Kovacs, John Joseph (Janos Joseph)
Nyiregyhaza, Miskolc, Jolsva, Budapest, Hungary; Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp, Germany
John Joseph Kovacs was born Janos Joseph Kovacs in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary on September 14, 1932 to Geza Kohn Kovács and Livia Weisz Vermes.
Geza (1908-1982) was born in Miskolc to Sandor Kovács and Malvin Muhlhoffer. Sandor was originally from Nagyvárad, Hungary (now Oradea, Romania) and Malvin was born in Tornaalja, Hungary (now in Slovakia). Geza had two brothers, Miklos (1906-1954) and Imre (1912-1988). The three sons changed their surname from Kohn to Kovács in 1927. “My father, Geza, studied in a business school and became a textile engineer. My uncle Miklos became a chemical engineer. Both of them went to study in another country because it was difficult in those days to get into a Hungarian school because they were Jews and there was a quota. By the time they got to my Uncle Imre, they didn’t have enough money to send him to another country, so he never went to college.”
Livia (1911-2000) was born in Budapest to Jozsef Weisz and Maria Bauer and had three siblings: Hermin (1893-1981, Etel (1897-1971, and (Lazslo (1901-1965). The family name was changed from Weisz to Vermes in 1919.
Livia and Geza were divorced after a few years of marriage. Livia then married Bela Reiner. After the war, he changed his name from Reiner to Roman. They divorced right after the Holocaust and she married Oscar Russ from Drohobycz, Poland.
Sandor and Malvin Kohn both perished in Auschwitz in 1944, as did John’s brother, István Reiner, at the age of four. “He went to the gas chambers with his grandmother because, when my mother and he arrived in Auschwitz, the Jewish people who were working there told her to give the boy to the grandmother because she was only at that time in her 30’s and she was able to work. They probably knew that if she stayed with the boy then she would also go into the gas chamber…. After Auschwitz, my mother was in different camps and she survived. Oscar Russ was in various camps and he unfortunately lost his first wife and his daughter who was about eight-years-old. He was a wonderful man who was very, very nice to all of us. He was probably the best father I ever had.” Bela Reiner’s brother, Endre Reiner, also lost his wife and two boys in the Auschwitz gas chamber.
Before the war, John went to Erzsebet School, a Jewish elementary school in Miskolc, for four years, then to Frater Gyorgy Gimnazium, a Catholic school, where they permitted only six Jews in one class at that time. He was there until the Germans came into Hungary. There was quite a bit of anti-Semitism and he was always afraid that somebody would call him a dirty Jew or push him off the sidewalk…. Being in a Catholic school wasn’t exactly very comfortable, but that was the only way to get in eight grades of gimnazium in order to get into a college.
“My mother, and I, and my stepfather, Bela Reiner, lived in Miskolc. We had a very nice house with a fairly nice garden. A German soldier was sent to live in our place in 1944. Soon, Bela arranged for us to go into the countryside because he thought that nobody would think where we are…. After a few weeks, in April-May, 1944, came the order that everybody has to go into the Miskolc ghetto. We stayed maybe a day or so in the ghetto, then they sent all of the Jews to the téglagyár, a brick factory. This brick factory consisted of partial buildings; they just had like a ceiling on top and maybe a few bricks on the bottom, but it was completely open to the elements. On the side, they dug a large hole and erected a long piece of wood and you were supposed to go or sit there if you wanted to go to the bathroom. It stunk to say the least. And so, this was really bad. I had never experienced anything like that and men and women had to go to the same place. So, you can imagine how uncomfortable that was for everybody…. We were surrounded by Hungarian gendarmes and they had machine guns on the perimeter of the camp, so it was very difficult to escape from there.”
After maybe a week, a Hungarian army captain came and told all male Jews between the ages of 15 and 45 to gather in a certain location and were told to get their stuff and follow him. Bela told John to come along. “I had a rucksack and put it on, and Bela and I joined this group. The first place we went was to the city of Miskolc. We were overnighting there, sleeping on the ground outside. In the morning, they put us on trains in wagons where they normally carried the animals and they took us to Jolsva, a labor service camp or munkaszolgálat. Bela Reiner arranged to be with a company for doctors and lawyers, although he was neither. I joined them and I became like a boy who ran messages. The main job that I got for myself was to climb up and crawl through the window of the building where they kept some of the food. Since I was pretty small at the time, like an 11-year-old, I was able to do that and I took some food and I brought that back and distributed it. So, with Bela’s help, I didn’t really have a bad time there, except that I was a prisoner.
“Then they transported us towards Budapest, the Hungarian capital. When they stopped to let us do our business, Bela said, ‘Why don’t you get off.’ So, I just jumped off the train. I started walking and I got to a place where they had a station for the tram. We were fairly close to Budapest but not yet there. As I was walking, one of the soldiers caught me and said, ‘Where are you going?’ So, I said, ‘Well I’m just walking around.’ So, he said, ‘Okay let’s get back to the train.’ I said okay. So, we go back to the train and the train had left. So, he said, ‘Okay we will have to take the tram and catch the train in Budapest.’ I had some money and I bought some fruit and I offered him some fruit and he said, ‘Nah, I don’t want any.’ So, we took the tram and we got to Budapest and one of the train stations. Budapest has like maybe four different stations, east, west, south, etc. So, he said, ‘Okay, I am going to look for the train. You stay here.’ So, I looked around. He left and I left also.
“I went to an aunt who was a Christian woman and was married to my uncle from my mother’s side…. Earlier, my four-year-old brother was sent to Budapest to stay with this lady. And at that time, they had a lot of bombing coming from the western side. So, they had to go down into the basement to protect themselves. Because my brother was a very talkative kid for a four-year-old, she was afraid that the neighbors will find out about him and then she’s going to have a problem. At that point, Bela decided that István should come back to Miskolc to be with us. Unfortunately, that was a big mistake because he was one of us who was killed in Auschwitz…. The aunt who sent Istvan back was otherwise a very nice woman but she was also afraid for herself, because to hide a Jew was not allowed.
“This Christian aunt didn’t want me to stay there either when I went to Budapest later on. I had another aunt, Hermin (not Herman), whom we called ‘Aunt Gigi’ (Gigi is a nickname). She and her husband ‘Uncle Geza’ (a masculine name) were living in a building that had a Jewish star on the front of the building. At that time in Budapest, the Jewish star had to be placed on the front of the building where Jews lived. Later, I joined her and her husband and we were living in one room because there were other families in that apartment…. When the Hungarian fascists, the nyilas, took over the government from Admiral Horthy, they started coming to these Jewish buildings and took some of the Jews away, including Gigi and then Geza, but they came back each time…. Later, all Jews were ordered into the Budapest ghetto.”
At that time, there were foreign embassies in Hungary. One of them was from Switzerland and another from Sweden. “My aunt and uncle got these documents. I think my aunt got the Swiss one. Then these people were able to go into these Swiss houses or Swedish houses and were protected by these countries. I didn’t have any of this because I didn’t go to get these documents….
“Meanwhile, Geza Kovacs, my father, had also been in one of the Jewish workcamps. He and some of his friends escaped to Budapest when they were being sent towards Germany. He was staying in the Jewish organization’s building because they didn’t have any documents…. They somehow learned that there was being organized another building in a large Jewish school where Jews could be protected by some ‘supposed’ Germans against the Hungarian fascists. So, he arranged somehow with his friends to go into this building and one day he sent somebody for me. There they set up rooms where they put sewing machines where women could make clothing for either the munkaszolgálat or the soldiers…. That was one of the reasons the Jewish organization could get this thing going and that people could go there.
[Capt. László Ocskay was later honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for saving about 2000 Jews who were assigned to his forced labor camp in the Jewish High School on Abonyi Street, now named the ELTE Radnóti Miklós School (http://db.yadvashem.org/righteous/family.html?language=en&itemId=4016654).]
“Sometime in January of ’45, when the Russian troops were coming and attacking Hungary, they arrived in Budapest. Finally, we heard that we were supposedly free. So, then my father decided to go back to a small town in Hungary, Túrkeve, where he had a house. We arrived in Túrkeve and he wanted to go back to the house and look for stuff. He went to one of the neighbors and he said, ‘I’m looking for this or that’ and they said, ‘Oh yes, we kept that for you.’ So, they robbed the place and when we arrived they said, ‘We kept it for you; oh, here it is. Don’t worry about it.’ So, that was the neighborly thing that they did.
“Túrkeve, my father’s town, where he used to direct a small textile factory, didn’t have a school and I got connected with another town, Mezotur, where they offered home study and I studied there maybe a few weeks or months…. About this time, my father decided to open a grocery store in Túrkeve and he traveled to Romania to buy food and whatever else you have to have in a grocery. During his business travels, he put me with another family – a woman with a daughter in Túrkeve.
“Eventually we heard that my mother was alive, so, I went back to Miskolc to live with Bela Reiner. In Miskolc, once when I had some money, I bought yeast on the market that was not always available, and sold it to a grocery store at a profit. And that was my first business transaction where I made some money.
“When we knew where my mother was in Germany, Bela said we should go there. It was a displaced persons camp in Feldafing, Germany and so we went there for a short time. Bela didn’t want to stay and my mother decided to divorce Bela because they had some problems before the Holocaust. So, Bela went back and I stayed with my mother.
“Then mother married Oscar Russ, who was from Drohobycz, Poland. My mother was teaching dancing because she used to do that before or was participating in putting on shows at the displaced persons camp. Oscar was a very good electrician and he was teaching at the trade school there. After a while they found a place outside of the camp that was better for a family than just sleeping on bunks and they got a room there. It was a very nice building where some of the German people used to live before, but they were all thrown out or told to leave. We had one room and in the one room there were two couples. One was a friend of Oscar’s, with his wife. There was a very small room where all you could do is put in a bed and that’s where I slept…. They had a school there. And that was the first place where I learned Yiddish and they were teaching Hebrew. And there were different teachers there. My mother even got a German teacher to teach me what I had lost during this time.
“Her idea was to go to the United States. Oscar was very key in this whole exercise because he was from Poland and the Polish quota was much bigger than the Hungarian quota. When my mother went with Oscar to the American embassy or consulate, she was able to go with Oscar to the United States, but I wasn’t able to. My mother said, ‘Well I’m not going without him.’ Somehow, they arranged that I should join the group and that’s how I got in even though I’m supposed to go in the Hungarian quota and wait for that.
“Finally, in April 1947, we were able to get on a ship, the Marina Perch, to the United States. HIAS took us in for a week or two or three. Then my mother found a place on East 4th Street between B and C. My mother was working in the necktie industry as a packer and Oscar was ironing the neckties. I think for some time he was maybe also some kind of supervisor.
“In Manhattan, I went to Junior High 64 and Seward Park High School. I remember I had a teacher by the name of Mr. Berman, who would say to me, ‘Kovacs, don’t listen to the lecture. Study English.’ From all the studying I did in Germany, I knew more math than they did already. So, that became my best subject even though I’m terrible in math. After we moved to Brooklyn, I went to Lafayette High School because they had a soccer team and I became part of the soccer team there…. I finally ended up in New York University, where I studied Government and International Relations…. During summer vacations, I went to Monticello to work as a busboy. I worked there maybe for two or three years and worked myself up to a waiter. That gave me some money to go to NYU. That was a lot of fun. At night we would go out and look for girls and stuff like that…. Finally, I went to Washington Square College and I took some courses also in the business school. I graduated in 1954.”
John served in the U.S. Army, first in the 26th Infantry in Bamberg and then transferred to the Loudspeaker and Leaflet Company in Stuttgart and was assigned to United States Escapee Program (USEP) in Nürnberg, to be a coordinator with the German authorities, plus two refugee camps, Valka and Zirndorf. After the army, he got a job with General Motors, working first in New York and then overseas in GM’s dealer organization. He met his wife, Suzanne, in Antwerp, Belgium. They had two sons, George and Henry.
His message is “Be sure that you protect all religions. That you believe in the United States constitution. That you don’t talk poorly about any religion or type of people. Just keep trying to keep the peace and not go out and try to start wars because nothing good can come of it. And just be studious and be sure that everybody will take you seriously and that you only do good instead of bad.”
Date of Interview: May 3, 2018
Length of Interview: 111 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus