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.

The 13th Century Manuscript That Was Saved From the Nazis

The Worms Mahzor, written in the late 13th century, was spared the destruction of the Holocaust after it was smuggled away from the Gestapo and hidden in one of the city’s cathedral towers.

November 10, 1938, the morning after Kristallnacht.

Shattered glass glittered in the streets and the smoking remains of Jewish businesses and synagogues stood as witness to the violence and rampant destruction instigated by the Nazi mobs the previous evening. An eerie quiet fell on the streets of Germany that morning following the arrest and deportation of 30,000 Jews from their homes to the concentration camps where they would await their fate. Fear gripped the hearts of the Jewish community as its members surveyed the damage and questioned their safety and what the future held in store.

Dr. Freidrich M. Illert, the director of the local cultural institutions and the archivist of the city of Worms, immediately recognized that the extent of the damage was far beyond what most could perceive. It wasn’t just the physical businesses and places of worship that had been lost in the fires; the historical documents and archives of the Jewish community may very well have been included among the victims. The Great Synagogue of Worms had gone up in flames and he feared that, along with the building, the community’s archive which contained irreplaceable historical documents and books may have also been lost.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

Included in the archive was the Worms Mahzor, a set of manuscripts consisting of two volumes, one that was written in 1272 and a second that was written in 1280. The two-volume set was used by the cantors of the community to lead the congregation of the Great Synagogue of Worms in the traditional holiday prayer services for centuries.

The two volumes were written by different scribes and it is not absolutely clear where they were written. The first volume was written by the scribe Simcha ben Yehuda and in the prayers for the seventh day of Passover, a marginal note reads: “This is said aloud on that day, such is the rite of Würzburg.” Based on this notation as well as the illustrations included in the manuscript which bare resemblance to other documents originating from that region, it is believed the volume originated from the area of Würzburg.


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Written on parchment in decorative Ashkenazic calligraphy, the Mahzor features illustrations and embellishments drawn in colorful inks. Over the years, different cantors as late as the 14th century had added their own notations to the first volume showing that the Mahzor had been used in prayer services for centuries.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

The 13th-century manuscript also contains the oldest known sample of written Yiddish. The scribe of the Mahzor wrote a blessing for the man who carried the weighty book to the synagogue for prayer services. Hidden in the letters of the prayer for dew traditionally recited on Passover, the blessing reads, “Let a good day shine for him, who will carry this Mahzor to the synagogue.”

The blessing for the carrier of the Mahzor hidden inside the letters, “B’daato.” From the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

During his desperate search for information, Dr. Illert discovered that the community archive had been spared the inferno that destroyed the Great Synagogue but the whereabouts of the archive and how it had survived remained a mystery. He sought the help of the Worms municipality and the Hesse State government in tracking down the archive but, despite his greatest efforts, his search proved futile.

Years later, in the summer of 1943, Dr. Illert was invited to the palace in Darmstadt by the local Gestapo officials to help decipher foreign manuscripts. He was led down the stairs of the palace to the basement to view the books. After just a cursory glance at what lay in front of him, Dr. Illert realized he was looking at the archives of the Jewish community of Worms. After a quick search, he discovered that buried deep in the pile of books and documents lay the two volumes of the precious Worms Mahzor.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

Dr. Illert was determined to rescue the archives and the historical documents from likely destruction at the hands of the Nazis. At great personal risk, he began slowly and methodically removing items from the basement, transferring the archive to the towers of one of the city’s cathedrals for safekeeping, a decision that also spared the documents from destruction when the allied forces bombed the city.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

The archive, along with the Mahzor, survived the horrors of the war and in 1956, legal negotiations began in the hopes of transferring the Worms archive to Israel. In June of 1957, the two-volume Mahzor was brought to the National Library of Israel for preservation and safekeeping and the rest of the archive of the Jewish community of Worms was transferred to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish people.

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.

The Hero from Třebíč Who Saved 900 Children During the Holocaust

The annual Shamayim festival held in Třebíč honors Antonín Kalina who was posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp

It is the only Jewish site included on the UNESCO world heritage list that is not in Israel. It was almost demolished during the time of the communist regime and was saved in part thanks to another minority that lived there after the Jews left or perished.

Třebíč or Trebitsch is a town in the Czech Republic with a unique, well preserved former Jewish quarter. Unfortunately, this rich Jewish community was destroyed during World War II and the later regimes did not really support any religion – especially not after the war. However, locals still call that part of the town “Židy,” a word that means Jews, or “v Židech,” meaning in the Jewish area, despite the fact that the area boasts a different official name.

Postcard of a Street in the Jewish Quarter of Třebíč, The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This hidden gem was rediscovered in the late 1980s and reconstruction and repairs have since begun. One of the uncovered synagogues was used at one point as a warehouse to store leathers. Later on, it would house fruits and vegetables. As a result, the restorers had no shortage of work to do.

Nowadays the quarter draws all kinds of tourists, not just those looking for traces of Jewish history. Many cultural festivals and events are held in the area, the most famous of these is the festival of Jewish culture known as “Samajim,” pronounced “Shamayim” (Heavens, in English), which is held every year at the end of July and beginning of August. The former Jewish quarter becomes full of life again during this week-long festival. There are lectures about Jewish traditions, history, and literature, as well as concerts by a variety of bands from Central and Eastern Europe. You can also taste a range of traditional Jewish delicacies. Some of the faces become familiar as people return year after year.

The Jewish Cemetery of Třebíč, Photo by Dominika Sedlakova

The festival is dedicated to a man named Antonín Kalina. Antonín was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations after his death in 2012 for his heroic work during the Holocaust.

Kalina, who was born in Třebíč in 1902 became a member of the communist party in 1923. Due to his political activism, he was arrested in 1939 by the Nazis and was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. A month later he was transferred to Buchenwald.

Antonín Kalina

With the help of the underground movement in the camp, Kalina risked his own life to help the children of Buchenwald. He worked to relocate the children from their barracks on the other side of the camp to his. The Nazis avoided this area for fear of catching disease after Kalina put up a sign reading, “Danger: Typhoid.” He managed to bring food and clothing to the children he had smuggled away and protected them from the harsh conditions of the camp as much as possible until the end of the war.

Kalina is credited with saving 900 children in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Following the war and his release from the camp, Kalina returned to his hometown of Třebíč where he lived until his death in 1990.

Program for the 2018 Samajim (Shamayim) Festival, Courtesy of Domina Sedlakova

Naftali Furst is one of the many children who owes his life to Antonín Kalina and he attended this year’s Samajim festival to honor his memory. Naftali was born in Slovakia but he left to move to Israel after the Second World War. Speaking in Slovak tinged with a slight Hebrew accent, he spoke in memory of Antonín Kalina. He told of how the children would “cook” in the barracks in Buchenwald. This activity did not consist of any actual food. Rather, the children would simply share memories of their favorite dishes and deserts, with one boy preferring poppy seed cake and another recalling cakes topped with apples or nuts. They all hoped to taste them again after the war.

Třebíč, Photo by Dominika Sedlakova

The week-long festival came to a close with a concert in tribute to the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia, being celebrated this year. The concert featured a chorus of thirty-five people from all over Slovakia and some parts of the Czech Republic, with people joining together to dance in the restored synagogue.  After the concert, the audience was invited to continue the festivities outside in the Romanesque-gothic basilica from the 13th century near the Jewish quarter.

This was the 15th iteration of the festival and we look forward to next years’ experience. We hope you can join us to learn more about the rich Jewish heritage here – as they say, Shana Haba’ah B’Třebíč – Next year in Třebíč!

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 Special Needs Educator Who was Murdered by the Nazis

Meet Sally and Rebeka Bein who ran an educational institution for Jewish children with special needs during the Holocaust, and were eventually killed along with the children by the Nazis.

Sally Bein (background) with some of the institution's children. Photo:  Arthur Feiner, Courtesy of Degmar Drobs

In the early 20th century, in the heart of a pine forest in eastern Germany, a one of a kind institution was established – an educational facility for Jewish children with special needs. The director of this institution, set up in October 1908 near the town of Beelitz, was a 27-year-old Jewish man by the name of Sally (Samuel) Bein, who until then had worked as a teacher for deaf and mute children.

Sally Bein. Photo:  Arthur Feiner, Courtesy of Degmar Drobs

The facility (known as the Israelitische Erziehungsanstalt Wilhelm-Auguste-Viktoria-Stiftung) accepted children ranging from preschool aged to adolescents, most of them with special needs of various types. Others were sent there because of domestic issues at home and an inability of their parents to take care of them, while later on more children arrived because of limitations on the number of Jews allowed at ordinary schools. Sally Bein sought to receive them all, and integrate the different groups, a view that was quite ahead of its time.

In the beginning Sally and his wife Rebeka were the only teachers at the facility, but as the years went by more staff members joined the team, including three additional teachers and a teaching assistant, a cook, a caretaker and a gardener, all of whom contributed to the children’s education in addition to their regular work. Pupils would spend about two years at the institution, during which they studied academic subjects like Hebrew, German, history, and arithmetic, but a heavy emphasis was also placed on more mundane life skills and practices, including proper codes of social conduct, guidelines on order and cleanliness, as well as various arts and crafts like carpentry, cooking, and gardening.

A carpentry class (Photo taken from an album belonging to Arthur Feiner, a teacher at the institution)

Studies took place in a Jewish atmosphere, with Bible classes, observation of the Sabbath and dietary laws of Kosher, as well as the celebration of Jewish holidays. Day trips and games would take place during free time with the participation of all children, and no separation by gender or age, nor any consideration for cognitive differences among them. Throughout the years nearly 400 children studied at the institution, with most of them able to eventually move on to ordinary high schools or to find work. Bein’s achievements gained him a worldwide reputation, with doctors and educators from across Europe and even pre-state Israel coming to visit and learn his work methods.


Rebeka Bein (Photographer unknown)

The skies over the school began to darken in 1933, with the coming to power of the Nazi party. Sally Bein was forced to contend with constant attempts by local authorities to disrupt the institution’s activity and shut it down. The main complaint was that the facility and its children were perceived as a stain on the local population – a supposed negative influence on tourists who visited the area. When the Nazis began their extermination programs, the institution’s fate was sealed. Under the Third Reich, Jewish special needs children had no right to exist.

In April of 1942, nearly 30 children and staff members were sent away to the Warsaw Ghetto. Sally could by then sense the direction the wind was blowing, yet decided to stay put, though he and his family held visas that would have allowed them to leave Germany. In the months that followed, the last hopes of survival were dashed. On the 13th of June, 1942, a “shipment to the East” left Berlin. On board the train were 748 Jews from Berlin, in addition to some 280 Jews from the Beelitz area, including all of the facility’s children and staff members, among them Sally Bein, his wife Rebeka and their daughter Lisa Carola. The train took them to the Sobibor death camp, where they were murdered. The institution, which for 34 years had been full of life and the sounds of children at play, was now silent.

The school building used by the institution’s children which now serves as the Sally Bein Gymnasium (Photo: Ronny Dotan and Tatjana Ruge)

A short time after the eviction, the facility was taken over by the League of German Girls, a Nazi youth movement. For the past few decades, it has been the sight of a high school, named after Sally Bein. The students take part in a number of commemorative activities in hopes of preserving the site’s history for the sake of future generations.

A memorial plaque at the front of the building (Photo: Ronny Dotan and Tatjana Ruge)

We were made aware of this story by Ronny Dotan, who first learned of it thanks to the Holocaust Railway Car Project, and later continued studying the subject along with Tatjana Ruge of Berlin. Their research collected information about hundreds of children and staff members, whose relatives have since been located. If you have further information about the institution or the children who studied there, you are welcome to contact Ronny Dotan: [email protected].