When Buchenwald Was Liberated: A First Glimpse of the Holocaust

What was revealed when Western forces finally captured one of the major Nazi concentration camps? A rare document discovered at the National Library of Israel holds the answers.

The watchtower at the Buchenwald memorial site. Photo: The German Federal Archives.

Content warning – contains graphic descriptions of the realities of the Holocaust

The cars drove down a beautiful country road, lined with blossoming fruit trees, as the warm spring weather heralded a new beginning. The war was nearing its end. Little more than 130 miles away, the Nazis were making their futile last stand in Berlin as the Allies slowly closed in. In a few days, Hitler would be dead.

The vehicles soon made their way up into a wooded, hilly area. Within a few minutes, the short drive from the local airfield came to an end as the trees cleared, and the cars pulled up at the gates of Buchenwald.

Tom Driberg emerged from one of the vehicles along with nine other members of the British Parliament – an official delegation, sent by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to examine the worst of the newly liberated concentration camps which had been captured by Western forces.

Driberg was many things, but he was hardly a senior member of this group. Quite the contrary, in fact. The official head of the delegation, which was made up of representatives from all political parties, was Earl James Richard Stanhope of the House of Lords. Thomas Edward Neil Driberg was a communist member of the Labour Party, a devout Catholic, and in April 1945,  a 39-year-old backbencher in the House of Commons.

He was also an openly gay man during a time when his lifestyle made him a criminal in the United Kingdom. He would befriend the likes of Aleister Crowley, Mick Jagger and Allen Ginsberg and later in life would be suspected as a possible Soviet spy. Driberg’s larger-than-life persona and tendency to go against the grain would make him famous, but it is often forgotten that he played a small but important role in this particular moment in history.

Tom Driberg
Tom Driberg, the author of the British parliamentary report on Buchenwald. A devout Catholic, a communist and an openly gay man during a time when homosexuality was outlawed. His larger-than-life persona would make him famous but it is often forgotten he played a role in this moment in history.

It was Driberg’s skill as a journalist, his former profession, which gained him his place in the delegation to Buchenwald. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, had specifically requested that Churchill include a journalist or two in the group, and so it fell to Tom Driberg to write up the delegation’s official report.

A rare copy of that same report has now been discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel.

The cover of the British parliamentary report, on Buchenwald discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel
The cover of the British parliamentary report on Buchenwald, discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel


General Dwight D. Eisenhower
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, asked Winston Churchill to send a delegation of British parliamentarians to Buchenwald.

The delegation strode through the gates, above which hung a sign in German: “Recht oder unrecht-mein Vaterland” (My country right or wrong) was the ominous welcoming message. It was April 21st, 1945. Buchenwald had been liberated by the U.S. Army ten days earlier. This was the first time the West was able to directly access the Nazi camps. “Our objective was to ‘find out the truth,’ while the evidence was still fresh,” Driberg wrote in the report.

The barracks and huts of Buchenwald were now visible. “It is badly laid out, on sloping uneven ground.” Driberg wrote of the camp, “The walls and paths are ill kept; at the time of our visit they were covered with dust, which blew about in the wind, and in wet weather the camp must be deep in mud.”

Buchenwald barracks
The barracks at Buchenwald concentration camp.

Colorful slogans were being painted on the sides of the buildings, greeting the liberating soldiers in different languages. A life-size effigy of Hitler hung from a gibbet, adorned with the words “Hitler must die that Germany may live” in German. Many of the former prisoners were still here. The report notes that a “certain number” had already left, but thousands were still too weak to travel.

Driberg described the attempts of the delegation members to communicate with the former prisoners. While two of the members spoke German, there  were plenty of English speakers among the inmates – “Many were unable to speak: they lay in a semi-coma, or following us with their eyes. Others spoke freely, displaying sores and severe scars and bruises which could have been caused by kicks and blows. They lay on the floor on and under quilts… in a state of extreme emaciation.”

Buchenwald was not an official death camp, but death was no stranger here – “a policy of steady starvation and inhuman brutality” had been carried out at the facility. The basic daily ration consisted of “a bowl of watery soup and a chunk of dry bread.” The report cites figures that state that, by April 1945, 51,572 people had died or were killed at Buchenwald, or were removed and immediately killed at one of the subsidiary extermination camps.

Slave laboreres in the Buchenwald concentration camp
Slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Eli Wiesel can be seen in the second row, seventh from left. Photo by Private H. Miller, US Army.

The grim scenes and somber mood stood in contrast to a sense of relief and even happiness that was also present among some of the survivors following their liberation: “One half-naked skeleton, tottering painfully along the passage as though on stilts, drew himself up when he saw our party, smiled, and saluted.” Though treatment was now being given to the victims of the horrors, for many it came too late; 35 people died at Buchenwald on the day before the delegation’s visit.

The worst cases of maltreatment were being treated in one of the few huts that did not have a dirt floor. When the Nazis still ran the camp, this building housed the only women living on the compound. They were brought to Buchenwald from other camps and “induced by threats and promises of better treatment, to become prostitutes, but were subsequently killed.” This had once been the camp brothel, “to which the higher-grade prisoners – those employed in various supervisory jobs, with extra rations and other privileges – were allowed to resort for twenty minutes at a time.”

Driberg described seeing a laboratory “with a large number of glass jars containing preserved specimens of human organs.” He mentioned “experiments in sterilization” performed on Jews, noting that two members of the delegation had seen the unmistakable scars on one of the victims. He and his colleagues were told of “articles made of human skin,” collected by Frau Koch, the wife of the German camp commander. One such item which Driberg saw with his own eyes “clearly formed part of a lampshade.”

The report mentions several of the inmates by name, including 19-year-old Joseph Berman, who had been through several Nazi camps. In one he lost a forefinger when an annoyed Nazi guard pushed his hand into a machine. Driberg would later help the Latvian-born Berman immigrate to Britain and find work. In the coming years he would provide testimony of Nazi crimes in the Baltic States. The delegation also met 14-year-old Abraham Kirchenblatt of Radom, Poland who “impressed members of our party as an intelligent and reliable witness; he stated that he had seen his 18-year-old brother shot and his parents taken away, he believed for cremation: he never saw them again.”

A liberated Russian survivor identifies a Nazi guard, who had participated in the beating of prisoners at Buchenwald.
A liberated Russian survivor identifies a Nazi guard, who had participated in the beating of prisoners at Buchenwald.

Indeed, death was the fate which awaited those of the prisoners who were deemed “useless” or who proved too stubborn to manage. “Hanging appears to have been the regular method of killing,” wrote Driberg. There was one gibbet in the yard, “near a pile of white ashes,” while another was found in the mortuary basement, where the delegation members were also shown a heavy blood-stained club used for knocking out “any who died too slowly.” From the basement, the bodies were transferred to a crematorium on the ground floor using an electric lift.

Buchenwald crematorium
The Buchenwald crematorium. Photo by Pfc. W. Chichersky, US Army

Outside the crematorium, the delegation members were shown carts filled with bodies of prisoners who had died of hunger or disease. These corpses were still waiting for burial. General Eisenhower had personally ordered that the German inhabitants of the nearby areas provide for the individual burial of each body “with their own hands.” Indeed, groups of German civilians were being brought in daily “to see what had been done in their name and in their midst.”

Several different inmates told the delegation that conditions were far worse in other camps, particularly those in Eastern Europe, with Auschwitz (liberated by the Soviets less than three months earlier) being described as the worst of all.

“Such camps as this mark the lowest point of degradation to which humanity has yet descended.” Driberg wrote in the report’s closing remarks, “The memory of what we saw at Buchenwald will haunt us ineffaceably for many years.”



Amy Simon, a cataloguer in the National Library’s Foreign Languages Department, contributed to this article.

The Man Who Developed Krav Maga to Defend Against Anti-Semitic Attacks

Imre Lichtenfeld developed Krav Maga as a method of defensive street fighting against anti-Semitic attacks in the city formerly known as Pressburg.

Krav Maga

Pressburg is the historical name of Bratislava, today the capital of Slovakia, a place with a rich Jewish history that was interrupted about 70 years ago. The city is unique in its location, sharing borders with two other countries – Hungary and Austria- which also used to have large Jewish populations. The famous Pressburg yeshiva no longer exists in the city but if you stroll through Jerusalem today, you may come across a yeshiva there named after the original one in Pressburg. You are also sure to see at least one street named in honor of the more famous residents of Pressburg, including the Chatam Sofer, a leading rabbi of European Jewry in the early 19th century, and Imre Lichtenfeld, the founder of Krav Maga.

1925 Pressburg Jewish Ghetto The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The Pressburg Jewish Ghetto in 1925. Image from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

There is still a Jewish presence maintained in Bratislava in modern times, despite the fact that the large and very impressive synagogue was destroyed due to the construction of a new bridge in the 1960s under communist rule. A tram line was also built through the former Jewish cemetery though several tombs were preserved, including that of Moshe Schreiber, otherwise known as the Chatam Sofer. Jews from all over the world who flock to Bratislava to visit his grave get off the tram at the stop named “Chatam Sofer.”

Chatam Sofer tram stop in Bratislava. Image croutesy of Dominika Sedlakova.
Chatam Sofer tram stop in Bratislava. Image courtesy of Dominika Sedlakova.

The memorial for the Chatam Sofer, the last remaining synagogue in the city and the Museum of Jewish Culture can be visited for free during the European Days of Jewish Culture festival, which takes place every year on the first Sunday of September. There is a temporary exhibition in the Museum dedicated to Imre Lichtenfeld or Imre Sde´Or, a founder of the Israeli self-defense art of Krav Maga, who spent an important and defining part of his life in Bratislava. Krav Maga has today become a popular sport but was originally taught for self-defense and survival in the streets of the Pressburg Jewish quarter.

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Imre Lichtenfeld was born in Budapest in 1910 but spent his childhood in Bratislava. It was in the late 1930s, in reaction to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish riots in Bratislava, that he came up with the idea to transform street fighting into a proper style of self-defense. In May of 1940, following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and the splitting up of the nation, Imre managed to escape the country and the hands of the Nazis on a steamboat called Pentcho headed for the Land of Israel. This river-boat was not built to be used on the open sea but those on board did not have any other option. The Pentcho shipwrecked on the Greek Dodecanese Islands and Imri, along with several other survivors, were saved by the British. Imre ended up in Egypt which was under British control. After serving time in the Free Czech Legion, he was released and he was finally able to travel to the Land of Israel where he began training members of Haganah and the police force in 1944.

Jewish street in Bratislava The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
A Jewish street in Bratislava. Image from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

With the foundation of the State of Israel, Imre trained soldiers as the Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga in physical fitness, knife fighting, street fighting, and swimming. He served in the military for twenty years, always refining his methodologies for hand-to-hand combat. It was after his retirement that he developed the style of fighting for civilian use as well, and Krav Maga gained global popularity. Imre Lichtenfeld died in 1998 at the age of 88.

Imre Lichtenfeld exhibit
Poster for the Imre Lichtenfeld exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava. Image courtesy of Dominika Sedlakova.

If you find yourself visiting Bratislava nowadays, you may have to look a little closer to find the Jewish presence but it certainly is alive and thriving. There are theological classes available and a renewal of Yiddish culture and music is also apparent, with bands reviving old Jewish songs from before the World War II era. While Jews no longer represent twelve percent of the population as they used to, a visit to the city will allow you to experience a still vibrant and lively Jewish culture.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond in cooperation with Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies.

The Hungarian Noble Family That Took in the Exiled Jews

The Hungarian noble Batthyány family claims to have roots reaching back to the founding of Hungary. The family is said to be descended from the famous chieftain Kővágó-Örs, first mentioned in a document from the year 970 AC.

Order bearing the secret seal of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary regarding Berthold Elderbach/Ellerbach of Monyorókerék. Buda, 1470.

Count Lajos Batthyány served as Hungary's first Prime Minister in 1848. His image here is from a portrait in the Hungarian National Museum.

The Batthyány Family was an aristocratic family that served as a meeting point of different social classes between the 16th and 20th centuries and contributed greatly to the continuity of the previously Turkish-splintered Hungary, not only with their private armies and bodies of governance, but also through their contributions to Hungarian cultural, educational, political and medical history. In 1848, Count Lajos Batthyány even served as the first Prime Minister of Hungary. Today, the famous “Batthyány tér,” a square in Budapest, preserves the family’s memory.

The Batthyány family’s existence is continuously verifiable from 1398 when the Esztergomer Captain György Kővágóörsi received the estate of Batthyán with the market town Polgárdi from King Sigismund for his services in the fight against the Turks. For hundreds of years, the coat of arms of the Batthyány family was a pelican feeding his chicks with his own blood and a sword carrying lion below it.

Batthyanys Coat of Arm
Boldizsár and Benedek Batthyány’s Coat of Arms received from Ulászló the Second on December 12th, 1500 in Buda

Batthyanys newer Coat of Arms
The coat of arms went through some small changes over the centuries, but its central motif remained the same. Later, the lower part was bordered by a ribbon, that read in Latin, “FIDELITATE ET FORTITUDINE” (with fidelity and courage).

In the second half of the 17th century, when Emperor Leopold the First expelled the Jews from lower Austria and later forbade them from settling in the royal cities, the Batthyánys were among the major landowners, in addition to the noble Esterházy and Zichy families, who welcomed and accepted the Jews, allowing them to settle on their properties in the western part of Hungary as they saw a potential economic advantage in their presence in the local economic life. Typically, once the Jews settled down in the villages of the large estates and in the centers of the capital, they got actively involved in the economic life of the estate.

The first group of Jews came mainly from the Jewish communities of Nikolsburg and Uherský Brod (Magyarbród). The Jews were accommodated and resettled by Esterházy in Sopron county in the well-known “Seven Communities” (Sheva Kehilot) of the Eisenstadt (Kismarton) estate. In Rohonc (Rechnitz), on the Batthyánys estate was established in 1687 the first large Jewish community with more than 30 families. Their lives were governed by a letter of privilege received from the Batthyány landlords. The privileges provided by the Batthyány family, which laid down the duties and rights of Jews, were also used as a model for communities established in subsequent settlements.

Contrary to the seemingly positive attitude of the Batthyány family towards the Jews, the castle in Rohonc has a sad World War II history that is described in the British journalist David R. L. Litchtfield’s article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2007, as well in Swiss journalist Sacha Batthyany’s book “A Crime in the Family” that was published in 2017. Rohonc had been the property of the Batthyánys since the 16th century, but in the 19th-century, the property was transferred to the possession of the Thyssen family. In the 1930s, Count Iván Batthyány married the Rohonc born Margit Thyssen-Bornemisza and Rohonc returned to the Batthyány family.

In the spring of 1945, a party was held at the Castle of Rohonc on Palm Sunday evening (24th March). One hundred and eighty Jewish Hungarian forced laborers were murdered and buried in mass graves during the party. These 180 Jews were among the 600 Jews brought to the Burgenland settlement in Rohonc for the construction of the south-east rampart with the purpose of holding back the advancing Red Army. The mass shooting of 180 Jewish men who were found “unfit for work,” was ordered by Margit’s lover and Nazi sympathizer Joachim Oldenburg and by Franz Podezin, the NSDAP Commander of Rohonc, who freely and purposefully handed out guns to the partygoers. Fifteen of the Jewish prisoners were left alive and were tasked with digging the mass grave for the victims. After they completed their task, the fifteen survivors became victims and were murdered by Podezin and Oldenburg. With the completion of the shootings, the party guests went back to the castle to continue the celebrations with drink and dance. The otherwise immaculate name of the Batthyánys was disreputed following these events. Margit and her husband lived a long life in Bad Homburg in Germany. After their deaths in 1985 and 1989 respectively, the other members of the Batthyány family did not allow the couple to be buried in the family crypt.

The Batthyány Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Batthyány Collection at the National Library of Israel consists of 76 archival files (ARC. 4* 2013 – Batthyány family collection).

These files include about 200 records in Latin, German, Hungarian and Czech and include letters (correspondence), resolutions, orders, certificates and other administrative documents dealing with properties of all kind created by the Batthyány family members or other European medieval noblemen, kings, emperors and administrative workers between 1470 and 1868. It seems that none of these documents are connected to the Jews or their matters.

The Batthyány Family Collection includes documents from the second half of the 15th century issued by various kings and royal officials. The timeframe of the collection begins with this period and stretches all the way to the second half of the 19th century. The collection includes various paraphernalia, documents on heritage issues and other administrative documents that relate to the family’s elaborate mansions. The correspondence includes not only discussions with the most prominent personalities of the time but also communications with high official servants, domestic serfs and property governors who turned to the landlords during the course of their routine tasks, providing us with documentation of the problems of everyday life of that time. Among the administrative documentation from the 16th and 19th centuries are representations of the Ortenegg, Város-Szalónak, Rohonc, Németújvár, Körmend, Ördöglika, and Hidegkút estates. The documents issued in the 18th century have a political and military character and include several matters regarding the Batthyány family members who were prominent in their national positions.

The majority of the documents are clearly related to the Batthyánys and their affairs, however, there are also a number of private letters and official documents which could not be linked directly to the family. Their possible direct or indirect relation to the family has not been disproven but any attempt to reveal this connection may require a deeper knowledge of the Batthyány family tree and its history.

Despite their age, the documents, written on parchment and paper, are in relatively good shape but some of them will undergo special conservation treatment at the National Library in the near future. Because of the sensitivity of these archival materials to humidity and other climate conditions and because of their high historical value and importance, the Batthyány Family Collection is kept in the Library’s Rare Collections Department.

The collection now found in the National Library of Israel completes the archive of Batthyány family in Hungary, which is massive and well known, serving as a major source of information for many historians.  Unfortunately, the archive suffered many misfortunes including damage caused by Soviet soldiers in Körmend during World War II and fire damage during the revolution of 1956 in Budapest. Today it is kept at the National Library of Hungary in Budapest (Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár) including almost 212 meters of archival material created between 1501-1944.

Here are some examples of the interesting historical documents of the Batthyány Family Collection at the National Library of Israel:

Matyas kiraly
Order bearing the secret seal of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary regarding Berthold Elderbach/Ellerbach from Monyorókerék. Buda, 1470.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 02


Elisabeth Swetkowitz
An agreement to divide the estate of Elisabeth Batthyány (née Swetkowitz, wife of Kristóf Battyhány) written by the Austrian inheritance advisor Marshal Wilhelm von Puchaim. Vienna, 09.06.1535

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 05


Anna Lemberg
Inventory of silver, clothes, garments and other property of Anna Szwetkowitz, widow of Joseph von Lemberg. Ortenegg, 04.03.1558.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 09


Balthasar Literatus Schytarocky
Testimony in Latin signed by Balthasar Boldizsár III Batthyány. Nikolsburg, 16.04.1572. Many of his letters are declared lost. Boldizsár had a great passion for books and had about one thousand of them in his personal library.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 14


Bethlen Gabor Thurzo Imre
Letter from the king of Hungary and Prince of Transylvania, Gábor Bethlen to Count Betlenfalvi Imre Thurzó, about an event planned for 16.03.1621. The letter mentions, among others, Friedrich V, Elector Palatinate of the Rhine.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 18


Komornyik István
One letter from the Bailiff István Komornyik to Count Ádám Batthyány reporting on matters concerning escaped bondservants, cattle, debts, Turkish prisoners, battles, etc. Veszprém, 24.03.1639.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 21


Miklós Postákovich
A contract concerning the leasing of family property in Hidegkút involving Ambrosio Ludwig von Reichhardtsperg, Miklós Postákovich, Cristoph Batthyány etc. Koschendorf, 13.06.1696. The document includes a financial redemption for the leased estate (additional text) for 300 florins signed by Augustin Reichhartperg in Güssing on 26.05.1745 (note the difference in years).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 40


Miklós Postákovich
A similar contract concerning the leasing of family property in Hidegkút involving Ambrosio Ludwig von Reichhartsberg, etc. Güssing, 20.08.1696. The document also includes the redemption of the leased estate for a fee of 1000 florins from Augustin Reichhartperg signed also in Güssing on 26.05.1745 (note the difference in years).

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 40


Güssinger Zeitung 1930

Güssinger Zeitung 1930
An article in the Güssinger Zeitung newspaper from 21.09.1930 that mentions the redemption of a previously leased (1696) Batthyány family property in Hidegkút for 300 florins in 1745.


Batthyány Eleonora
Instructions from Eleonora Batthyány to the Prefect Sámuel Palotai concerning money matters – rental, sale and credit contracts with the Dominican priests in the city of Sopron (Ödenburg), Steinamanger, etc. Vienna, 15.02.1713.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 47


László Ignác Bercsényi
A barely legible Hungarian letter from László Ignác Bercsényi to count Ferenc Batthyány concerning a future meeting in Rohonc. Szombathely, 10.05.1714.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 48


Galánthai József Esterházy
A letter from Galánthai József Esterházy in Vienna to the Hungarian chancellor Count Lajos Batthyány of Német-Újvár. Cseklész (today Bernolákovo), 15.02.1739.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 51


Maria Theresia - Philipp von Batthyány
Imperial mandate signed by the Holy Roman Empress, Queen of Hungary, Maria Theresia (Theresa) given to Count Philipp von Batthyány (1731-1795), youngest son of Ludwig von Batthyány, allowing him to serve in the Széchenyi Husar Regiment as Lieutenant Colonel. Vienna, 10.10.1760.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 60


Count Philipp von Batthyány
Imperial decree appointing Count Philipp von Batthyány (1731-1795), youngest son of Ludwig von Batthyány, to the rank of Major-General (General Major) and as a member of the Secret Council on a trial basis. Vienna, 08.08.1771.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 65


Karl Carl von Batthyány
Notes on purchased property matters written and signed by Karl (Carl) von Batthyány, Lord of Güssing. Güssing, 30.09.1792. On the same document: additional property notes dated 18.01.1827 in Güssing concerning Johann Batthyány and Philipp Batthyány.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 68


Gábor Sényi
A letter from Gábor Sényi, prince Fülöp Batthyány’s governor of goods, to the property office in Körmend concerning the rental of the premises of the castle of Körmend and the sale of horses and wool from the lordships of Kanizsa and Ludbreg. Vienna, 18.06.1852.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 71


Holic - Goods and Property Administration in Körmend
Two letters from the Imperial Royal Administrative Office in Holitsch (Holíč) to the Goods and Property Administration in Körmend concerning an auction, etc. 09.06.1854.

Link to the record of the above document: ARC* 4. 2031 / 73


The Batthyány Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

How Anti-Semitism Robbed the Jewish Miss Europe of Her Crown

Erzsébet Simon faced extreme anti-Semitism despite the glory she brought to her homeland.

Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon

Erzsébet Simon, image from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

With the conclusion of the First World War and the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary underwent a period of extreme instability and political unrest.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and Hungary was reborn as an independent republic, bringing about a period of tremendous upheaval. The country struggled politically, economically and culturally to rebuild and regain its status and position among its neighbors. After years of dramatic changes, in 1929, Hungary finally enjoyed a taste of normalcy, hosting the first-ever Miss Hungary beauty pageant with the hopes that, after years of ugly political unrest, the nation could return to its former beauty.

There was a spark of excitement in the air as the competition kicked off on January 6, 1929. Two hundred and eighteen candidates stepped forward to compete in the first ever nation-wide beauty competition to take place in the country. Among the crowd of beauty queens stood Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon, a young Jewish girl born in 1909 to Sándor Simon, a prominent man and the chief physician of their small town of Keszthely. Böske took to the stage and immediately captured the spotlight, standing out from the crowd of contestants with her bright blue eyes and striking blonde hair that made up her classic beauty. She quickly rose to the top of the competition, winning the hearts of the audience and the judges. Erzsébet Simon was crowned Miss Hungary and declared to be the most beautiful girl in the country.

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Along with the glory and honor that came with winning the top prize in her homeland, the crown of Miss Hungary granted Böske entry into the Miss Europe pageant. She traveled from Hungary to Paris where, on February 18, 1929, she competed against sixteen other beauty queens from across the continent. Fighting against the odds, the most beautiful girl in Hungary was crowned the most beautiful girl in Europe. Hungary returned to center stage with Böske bringing great honor to her country. She was congratulated by the highest of society in France and was showered with praise by the President of the French Republic, artists, celebrities and diplomats.

Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon
Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon, Image from the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

A month after taking the crown of Europe, Simon finally returned home from Paris. She was greeted by cheering crowds as thousands came out to see her and celebrate her triumph in the name of Hungary. She was congratulated by the Mayor of Budapest who thanked her for sharing her beauty and reclaiming the glory of her nation from its opponents in the Great War.

Unfortunately for Böske, not everyone was pleased with her victory. Simon quickly discovered that no level of success could win over the hearts of the anti-Semites. During the welcoming ceremony at the train station, she was heckled by several anti-Semitic members of the crowd who called out “Miss Palestine,” and “filthy Jew,” though their shouts were largely ignored.

Erzsébet (Elisabeth) “Böske” Simon
Erzsébet “Böske” Simon, image from the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Simon chose not to do many public events and instead decided she would host only one autograph signing appearance to be held on March 17, 1929, an event that was interrupted by crowds of anti-Semitic demonstrators who arrived to protest. She was verbally attacked by the crowd who jeered and booed her calling her an “ugly Jewess” and an “untrue Hungarian.” Later that same day, a group of nationalist students protested outside Böske’s apartment, shouting anti-Semitic slurs against her and the Jewish people as a whole.

The crown of Miss Europe granted Böske entry into the Miss Universe pageant scheduled to take place in Texas that year. Due to political pressures and continued anti-Semitism, she gave up her spot in the competition along with several acting job offers she had received from the United States. The severe anti-Semitism she faced drove Erzsébet Simon to retire from public life giving up a future of fame and fortune.

After a whirlwind entry to the world stage, Erzsébet quietly exited stage left in favor of a more simple and quiet life as a citizen of her country. She married a young man named Pál Brammer who worked in the textile industry but they divorced shortly after. Erzsébet married for the second time a little while later. Her second husband, Daniel Job, was a theatre director and the couple survived the Holocaust together in Budapest. They were spared from the deportations and the violence though other members of their families were not as fortunate.

Daniel Job died in 1950 and Erzsébet Simon, the most beautiful woman in Europe, died on October 8, 1970 from health complications.


More on the subject: The Year of Jewish Beauty Queens

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.