«Q: Today is the 18th of April, 2012. Do you know ‘Twas the 18th of April in ‘75’? KOVACH: Hardly a man is now alive that remembers that famous ...»
The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
Foreign Affairs Oral History Project
Interviewed by: Charles Stuart Kennedy
Initial Interview Date: April 18, 2012
Copyright 2015 ADST
Q: Today is the 18th of April, 2012. Do you know ‘Twas the 18th of April in ‘75’?
KOVACH: Hardly a man is now alive that remembers that famous day and year. I grew
up in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Q: We are talking about the ride of Paul Revere.
KOVACH: I am a son of Massachusetts but the first born child of either side of my family born in the United States; and a son of Massachusetts.
Q: Today again is 18 April, 2012. This is an interview with Peter Kovach. This is being done on behalf of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and I am Charles Stuart Kennedy.
You go by Peter?
KOVACH: Peter is fine.
Q: Let s start at the beginning. When and where were you born?
KOVACH: I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts three days after World War II ended, August the 18th, 1945.
Q: Let s talk about on your father s side first. What do you know about the Kovaches?
KOVACH: The Kovaches are a typically mixed Hapsburg family; some from Slovakia, some from Hungary, some from Austria, some from Northern Germany and probably some from what is now western Romania. Predominantly Jewish in background though not practice with some Catholic intermarriage and Muslim conversion.
Q: Let s take grandfather on the Kovach side. Where did he come from?
KOVACH: He was born I think in 1873 or so. I believe he was born in Vienna and he migrated to join relatives in Timisvar, the Hungarian pronunciation of Timisoara in Romania; a place often dubbed little Vienna. Many of my Dad’s relatives were based there from earlier in the 19th century. My Dad s uncle Jeno, I’ve recently learned was perhaps one of the wealthiest men in the city. They survived the Nazis and the Iron Guard but ironically ran afoul of the communists in the late 60s and scattered. My Dad was not one for whom money meant a lot, nor did he discuss wealth very often. I had the impression my Timisvar relatives were lower middle class with not much education. I learned of their wealth filling in as cultural attaché in Bucharest as a retiree in the summer of 2011. I bothered to ‘interview’ my Timisvar cousins, an Austrian businessman and a Hollywood director prior to going out to Bucharest.
Q: Who was the first person on that side to come to the United States?
KOVACH: My Dad’s younger half brother, Curtis Shell came over as a teen in the mids and lived as kind of a street urchin in lower Manhattan. I have recently learned that it was an established NYC couple, business associates of my rich Timisvar great uncle Jeno Dornhelm, who sponsored my uncle s immigration and later my parents visa in 1939.
With Curt, it was almost like the Daniel Patrick Moynihan myth. He was selling papers in Hell s Kitchen and the like. Curt s Dad (not a blood relative) had abandoned my grandmother in Vienna. While my parents came over with advanced degrees in 1939 and needed no help economically, Curt had at best a high school education and arrived midDepression. I m not sure why his initial circumstances were so difficult.
Q: So he came over in the 30s?
KOVACH: He came over in the 30s, a young man in his mid-teens.
Q: When did your grandfather come over?
KOVACH: My grandfather never came. My father was the second one over.
Q: He was from Vienna.
KOVACH: He was also from Vienna, my grandfather also. My father came over in ‘39 and came over for three reasons; one was he was a polymer chemist and for work in the plastics industry, the United States was the place to be.
The second is my parents were both dogged social democrats and Europe from the mids on was not very friendly to that kind of political center. It was going communist or fascist pretty fast.
The third is being part Jewish he saw the writing on the wall even though I don’t think he ever entered a synagogue until he was an adult.
Q: What did he do?
KOVACH: He was a plastics engineer and an executive. He first went to work in New York City briefly and then they moved up to Massachusetts.
Their first apartment was on W. 57th street, near Carnegie Hall. My parents told this great story; they went to the 39 world s fair right after they came and there was a robot at one of the exhibits. The robot, on some kind of electronic prompt said, Ma-Sa-Choo Settes. In retrospect, my parents viewed this as an oracular moment. They soon moved up to Leominster, Massachusetts where my Dad worked for Foster Grant, the sunglass maker. He was their chief chemist for a while and then like engineers, at least in my parent’s American generation, typically moved around a lot.
Q: He must have gotten involved in World War II.
KOVACH: He tried. He was very motivated to enlist but they wouldn’t let him because he was a polymer chemist and they said you are more valuable on the home front than you are as a grunt, even a German native speaking grunt.
Q: Did they do Ray Ban glasses?
KOVACH: I don’t remember. I remember they did Davy Crockett sunglasses. That was right about the time, 55 of my tenth birthday so I was the king of Davy Crockett swag on my block.
Q: What about your mother s side? What do you know about her?
KOVACH: Her side was interesting. She was born in Budapest. Her father was a selfmade man from a Jewish shtetl in Eastern Hungary who married a woman of considerable refinement (my grandmother) who I think was three quarters gentile, including a parent or grandparent who was a Turk, a Muslim Turk. My grandfather rose to the top of the judicial profession. I think he was something like the head of the appeals court system more recent documentation my brother has obtained mentions him as a respected attorney and very left wing. He apparently had a role in the short lived quasicommunist Béla Kun government in Budapest that lasted for two years after WW I. We still need to do more research. Despite ethnically being less Jewish; they were far more Jewish in practice, my father s family not practicing the religion. The girls were very well-educated; I think typically of a certain social class. I have never been quite sure what that meant. I am quoting my mother. She learned German before she learned Hungarian.
German and German literature and German culture are very much a cultural anchor on both sides of the family.
Q: Did they ever talk about, I won’t say the good old days but did they ever talk about for example in Hungary you had a fascist. Did they talk about that?
KOVACH: The answer to how the Admiral Horthy (fascist) government treated my grandfather is mixed. Documentation we have recently unearthed shows that my grandfather in what would have been his first decade out of law school had some affiliation with the left-wing government in Hungary for two years right after WW I and the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire. That said, it was clear that by WWII, my grandfather was protected from the Nazis by that fascist Horthy government you are eluding to.
My mother, the youngest of three sisters was the first to come to the U.S., right after marriage to my Dad in her mid-twenties. They were sponsored for visas by the NYC couple, associates of my Dad s wealthy Timisvar uncle, who had earlier sponsored Dad s youngest half brother. The eldest, a wonderful woman who was to have a big influence on my life and values, married a German colonel and actually survived the war in Germany as a military wife. The War emotionally destroyed her husband who was not a Nazi sympathizer and he died in 1947 or so. That sister a staunch Catholic and the only religious person under our roof, came over to Cambridge, MA in the early 50 s. She managed a well-known restaurant in Cambridge housed in the house of Dexter Pratt, the proverbial Village Blacksmith of Longfellow poetic fame. As such, she was my boss for three summers as a waiter and very positively influenced my style as a manager with her sense of justice and even-handedness. The middle sister became a world famous photographer. She ran away from home at 19. My grandfather, their father the jurist, was a total education daddy and very big on women s advancement. Ironically, the runaway became the most outwardly successful of the three sisters. She cut her teeth as a photographer in the late 20s in Berlin which was not only the cultural capital of Europe but was the Mecca for aspiring photojournalists of the day.
So she was of that generation. When it was pretty clear the Nazis were coming to power she hightailed it to Holland where she lived the last 70 years of her life.
Q: Did she ever run across Leni Riefenstahl?
KOVACH: No, no but she was the first one to put a camera in the legendary photographer, Robert Capa’s hands. He was actually Hungarian and lived in the same building as my family. At age ten my aunt (Eva Besnyö) had something like a Brownie, a box-like, single shot camera which she lent to him to take pictures and the rest is history so she was very close to both Robert and Cornell Capa and Moholy-Nagy and a lot of those great first generation photographers.
Q: Your aunt made it through. She was in Holland?
KOVACH: She was in the underground during the War, running a forged paper ring in the Dutch countryside. I think the war was very traumatic for her. First of all, losing her idyllic life in Weimar Berlin which represented a cultural golden age and to lose that so wrenchingly and suddenly and then by being by blood part Jewish. She didn’t have a religious bone in her body, to her it was an inconvenience and then having to hightail it and going underground, it definitely put a cloud over her outlook. She by the way more than the other two sisters inherited her father s left-wing tendencies.
I just helped my cousin open up a retrospective of her Mom s photography in a major Berlin museum. It was painfully clear that her photography was never quite the same after the war. She had pictures in the iconic Family of Man a late 50 s photo exhibit that grabbed international attention, but it wasn’t the same. Her great pictures were taken in the 20s.
Q: One always thinks particularly of Berlin. I just finished re-seeing the movie, Cabaret.
One thinks about that period.
KOVACH: I saw that with my aunt in fact at an Amsterdam cinema when it first came out and her comment to me was, look it is fanciful but it captures the spirit. That was her reaction.
Q: You grew up in what, New York?
KOVACH: No, no. I grew up in Massachusetts for a while, born in Worcester because my father was in Leominster which was the plastics capital of the Northeast at the time but there were no nurses in the Leominster hospital due to the war so I had to go south to Worcester to be born.
Lived in Leominster for maybe a year and a half and then my father got a job in New Jersey. They lived in the Hungarian ghetto in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They hated it, they felt so claustrophobic. Then he didn’t like the job so then they moved to Cranston, Rhode Island and in fact, in Cranston is where I did nursery school and kindergarten and began first grade.
Q: As a kid did you sort of grow up as an immigrant kid? Was that around you or not?
KOVACH: Oh, it was. That sense was very much around me in some ways and not in others.
The ways it was around me, okay. The whole war was very traumatic and my parents didn’t talk about it and were always ones to see this particular genocide as a manifestation of a universal human problem, not as a uniquely Jewish problem.
But it was traumatic for them with pain and guilt at having escaped that they only shared with my brother and me if we pushed. My mother s father, the judge/lawyer who was sort of Pater familias, he was the big guy, he was the only one we lost to the Nazis on my Mom’s side. It was an interesting story. This fascist government, and they like many Hungarian governments were never that friendly to Jews, but Admiral Horthy s attitude as described to me by several people was ‘these are our Jews’ and we are going to protect them. And my grandfather was evidently highly respected.
In 1944, around April the Nazis pushed Admiral Horthy’s government aside and took over. The SS and the Gestapo came in in a quasi-colonial administration that included in effect the last gasp of the final solution bureaucracy even as the German general command was increasingly focused on the deteriorating military situation. It was the quickest and most thorough round up in the whole Holocaust.