This Day in Jewish History

1945: Jews' Hero in Hungary Is Arrested, Never Seen Again

WWI officer thought to move to Palestine when WWII began, but decided to stay in Hungary to help his fellow Jews.

Budapest Jews
Faupel/ German Federal Archives

On January 1, 1945, Otto Komoly, construction engineer, Zionist leader and chairman of the Budapest Rescue and Relief Committee for refugee Jews, was arrested at his hotel in the city. Taken into custody by agents of the governing Arrow Cross Party, Komoly was never seen again.

Komoly doesn’t have the kind of name recognition of Rudolf Kastner or Raoul Wallenberg, two other rescuers of Hungarian Jews, but his efforts and his accomplishments were no less impressive than theirs. Despite opportunities to leave, he remained in Budapest throughout the war, arranging safe passage for refugees, organizing shelter, food and medical services, in particular for the children among them, and also lobbying on behalf of Hungary’s Jews vis-à-vis the powers-that-be.

Natan Zeev Kohn was born on March 26, 1892, in Budapest. (“Otto Komoly” was the Hungarian-language name he adopted for his professional life.) His father, David Kohn, a merchant, was an assimilated Jew who, toward the end of the 19th century, came under the spell of Theodor Herzl and Zionism. He attended the First Zionist Congress, in 1897, and founded the movement’s Hungarian branch. Otto’s mother was the former Emilia Klauber.

Otto, like his five younger siblings, attended a Jewish primary school, and later, afternoon Hebrew school.

When he was 15, Otto began translating Herzl’s Zionist novel “Altneuland,” into Hungarian. Years later, while Otto was off fighting in World War I, his father arranged for his son’s translation to be published.

Otto Komoly.
Hungarian Archives

Wounded on the front

Otto studied engineering at the Technical University of Budapest, where he was active in the Maccabia Zionist students organization. When the war began, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and underwent officer training, reaching the rank of captain. In 1916, he was wounded in action at the Italian front.

Komoly met his wife, Lzika Lila Rotter, in Croatia, while working as an engineer for the Yugoslavian railroads in the early 1920s. They had one daughter, Lea, before returning to Budapest, where Otto, an expert on reinforced concrete, participated in construction of the city’s first skyscraper.

When World War II started, Komoly considered moving to Palestine, but decided to remain in Hungary to help his fellow Jews. The decorations he had received in the war exempted him from the country’s anti-Jewish measures, giving him freedom to act on several different levels: He lobbied diplomats, churchmen and politicians to enlist them in convincing the government of Admiral Miklos Horthy not to turn over the Jews for deportation, despite the leadership’s alliance with the Nazis. When other countries in central Europe, in particular Poland, were occupied, he helped smuggle their Jews into the country to safety, and later was involved in seeking escape routes for them. As the head of the Hungarian Zionist Federation, he helped organize food and medical services for some of the thousands of refugees who poured into Budapest.

As an employee of the International Red Cross, Komoly ran an office that operated 35 different children’s homes, in which some 550 adults cared for as many as 6,000 Jewish children separated from their parents. The A Office, as it was called, also ran safe houses, where, under the supervision of foreign legations, Jews could find temporary refuge.

Together with his deputy Rudolf Kastner, Komoly was involved in organizing the rescue train that carried 1,686 Jews to neutral Switzerland in June 1944, again passing up the opportunity to include himself and his family on the passenger list.

On December 28, 1944, Komoly moved into Budapest’s Ritz Hotel, where the local representative of the IRC was based. Four days later, on January 1, he taken away for questioning by members of the Arrow Cross militia, 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 hundreds 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.

Komoly’s wife and daughter survived the war and came to pre-state Israel. In 1953, Moshav Yad Natan, in the Lakhish region of the northern Negev, was established and named in his memory.