessions”

And finally: “We do not know how it will be possible to escape”

The entries stop on 17th December. On December 28, 1944, Komoly moved into Budapest’s Ritz Hotel, where the local representative of the ICRC was based for safety. Four days later, on January 1, he was taken away for questioning by members of the Arrow Cross fascists, who told his colleagues he would be back the same day. He was never heard from again, and it is likely that he was, like thousands of other Jews, shot, with his body dumped in the nearby Danube. Less than three weeks later, on January 18, Budapest was liberated by the Red Army

In closing, I would like to quote from a talk, given by his daughter Lea some 40 years ago, at a B’nei Brit commemoration in Israel.

• “I remember one comment he made, from the time when he, as the chairman of the Zionist Organization, was in contact with many high-ranking people: “… What a pity that a person’s intellectual and moral standards rarely match each other.” He himself was striving for perfection in both areas, knowing that perfection is an ideal which could be approached, but never achieved.
• Sometimes I wonder what my father would have said about the current Israel, if he got to live and see it, and not taken from us just before realizing his vision, like Moses.
• And just like Moses – his grave location is not known”.

The author would be glad to accept invitations to speak about Ottó Komoly and all aspects of his diary. The book is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and major booksellers.

* Orphans of the Holocaust – Ottó Komoly’s diary, Budapest 1944
** Molnár Judit: Komoly Ottó, Kasztner Rezsõ és A Magyar Cionisták Embermentõ Tevékenysége 1944-ben (life saving attempts of the Hungarian Zionists in 1944); Századok 2013
*** Peretz Revesz, unsung Holocaust hero: Parts 1-3; Robert Rozett – Apr 14, 2020, TOI

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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