Excerpt from David Kahn’s Advanced Krav Maga (St. Martin’s 2008)
Imi Lichtenfeld’s Oldest Living Student from Bratislava – True Kravist Ernest Kovary
Israeli krav maga was designed to save lives. Ernest Kovary is convinced krav maga saved his life. He began training with krav maga founder Imi Lichtenfeld in 1925 and was one of Imi’s star pupils. Through a series of interviews, we met Ernest, a man of great learning, courage, and resounding kindness. I must thank Ernest again for sharing his remarkable story and his unique insights into krav maga’s earliest stages of development.
Ernest Kovary was born in Bratislava on April 2, 1919. Ernest’s grandfather had immigrated to Baltimore, Maryland in 1891, but returned to Hungary with Ernest’s American-born father. Ernest was six years old when he met fifteen year old Imi in the Maccabi organization, a sports club for young Jewish athletes. Before World War II, Bratislava was home to 120,000 Jews including Imi Lichtenfeld. Imi, Ernest noted, was very active in the Maccabi organization and an ardent Zionist. Ernest recalled, “Imi was an excellent gymnast” and mused, “The girls loved Imi and he loved them back. Had Imi not so many female admirers he would have been a world champion in everything!” Ernest remembers Imi as extremely friendly but equally tough.
Imi enjoyed performing demonstrations with Ernest by lifting Ernest over his head. Their joint specialty was Imi’s holding Ernest aloft in different acrobatic positions. “Imi liked to show me off”, Ernest recalled. At age twelve, Ernest began Greco-Roman wrestling under Imi’s expert coaching. Ernest observed that Imi loved to teach and coach. In sports competition Maccabi members continued to make their mark in Slovakia. In a large regional tournament, Maccabi prevailed over five other wrestling. Ernest emphasized that Imi’s athletic prowess and fighting spirit stood out. The other clubs did not like that a Jewish organization won. With satisfaction, Ernest concluded, “they had to respect us; we won.”
Increasing anti-Semitic violence in the 1930’s began to change the way Imi approached sports training. Ernest recalled that prior to 1933, anti-Semitic outbursts were isolated incidents. After 1933, the situation became progressively worse. In 1934, Ernest and his older brother, Tibor, were forced to drop out of their Gymnasium or high school. The year 1938 marked a turning point for Jews as violence became acute and Ernest’s local yeshiva religious school was attacked. Ernest recalls, “We mustered as many men and boys as we could to defend it.”
More and more Jews became victims of bigotry and violence. “The general attitude was that Jews would run rather than fight.” The Maccabi sports organization began to serve another purpose: clandestine self-defense training. The strict rules of Greco-Roman wrestling would have to be discarded. “We realized we could not follow rules if we wanted to protect ourselves.”
Ernest solemnly observed, “There could be no rules on the street. That would be the only way we could win.” Imi developed his self-defense system accordingly. “Imi said to us that if we must break the attacker’s neck to survive, that is what we will do. We needed techniques that went beyond the rules. This was the beginning of krav maga. Imi modified Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, and judo and everything else in his own style.” Ernest explained that the most powerful wrestlers were “heavy slow moving guys.” Imi was “not heavy but unbelievably quick.” Imi “relied on his technique to win.” In addition, members of the community who wanted to make aliya or emigrate to British mandated-Palestine needed self-defense training.
Ernest recalled the day World War II erupted. In his own words:
“War broke out on Friday September 1, 1939. Slovakia was a puppet government. We had Hitler Youth in town. Next to our apartment was a small synagogue. We left the radio on and listened all evening. We woke up early the next morning to attend Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) services. We heard Hermann Goering say that he would not touch a hair on the head of a Jew. My father Olivio walked out of the building before us. He saw two Hitler Youth savagely beating Heller, our local baker, bloody with others looking on. My father could not intervene as he was alone. He told my brother and me not to go out.
By 10:00 a.m., my brother and I were restless. We wondered if the attack on our baker was an isolated case or part of the larger picture. We had a large lobby in our apartment building. We peeked out of the lobby and saw the two Hitler Youths whom my father had described attacking our baker. We were not sure if they spotted us. We hurried back inside. My brother began to make his way up the steps as I followed. I heard a noise behind me. The Hitler Youth were behind us. They liked to surprise you: to attack when you were not looking. They had metal grommets on their boots that they liked to stomp on you with. One of the Nazis wryly asked me, “Are you Aryan?”
The Hitler Youth knew we were dressed for Shabbat services. He had something in his right hand. I don’t know what he had, but he was going to try to hurt me with it. I knew they were out for blood. We could not run away. I wrote with my right hand but favored my left hand for punching. I hit him so hard with my left just below the eye that I opened up his face. His blood went everywhere, all over me. My brother had come down to see what was happening only to be confronted by the other Nazi. Tibor wasted no time and began bludgeoning the other Hitler Youth with his hands. My brother, using our mother tongue, Esperanto, called my father for help from our upstairs apartment.
As the second Nazi tried to escape, Tibor caught him and continued to beat him as my brother kicked him out of the door. Two street cleaners saw how my brother was beating the hell of the other Nazi and intervened to make Tibor stop. My father had run out and had grabbed a wooden ski from our storage space. After I hit the first Nazi he still tried to come at me. We learned from training to continue the fight until the attacker was no longer a threat. I knew I had better not kill this Nazi but I also knew I needed to control him. I put him in a tight standing headlock. My father took the ski and hit him repeatedly over the head with it. We knew the Gestapo German Secret Police were only two blocks away. I knew the bloody sports coat would give me away and ran up the stairs to our apartment to take off the jacket. We all went back to our apartment and locked the door.
Word of what happened was out on the street by now. The Slovak police came with a Gestapo man in civilian clothes. The Slovak police took us into protective custody. They wanted us alive to be charged. We were brought to the police station. Germans were running around the Slovak police station with revolvers drawn. From the police station I could see probably more than one hundred uniformed Nazis assembling.
Sometime later, the two Hitler Youth we beat up went to the hospital and were brought back stitched up with casts on their broken bones. One of the Germans wanted to know the story, the real truth how they ended up so beaten up. The Gauletier (highest ranking Nazi) heard of what happened and called the police station. One of the Nazis we beat up began to tell the story, but a third German who had not been there quickly intervened to say he would tell the story [see article]. But I was present so the third German told the Gauletier he could not tell him about the incident right then. Obviously, the truth about two Jews beating up two Nazi bullies was not something they wanted out for public consumption.”
Nazi propaganda presented the Kovary family’s self-defense actions, previously described by Ernest, in a twisted and diabolical light, true to the venom and falsehoods of the time. The following account of Ernest’s fight was published in the German Language Daily Nazi Newspaper “Grenzbote”:
OUTRAGEOUS JEWISH PROVOCATION IMPUDENT ATTACK ON FS MEN (NAZIS) THE JEWISH UNDERGROUND MUST BE LIQUIDATED
By the Reporter of the “Grenzbote” – Pressburg, September 2, 1939
Saturday morning a Jewish attack occurred on Hunter’s Lane against two FS men, during which both, the twenty four year old Josef Zimmerman and the twenty year old Student Julius Foletar suffered injuries and had to be removed to the hospital by ambulance.
Concerning this incredible incident, which proves again how indolently and provocatively Jewry dares to behave here, we received the following details.
THE COURSE OF THE ATTACK
About 10:00 a.m., the FS man Josef Zimmerman was passing unsuspecting through Hunter’s Lane, while Julius Foletar, who is also an FS man happened to come through the street a few houses behind. Suddenly, he noticed that two Jews jumped from house #22, grabbed Zimmerman from behind and beating him dragged him into the lobby. Foletar immediately ran to the aid of his comrade, who was already lying on the ground while the two Jews, their faces distorted in a rage, were blindly hitting him while he was desperately defending himself. Foletar threw himself upon the Jewish Gangsters, who, surprised, let go of their helpless victim, who, dazed from the attack and groaning from pain was stumbling out the door. The next instant the Jews threw themselves with joint forces on Foletar, whom they also injured badly. Foletar had just as little chance as Zimmerman to defend himself properly against the two of them. Furthermore, hearing the noise a third Jew rushed to the scene, armed with a ski, who also assaulted Foletar who was lying on the ground.
Hearing the commotion, a passersby rushed in, who took the injured Zimmerman into his care, freed Foletar and in justified anger, thrashed the Jews and handed them over to the police. They were identified as the Master Furrier Olivio Kovary and his two sons Ernest and Tibor, who attempted to lie during questioning by the police – but they were proven guilty upon the testimony of many witnesses. After they were booked, all three Jews were placed under arrest and taken to the Court-Prison. Both victims of the attack were taken by ambulance to the State Hospital, where Zimmerman was diagnosed as having a broken arm and a series of other injuries and in the case of Foletar, severe cuts and lacerations of the head, face and other parts of his body.
SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITIES OF THE JEWS
This incredible incident furnished clear and convincing proof that it is again and again the Jews, who provoke unrest and in this manner work hand in glove with the enemies of the State towards its destruction. In these difficult hours of historical world events, when Germans and Slovaks are marching shoulder to shoulder in exemplary discipline for their just cause, it is precisely the Jews who are spreading the most mindless atrocity stories in their cunning manner — as is reported to us repeatedly.”
Ernest Kovary picks up the story. The Slovak police sat my father down. They asked him his date and city of birth. He responded Baltimore, United States of America. They did not know what to do with him. So they called the federal prison and sent us there. Dr. Kostka, the head of the Slovak federal prisons, came to meet and interview us personally. We knew if they would have freed us the Slovaks would have lynched us. You see, the Germans influenced people this way. We were all locked up separately. In the middle of the night, a police car came and took us to the federal prison. My brother declined to eat the meal they provided for us because it was not kosher. Eventually, they gave us kosher food. We were incarcerated for several days.
After ten days, we were placed in the same cell. My father was a former soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, and with time on his hands in the cell, he made his bunk in true military fashion. He even made lines in the top cover with a toothbrush. This impressed the guards. Many other guards came to look. We developed a good reputation in the prison. Slovak law mandated that within three weeks we had be charged or released after signing a paper we would appear from trial. Again, the middle of the night we were taken out of the cell, given our clothing and personal possessions and told to sign a paper that we would reappear for trial. The prison secretary winked and said all you need is a ‘good visa’. We are taken out of a side door not the front door because the Germans were watching. My mother was waiting for us there with a car.
My father, brother, and I went to the countryside to my grandmother’s house in Trnava and then to Nitra. My mother stayed in Bratislava; she was not in trouble. In the beginning of December, we received a coded telegram that the Slovak police were looking for us. It meant one thing: we had to escape. My uncle hired a Hungarian farmer who knew the border. On the night of December 12, 1939, we made our escape from Hungary. The ground was not yet frozen so we had to tromp through muddy fields across the border. A cab met us in a prearranged location, Nove Zanky, Hungary. We had a distant relative living there. We found their home and knocked on the door. My cousin asked, “Who is there?” We answered relatives of my grandmother, Maria [who died with my other family members in Auschwitz.] They took us in and we stayed for a time.
My father went to Budapest and acquired a ten day pass to stay. He went to the office for foreigners and the bureaucrat in charge told him not to extend the pass; those who extended were tossed out onto the border. In the meantime, my mother had notified the American consulate. They could not locate my father’s file, but had a 1936 letter from the same consulate that letter indicated that my father had registered as a United States citizen along with family. Unfortunately, the visa was first sent to Prague, but we were extremely lucky to then have it forwarded to Budapest. We took a train on Saturday breaking the Sabbath to meet my mother. Our rabbi approved the journey stating that it was a life and death matter.
My mother was escorted to the border by the same Hungarian farmer who had escorted us several weeks before, but they were both arrested by the military. She had American dollars sewn into her coat which was a crime against the state, so she threw the dollars away as she was being escorted by the military. The military sent for a woman to body-search her. While she was waiting to be searched, she was sitting next to a wood burning stove and the opportunity to burn the money. My mother knew our lives depended on these visas. When questioned by an anti-Semitic military official she said she had visas for her family. She upbraided the officer asking him in front of everyone what did he have against Jews? She shamed him into letting her go. She bribed a border guard with her remaining money, then she found a Jewish woman with an agency who helped reunite her with us.
Eventually we all made it to Genoa, Italy and from there we sailed the United States on. the Conte Di Savoy, the next to last ship to leave Italy prior to Italy’s entering the war. We arrived on February 29, 1940, in New York Harbor. I joined the US army on October 3, 1941, without formally being a U.S. citizen. I went through basic training at Fort Knox, and although, they wanted to send me to Africa because I spoke French, I told them I also spoke German and they reserved me for Europe. I served as a translator throughout the war.
 Provided in the original German and translated to English by Ernest E. Kovary, Chief, Translation Section, U.S. Department of Justice Mission, Berlin, Germany 3/1946-8/1947