Dennis Miklos, Holocaust survivor and soccer star, dies at 77

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It was six decades ago, but Eva Foltin remembers it with painful clarity. She was a human skeleton splayed across a horse-drawn carriage, and too weak to step down. The carriage was parked in front of a building in Budapest where Jews who had survived the Holocaust signed their names and held out hope a family member would track them down. But before she could slide off the cart, her twin brother, Dennis Miklos, staggered through the doorway.

“I didn’t have much energy but he recognized me and I recognized him. Oh, it was wonderful, but it was so sad,” recalls a teary Foltin.

“I thought he was with our father and he thought I was with our mother. But we had to tell each other. Nobody else is alive.”

Miklos, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, played semi-professional soccer across Europe and North America and worked his way from the mailroom to Levi Strauss’ executive suite, died suddenly on Oct. 17 after suffering an embolism in his lungs. He was 77.

Miklos was born in the small town of Ungvar, Czechoslovakia. Before he hit puberty the town became a part of Hungary, and it is currently Ukrainian territory.

“The running joke was you’d wake up in the morning and look outside to see what flag was waving,” said Miklos’ younger son, Robert.

Living on a border town played a big part in Miklos’ life. His family spoke Hungarian at home but he also mastered Czech, German, French, Yiddish, Hebrew and, later, English.

The war halted Miklos’ education at age 15, but his prodigious talent at soccer kept food on the table. He played semi-professionally in Paris for three years before immigrating to New York via Montreal to play soccer in Canada and the United States. His reputation spread as far as San Francisco, and the Hakoah Jewish club team sent a player to drive to New York and pick him up.

The Jewish club played in a league along with ethnic teams from Ireland, Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and other nations (and played well; a 1951 article in j.’s predecessor, the Jewish Bulletin, recalls a three-goal flurry in the closing minutes of a game to salvage a 6-6 tie with the Mexicans and give the Jews the league title). The club found jobs and housing for players like Miklos, an agile and powerful 6-foot-2 center forward who took free kicks and penalties for Hakoah. He even played a year for the Italian club, which was a source of amusement in later years; perhaps it was an opportunity to learn yet another language.

Miklos’ elder son, David, says that in a less chaotic time than post-war Europe, his father would definitely have been playing professionally on the continent or in Great Britain — he was that good. Miklos, in fact, played on two American Maccabiah squads in Israel.

As a young man in San Francisco, Miklos saw a help-wanted sign at a company he took to be German — Levi Strauss. He went on to work there for 37 years and, perhaps most importantly, met his wife of 51 years, Lottie, at a company picnic. The couple was one of the first to join Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, where the family still attends.

Miklos kept his Holocaust background largely to himself, though, as an older man, he participated in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust oral history project.

“But even when he did that, he didn’t tell us. He told Mom he had a lunch date in San Francisco and drove in. Then he did several sessions over a couple of weeks,” recalled David Miklos.

“When he was finished, he presented his family with copies of it.”

Miklos remained healthy up to the day of his death. He was an avid soccer fan, watching European games on a satellite feed with his teammates at the Cow Palace in the days when those matches weren’t available at bars or in your living room. He attended games at Stanford during the 1994 World Cup and at the 1984 Olympics. During the last World Cup, he kept a chart at home marking the progress of the 32-team tournament.

Dennis Miklos is survived by his wife, Lottie, of Millbrae; sister Eva Foltin of Massapequa, N.Y.; sons David of Dublin and Robert of Millbrae; and grandchildren Brian and Danielle.

Donations in Miklos’ memory can be sent to the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, 725 Welch Road, Palo Alto, CA 94304; the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, 2150 Post St., S.F., CA 94115; or Peninsula Temple Sholom, 1655 Sebastian Drive, Burlingame, CA 94010.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.