The Holocaust-Era Hero Who Became the Mayor of Hell

Miksa Domonkos, a Hungarian war hero who saved countless lives in the Budapest Ghetto during the Holocaust, was tortured to death under false pretenses.

Miksa Domonkos at the Italian front, Trento, Italy, 1916. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

The following story was collected by Centropa in an interview with István Domonkos, the son of Miksa Domonkos. István’s full oral history interview can be read here. 

For more than 40 years Miksa Domonkos unknowingly trained for the moment when he was needed most.  He became a hero, a genuine Hungarian hero, and like so many heroes in Hungary’s history, he paid a steep price for his sacrifice.

A road in Budapest, Hungary. This postcard is from the early 20th-century. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Domonkos was born in 1890 in Zsambek. Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, and Miksa spoke perfect German. He studied in Berlin and in 1910 when the first commercial tractors were being sold in Europe, he went to work for Caterpillar.

When the First World War began, he took his ability to work with trucks and tractors and went to serve the nation. He quickly rose through the ranks, from private to ensign to first lieutenant. He was wounded several times, after recovering from the injury, he would always return to the war front.

Miksa Domonkos at a tractor show in Budapest, Hungary, 1930. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

In 1918, Miksa married Gabriella Rozsa and they had three children, Peter, Istvan, and Anna. But the marriage didn’t last, and a few years later, Miksa married Stefania Szabo. He went back to work for tractor companies and was extremely successful.

When the world economic crisis started in America in 1929 and spread its way to Europe, Hungary was hit hard. As new governments were elected they seemed to move ever more to the right. The situation worsened in 1938, as one anti-Jewish law after another was passed. Miksa lost his job and became a traveling salesman.

Istvan and Peter, the sons of Miksa Domonkos, 1932. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

When Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he expected the Italians, the Romanians, and the Hungarians to join him in his fight. Jews went too, in unarmed labor brigades. In 1942, Miksa’s son Peter was sent to a labor brigade in Ukraine where he died at the early age of 22. Istvan also went into forced labor in the mountains, working through the summer heat and raging winters.

Map of Budapest, 1942 from the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel.

In 1944, Miksa was unemployed. As a Jew, he was unemployable. One day, he met with the leader of the Jewish community, Sandor Eppler. Eppler knew about Miksa Domonkos—the decorated soldier of the First World War. He knew that in 1935, he had become a Captain in the Reserves. Miksa Domonkos was hired and began arranging supplies to be sent to young Jews in forced labor brigades. He had soon turned the Jewish Museum into a warehouse for blankets, canned food, and medicine.

On March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary. Throughout the country, Jews were soon forced to wear the yellow star. Adolf Eichmann, with the help of the Hungarian government, the Hungarian gendarme and police very quickly arranged the deportation of 437,000 Jews from all provinces and outer districts of Pest directly to the death camps in German-occupied Poland.

Captain Miksa Domonkos, 1938. Photo by Color Photo Salon, VI, courtesy of Centropa.

In July 1944, a Swedish diplomat by the name of Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest and he soon began to save Jews by issuing them Swedish protective passes and later setting up safe houses.

Tens of thousands of Jews were sent out on death marches, and 75,000 people were forced into a very crowded ghetto in the center of Budapest as the Soviet Army began to surround the city.

This is when Miksa Domonkos became the man everyone depended on—he became the de-facto mayor of the ghetto—the mayor of hell.

Every day, even while soldiers guarded the ghetto, Miksa donned his uniform, polished his buttons and went to work. He was among those with permission not to wear the yellow star meaning he was able to move freely throughout the city. He used his army contacts to the best of his ability, reaching out to those who still respected the army that he had so faithfully served. They answered his calls, and when they could, they helped.

The Raoul Wallenberg Memorial in Budapest, Hungary 1988. Photo from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He ordered the workers of the community to distribute what little food he could find. They set up medical offices so doctors could care for the sick. They arranged for their own ghetto police, to keep order. And then arranged to bury the dead. All the while Raoul Wallenberg distributed forged documents to say Jews were under Swedish protection.

The Soviet Army entered Budapest, and on January 18, 1945, the ghetto was liberated. The great and grand city of Budapest was a war-ravaged wreck. It was then that Raoul Wallenberg went out to meet the Soviet Army—and vanished, never to be seen again.

From 1945 to 1948, things began to look up. Miksa went to work for the Jewish community and was highly decorated for all he had done during the war, but he had seen too much and in 1950, Miksa stepped down from his duties, exhausted.

Hungary—once an integral part of Europe—had now become a hardline Stalinist state. And the Russians were feeling the heat as the search for Wallenberg intensified. In April of 1953, Miksa was arrested and falsely accused of killing Raul Wallenberg. Miksa Domonkos, a decorated soldier of the First World War and hero of the Budapest ghetto, was tortured for six months by the communists to confess to murdering Wallenberg until there was nothing left of him.

Miksa Domonkos at his decoration ceremony in the Budapest Parliament in 1947. Photo by Photopress, Karoly Falus, VIII. Kisfaludy Street 4, courtesy of Centropa.

In November 1953, when it was clear he was dying, they dumped him in a hospital and Miksa passed away shortly after. Miksa Domonkos was quietly buried in the Jewish cemetery and, two years later, when the Hungarians rose up against the Soviets, the heroes of that failed revolution were buried just over the wall from Miksa.

Miksa Domonkos spent his whole life in service. He was a man of conviction who was always determined to do the right thing—and when he walked into the Budapest Ghetto every day, armed only with his elegant uniform and those glittering medals, he went to do the job he was hired to do—the job he had been born to do.

Watch this video produced by Centropa for the full testimonial as told by Istvan Domonkos, the son of Miksa Domonkos. 

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.


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