Memory & Action
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Memory & Action

From Street Fights to Secret Intelligence: Jewish Brothers Who Fought Back against the Nazis

Pocket mirror with a photographic image of the Kovary family circa 1945. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of Myra Kovary and Vally Kovary

They messed with the wrong brothers. On September 2, 1939, the day after the German invasion of Poland, two Nazi sympathizers began harassing Tibor (Tom) and Ernö (Ernest) Kövári on a street in their hometown of Bratislava, Slovakia, pestering them about being Jewish.

“Ernest told me that he saw the Nazis beating a neighbor badly, maybe killing him, and then the Nazis saw Ernest and came over shouting. Ernest knew their lives were already in danger,” said Myra Kovary, Tom’s older daughter. Tom came running, words were exchanged, and someone lost patience.

The Nazi youth had no way of knowing that they were hopelessly outmatched. Tom and Ernest were star members of the Bar Kochba Jewish Sports Club, national gymnastics champions, and two of the first fighters trained by Imi Lichtenfeld, the creator of Krav Maga, a style of hand-to-hand combat now famously used by the Israeli Army. The Nazi youths ended up in the hospital.

The Kovary brothers were as strong in linguistics as in athleticism. Tom and Ernest were regarded as the world’s first two native speakers of Esperanto, a language designed to be international, and spoke German, Hungarian, and Slovak when in public. They went to German schools, studied English and French, and learned Hebrew as part of their religious studies.

“When they almost murdered those two Nazis, Ernest told me, they were separated and arrested with their father. But when the three were in jail they were all able to communicate by shouting to each other in Esperanto,” Myra recalled.

Bratislava was politically aligned with Nazi Germany, so, after their fight with the two Nazi youths, the Köváris’ family store was looted and street fighting and vandalism ensued. Fearing for the Köváris’ safety, the district attorney and head of the prison quietly released them to the underground. With the help of the Jewish Central Committee, the family crossed illegally to Hungary, then Italy, and sailed to New York on February 29, 1940. There, they changed their family name to Kovary, and Tibor and Ernö became Tom and Ernest.

Tom enlisted in the US Army in January 1943 at Fort Dix, New Jersey, according to his younger daughter, Vally Kovary, and was quickly transferred to Camp Ritchie, a secret military training post. He served in Louisiana, in Army intelligence, until 1946.

“He was looking for Nazis in the United States; that’s all I know,” said Vally.

Collectively, Camp Ritchie trainees are known as the “Ritchie Boys” and are credited with saving the lives of thousands of other American soldiers during World War II. They are the 2022 recipients of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Elie Wiesel Award, its highest honor.

“[Tom] worked in Camp Ritchie … but he never said what he did,” said Dr. Anthony S. Papalia, Tom’s friend, retired State University of New York, Cortland colleague, and a former US Air Force captain. “He was involved with highly sensitive data.”

Ernest also enlisted and, during their tours, the brothers and their parents corresponded in “about 750 letters in Esperanto,” according to Vally, until, after D-Day, the military censors required them to write in English.

Ernest deployed to the European theater and was part of the American landing in Normandy, June 6, 1944. “He was assistant to a Jewish chaplain, there for the storming of Utah Beach and the Battle of the Bulge … and he probably saw everything awful you can see,” said Vally.

Ernest translated for the Department of Justice as the United States prepared for the Nuremberg Trials. He dedicated himself to finding family members who were still alive; he visited Bratislava and Germany, and located a first cousin, Herta Fuchs, who had survived Auschwitz. “Even when he was in Europe fighting, he knew what was going on with the Nazi extermination and was trying to find people. This was his mission in life,” said Vally. Ernest became a notary public and specialized in assisting Holocaust survivors gain restitution until he died in 2013.

After the war, Tom attended Ohio State University on the GI Bill. He married Ingrid Neuhaus, a Jewish refugee from Germany who had served in the Army’s Civilian Censorship Division, and they had two daughters.

“My parents had so many friends but no one would say how they knew each other,” said Myra. “Everyone kept quiet.”

In 1953, the family moved to New York so Tom could attend Cornell. In 1959, he became a professor of Spanish and Linguistics at the State University of New York, Cortland.

Tom retired from education in 1985. He was an active member of several Jewish organizations until he died, in 1988, at the age 68. He stopped strangers on the street, in any country, if he thought he heard Esperanto, and met friends on Saturdays to socialize and speak German. “He really was an exceptional human being and I don’t think a lot of people know that, except me,” said Myra. “He had a lot of friends all over the world–and I have no idea how he knew any of them.”

Read more profiles of people who served at Camp Ritchie:

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