Interviewee: John Kovacs
Interviewer: Cary Levy
Interview Date: December 12, 2017
Location: Bloomfield Hills, MI
Interview No.: 12.12.17-JK (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length 38 minutes)
Themes: Jewish Identity, Holocaust, Immigration, Observance, Upbringing
Summary: John Kovacs’ family was torn apart when the Germans entered Hungary during World War II. His grandmother and brother were killed in Auschwitz while his mother managed to survive the death camp. At the age of 11, John was sent to a work camp intended for 15 to 45 year olds, where he toiled alongside his father in law. At one point the workers at the camp were loaded into a train. John’s stepfather - realizing the train had made its way past Budapest and was going to continue towards Germany - bade John to escape. From then on during the war he lived and worked in different settings including a Jewish house “protected” by Germans and an open-air brick factory. In 1945, with the war over, John returned to the city where he had lived and later immigrated to New York, later moving to Michigan. He has since visited in Hungary and one of his sons was Bar Mitzvah’d at the Budapest Synagogue.
Example of proper citation/attribution:
Levy, C. (Interviewer) & Kovacs, J. (Interviewee). (2017). John Kovacs: Jewish Journeys [Interview Index]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation Shir Tikvah:https://shirtikvah.org/cstoralhistoryarchive
Note: Counter index corresponds to track times when loaded into iTunes.
0:00 Home life in Hungary. Born 1932, in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary, parents divorced, John and mother moved to north of country; went to Jewish school, first thru fourth grade, then like a high schools 4thto 8thgrade, there for 4 years; Germans came into Hungary 1938 Poland, 1944 into Hungary, education finished when Germans came in.
3:05 Mother and half brother (different father) were deported to Auschwitz; 4 year old brother was killed, had to go with his grand mother, but mother survived.
3:57 John was only 11 years old/. Went with stepfather to a work camp in Hungary. Starting from 1938, Jews had to go to work camp—they were in ghetto, like a factory, Hungarian army looking for people from 15 to 45 years of age, to go to work. John only 11, stepfather said go with me. Knew some people, like his uncle, in the camp. Living in a city called Miskolc, his group stayed in Hungary, did not go to Germany at this point.
6:17 Went with stepfather and were there for several months and then Hungarians decided to transport this group toward Germany. But didn’t know that. Went past Budapest toward Austria, stepfather said John should try to escape and he walked away. Had to have a yellow (Jew) or white (if parents converted) band in the work camp. White band was suppose to be protection, but wasn’t. When he left he didn’t wear any band. Just waiting for a street car to go to Budapest, recognized by a guy who said he’d take him back to the group, but train had left with group. Guy said they’d go to Budapest and find them there. So arrived at an eastern train station—John told to wait, no one around, he got onto the street car and went to look for relative in Budapest. Jews in Budapest at that point were not being taken to Auschwitz; they were still there. But they were in houses only dedicated for Jews.
9:46 They had a magan david (Jewish star) on front of house to show Jews lived there. Fortunately he went with aunt who lived in Budapest. First took his uncle away, and then his aunt, then they came back, but not enough trains for transport to Auschwitz. Later his father came, his father was in a work camp in the Ukraine (father was in 30’s), found through a Christian woman relative (on his mother’s side) who did not have to go anywhere. Father contacted him through Christian woman relative.
11:43 Jews were in these selected homes. In about October 1944, Hungarian fascists took over and started to put people in ghettos, father had escaped and was able to go to a “protected” Jewish school, protected by the Germans --- John was brought to the school and stayed there until Jan 1945. At first he was at a work camp with his father, was like a delivery boy. It seemed that a lot of rich Jews had paid off some one, probably Germans, and were protected by the Germans. Germans and Rumanians came into Hungary 1945 in January. Went back to city that he lived in, someone came and said that his mother was alive, 4 year old brother had been killed
15: 50 Interviewer summary
16:52 People had to wear an armband, white if changed religion; John did not change his religion bur wore white armband anyway
17:28 Went to Jewish school, stepfather had a furniture business—had a nice life, big yard, no problems until the Germans came. After four years, went to German school (only 6 Jews admitted)
19:28 Stepfather went to see mother, who did not want to come back to Germany and wanted to divorce step father, then his mother married a Polish Jew. In 1947, mother, stepfather, & John came to United States
20:50 seems fresh in your mind, were only 2 of us were young
22:00 Came to US
22:56 When Germans coming in, stepfather arranged for them to go to a farm where he thought they would be safe, but had to leave farm, so taken back to city they were living in (Milosh?). But when got there, they were taking apart the ghetto in the city and putting everyone in a place like a brick factory. Jews had to sleep in the open brick factory—no toilets, dug a hole, surrounded by Hungarian soldiers with guns. If some one tried to escape they got shot (did happen once or twice). Grandparents and other relatives were there.
25:52 June 1944, transported people to Auschwitz
26:40 Never wavered in his faith, mother and stepfather converted because thought that would help, but didn’t; grandparents were religious
27:27 Came to New York thru Hebrew Immigration Society; mother found a place for them on the east side of NY for a year or so; then came to Michigan; mother got job as necktie packer—mother as a young woman was a dancer and had a dancing school. Father was textile engineer running a small factory. Mother survived cause in her 30’s and was able to work. Did not have fears of being Jewish when in US.
John met wife in Hungary. Been in Michigan about 30 years. Joined Shir Tikvah, new synagogue at the beginning.
32:41 Initially, he found it strange that men and women were together in the beginning and got used to it.
34:50 Stepfather lost his family, wife & child
Not a very religious person, but never wanted to change my religion
Returned to synagogue in Hungary, one of sons had Bar Mitzvah at synagogue in Hungary. Were not many people left in that big synagogue; Not much changed, but didn’t know any people.
Felt lucky to have survived
38:17 End of interview