Survivor Tomas Kovar: Hiding in Slovakia, awaiting liberation
The Germans were coming.
Nine-year-old Tomas Kohn, then living as Tomas Blaho, knew the drill. He headed to the front door of the cottage in Ponicka Huta, a village in the Low Tatras mountains in central Slovakia, where he and his parents were living as the supposed cousins of the home’s owners, Alexander and Maria Kur.
As Tomas’ mother grabbed a jacket for her son — it was March 1945 and chilly — Tomas pushed open the door, only to discover three German soldiers already climbing the steep alley leading to their cottage. He couldn’t wait for his mother without arousing suspicion — even with false papers, the Jews in Ponicka Huta didn’t feel safe — and instead walked directly across the alley, disappearing into the forest.
“They didn’t say anything or follow me,” Tomas recalled.
As he walked deeper into the forest, Tomas frequently looked behind him hoping to see his mother. Several hours later, he was lost, certain the Germans had captured her and were lying in wait for him.
Eventually, Tomas came across a woodcutter, who led him back. As Tomas exited the forest, he dashed into the cottage. He didn’t see his mother anywhere.
During the war, Tomas didn’t realize the extent of the dangers he and his parents faced. “They didn’t talk about it. Not during the war and not after the war, either,” he said. Instead, his parents changed the family name to Kovar, a non-Jewish surname, and the family kept a low religious profile.
As he grew up, Tomas didn’t want to hear about the Holocaust, in which many of his aunts, uncles and cousins had perished, and spoke only rarely about his experiences until five years ago, when he attended a talk by another Slovakian survivor at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Since then, he has told his story at the museum twice a month. “There are fewer and fewer survivors,” he said. “I want the people to know what happened.”
The only child of Ernest and Klara Kohn, Tomas was born on Feb. 18, 1936, in Nitra, Slovakia, the closest town with a hospital to the western Slovakian village of Zabokreky nad Nitrou, where his parents and 55 other Jewish families lived.
Ernest managed a large farm, which was owned by a Jewish man named Ernest Gruen. The family lived in Gruen’s unoccupied farmhouse.
Sometime in 1941 or so — about two years after Slovakia had declared its independence and allied itself with Nazi Germany — the farm was confiscated and given to a Mr. Kasicky (Tomas does not remember his first name), a private secretary of Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest who had become Slovakia’s president. Kasicky retained Tomas’ father as the farm’s manager.
By spring 1942, as the Slovak government began deporting its Jewish population, only the Kohns and two other families of men whom Ernest needed on the farm remained in Zabokreky.
After the Slovak National Uprising broke out on Aug. 29, 1944, and German troops began occupying the country, Kasicky could no longer protect the three families. They immediately loaded up a large wagon with some food and household goods and followed the partisans, who were headed toward the mountains.
After reaching Banska Bystrica, a city in central Slovakia, they proceeded uphill to a flat mountaintop area. The partisans departed, and the families settled into separate huts used to store hay. Other Jews hid, scattered across the mountains.
About a week later, townsmen from Ponicka Huta appeared, looking for items the partisans had abandoned. Ernest asked one of the men, Alexander Kur, if he could pay him to hide the three families. Kur, whose cottage was small, left to consult with his brothers-in-law and returned before nightfall, leading the families to the village, already occupied by the Germans.
The Kurs gave their small bedroom to Tomas and his parents, sleeping in the large living room with their three children. The other families each bunked with a brother-in-law.
During this time, according to Tomas, the Germans conducted roundups two or three times a week. Only occasionally did the Jews, who were being harbored in almost all of the village’s approximately 25 houses, have advance warning.
At a moment’s notice, Tomas and his parents could move the living room carpet, where a trap door and a few steps led to a small, dank cellar, a tight fit for three people. With more time, they climbed into an armoire, escaping out a hole in the back into a storage room. But the safest shelter was the forest, directly across the alley. “The Germans shied away from it,” Tomas said.
At some point, possibly in early 1945, the Germans began rounding up the men of Ponicka Huta to dig trenches. The men, Jews and non-Jews, began spending their days in a bunker they had constructed in the forest, essentially a large dirt hole covered with boards.
By February, the roundups had increased, and the men began living full time in the forest bunker. Everyone was waiting for the Russians, “like for the Messiah,” Tomas said.
Ernest was in the bunker on the day Tomas escaped into the forest without his mother. And Klara, Tomas discovered, had been hiding in the cellar. She emerged, grateful that the Germans had not captured her son.
A few nights later, at midnight, Russian soldiers knocked on the Kurs’ door. “We don’t want to destroy this town,” a Hungarian-speaking soldier told Klara, who spoke the language, explaining that they needed to find the German trenches. Klara took the soldiers to the bunker, and Ernest led them to the trenches.
The following day, sometime in mid- to late March 1945, Ponicka Huta was liberated.
Soon after, the Kohns returned to Zabokreky, where Ernest again managed the farm for Ernest Gruen. Tomas enrolled in public school.
On Sept. 24, 1945, a pogrom broke out in Topolcany, about 60 miles southeast of Zabokreky, spreading across the country. “Wherever they could find Jews, they were beating them up,” Tomas said. He and his parents quickly left, returning later that day and deciding they needed to leave Slovakia.
Finally, in January 1947, they boarded a ship in France, headed for Chile, where they had relatives.
Ernest rented a farm in La Florida, an area southeast of Santiago. Tomas attended Jewish school, Instituto de Hebreo. A year later, he transferred to Escuela Nacional de Artes Graficas, a boarding school in Santiago, graduating in 1956. He began working in the meat market his father then owned in Santiago.
In summer 1960, Tomas met Rita Bromet, who had moved to Santiago after the May 22 earthquake in Valdivia. They married on Jan. 27, 1963. By then, Tomas managed his own meat market.
Their daughter Jacqueline was born in November 1963 and son Bernardo in April 1965. Eleven months later, the family immigrated to Los Angeles, and their son Desidario was born in April 1968. They now have six grandchildren.
In Los Angeles, Tomas first worked as a meat cutter for Gelson’s Markets. Then, after a series of jobs, he and Rita owned Hallmark stores from 1978 to 2000, when Tomas began working as a Spanish-English interpreter assisting workers’ compensation patients. He retired in 2015.
Tomas, now 81, is trying to donate a piece of his history, a Torah that belonged to the Zabokreky Jewish community and that was safeguarded by the town’s Catholic priest during the war, to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Tomas’ family carried the Torah to Santiago, where it now resides in their former synagogue, La Sociedad Cultural Israelita B’nei Israel.
“It’s very old and will disintegrate,” Tomas said. “It should be in a museum where it could be more appreciated.”