POTOMAC, Md. – He was surprised when he came home from school to find his dad packing. It was 1939. Soon the Nazis would come, he knew. And his dad was leaving the next day for the United States – without him.
Two months later, he stood before a scroll of sacred scriptures at his bar mitzvah, bowed slightly and whispered a prayer. With that he was heralded into adulthood by the rabbi, but his boyhood had long since slipped away.
“My mom was dead, my brother was far away, my dad was gone and I had few friends,” he said of that time in Budapest, Hungary, more than 50 years ago.
Today, dying of cancer and living in Potomac, Richard Koves, 70, is willing to talk about events he has yet to share with his family because he wants people to know the German government is offering an apology, of sorts.
Under an American-German agreement, the German government is making monetary reparations to U.S. survivors of Nazi persecution. Koves, born in New York, was one of several who received a share of a $2.1 million settlement in 1995.
Others who wish to file a claim with the Justice Department have until Feb. 23 to meet the deadline.
“No money can make up for what was done to individuals,” Koves said. “It did not help the pain. But it is good.”
For Koves, filing a claim meant thinking about his past. He remembers simple moments: lighting a candle, losing a postcard, digging a grave and touching a stone.
Moments from childhood are the ones he thinks of first when he recalls peaceful times. For a few short years in Eger, a small village in the wine region of Hungary, his family was intact.
Eger was green most of the year. A light fog would often rest in the valleys, protecting young grapes from the sun and leaving round hill tops peeking above the cool mist.
It was a great place to climb and hide, he said, and he knew everyone there.
“I would walk to temple early in the morning with my grandfather to pray,” he said. “That is what I remember.”
Another baby was on the way when Koves was 6 and his younger brother Ivan about 4. But his mother, Maria, was rushed to the hospital one day, hemorrhaging. Koves and his brother were afraid to see her.
“I couldn’t go,” he said. “I remember walking down the main street in Eger with my grandfather and telling him I was going to stop to buy a candle and light it for her.”
His mother died a few days later. It was like a door, he said. It marked the threshold between childhood and a numbness that would stay with him most of his life. It was the first in a seemingly unending flood of separations.
Less than a year later he would say goodbye to Ivan. His father took Koves to Budapest, leaving Ivan behind with relatives.
After his father left for America in 1939, Koves stayed with an uncle and grandmother in Budapest. In March 1944, when he was 17, the Nazis forged into Hungary.
He was given a yellow scrap of fabric and told to fashion a Star of David to wear on his sleeve. Soon his uncle and grandmother were rounded up and taken to the Jewish ghetto in Budapest.
In June, he got a postcard from Ivan. It was from Auschwitz, Poland. “It was very short,” Koves said. “It said that the Jews of Eger had been taken to Auschwitz. He said he was fine, don’t worry.
“I’ve lost that postcard. It was the last thing I got from him.”
In the fall of that year, Koves and hundreds of Jewish men were rounded up near Budapest and marched for about two days out into the countryside, to the Budaors labor camp.
The men were given a few beans and some coffee the first morning in the camp and then were ordered to dig ditches for anti-aircraft guns through the evening. That night, they slept in a barn without sides.
It was a day that would be repeated through the winter months and into the spring.
“Life had stopped,” he said. “The numbness, I felt like an animal, like my life was worthless.”
Those who couldn’t keep up were shot.
“We had to bury a man one night,” he said. “A group of us did it. There were so many stones in the ground. It was very difficult. That night changed me.”
The Budaors guards disappeared from the camp when the Russians entered Hungary. Koves returned to Budapest and then to Eger, where he waited for his family. They did not return. He learned from a childhood friend that Ivan had been killed in an Auschwitz gas chamber. Of the 2,000 or so Jews who once lived in Eger, only about 200 survived.
Koves, who did not speak English, soon went to Chicago to find his dad. When they met there were no hugs, no tears.
The Nazis killed Ivan, Koves thought, but his dad had abandoned him to them.
It wasn’t until years later, while bowing gently to whisper a prayer, that he began to feel whole.
He slipped his hand over the course stones of the Western Wall of the old Jewish temple in Jerusalem and remembered his morning walks to temple with his grandfather. On that trip to Israel he realized he was a part of a people and a treasured history.
“The stones had been there for more than a thousand years,” he said. “Everyone around me, we all say the same prayers and have the same prayer books. I felt peace.”
Anyone interested in filing a claim should call the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission at 202/616-6975.