On Ottó Komoly

Orphans of the Holocaust: Ottó Komoly’s Diary, Budapest 1944

By Thomas Komoly

Published by Austin Macauley (London 2024) pp.205

In the northern Negev of Israel, there is a moshav, Yad Natan which reclaims the Hebrew name of one of the unsung heroes of wartime Budapest, Ottó Komoly (Natan Ze’ev Kohn) whose diplomatic initiatives amongst the Hungarian elite doubtlessly saved thousands of Jewish lives. 

This book, edited by Komoly’s nephew, consists of his diary, written during the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. Hungarian Jewry was the last major community in Europe which had not suffered Nazi persecution and extermination. All this changed in the summer of 1944 when hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported en route to Auschwitz. 

It was a time when protective passports were issued by the Swiss, Spanish and Swedish consulates to Hungarian Jews. The Papal Nuncio in the Balkans, Cardinal Angelo Roncali, similarly acted to save Jews – and 20 years later was elected as Pope John XXIII and changed the Vatican’s historic approach to the Jews.

And then there was the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg who threw passports into deportation trains and intervened in the Nazi death marches. Ottó Komoly, a lifelong Zionist and communal leader was at the centre of these momentous but terrible events.  

Komoly formed the Va’ada (Aid and Rescue Committee) in 1943 which helped to smuggle Polish and Slovak Jews into Hungary. He also headed a local office which ran 52 children’s homes where more than 5,000 Jewish children, separated from their parents, lived. He attempted to organise the transport of 500 Jewish children to the safety of Spanish Tangier. 

His diary is more of a document than a book but cleverly annotated with detailed explanations. Komoly was at the apex of a pyramid of young Jewish activists and familiar names appear in his diary. Siegfried (Stephen) Roth and E. (Elizabeth) Eppler later ran the Institute of Jewish Affairs (now the JPR) in post-war London but in 1944 Komoly’s diary notes how they risked their lives to save Hungarian Jews. There is no mention of the parachutist, Hannah Szenes, who came from Palestine and met her death in Hungary. Komoly’s nephew surmises that this episode was not mentioned in case his diary fell into hostile hands. 

While Komoly pursued the diplomatic track, his colleagues Joel Brand and Rezsö Kasztner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in the hope of securing freedom for some Hungarian Jews in the dying months of the war. The controversial ‘Blood for Trucks’ arrangement was agreed with Eichmann in which a reputed sum of one million Swiss francs plus $1000 for each of 1,686 individuals was paid in order to travel to neutral Switzerland. Komoly refused the opportunity to leave an increasingly paranoid Hungary, facing the advance of the Red Army from the East and the Allies from the West. The passengers consisted of tailors and dressmakers, nurses and teachers, the wealthy and the anti-Zionist, Satmar Rebbe. Komoly hoped that this initiative would lead to a wider attempt to rescue Hungarian Jews. 

On 1 January 1945, Komoly was taken away for questioning by local fascists – and never seen again. It is believed that he was killed – as were many others – on the banks of the Danube. It was said then that the river turned red with the blood of the innocents. 

This remarkable book includes some of Komoly’s articles. On Chanukah 1943, he wrote about his Zionist ideals: ‘to fight for a great idea, you can ignore numbers and rely on true belief, honesty and good intentions, loyalty and generosity’. A fitting epitaph for a brave man who did not live to see Zion.

Jewish Chronicle 12 July 2024 

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