05/11/2023 News

We mourn the passing of Ivan Moscovich (1926–2023).

Concentration camp survivor Ivan Moscovich died on 21 April 2023, shortly before his 97th birthday.

Ivan Moscovich was a creative mind world-renowned in the field of mathematical-logical games and puzzles. He worked together with one of the largest toy manufacturers, showcasing his creations at the Nuremberg Toy Fair right into old age. He was an inventor, but also so much more: an artist, a museum founder and director, an engineer ... In Israel in the 1960s he built a mechanical device, the ‘harmonograph’, which he used to create ‘kinetic images’, a trailblazing novelty at the time. It was only shortly before the end of his life that he was rediscovered as a pioneer of computer art and honoured with exhibitions in London and San Francisco.

Ivan Moscovich was born and raised in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, the son of a Jewish-Hungarian artist and photographer. Ivan Moscovich was 15 years old when fascist Hungary occupied parts of Yugoslavia in 1941. His father was arrested and murdered within the first few days of the takeover (his mother would later survive Mauthausen Concentration Camp). The massacre of Jews and Serbs began soon thereafter. Ivan, his mother and his grandmother were made to line up on the banks of the Danube, in a long queue of people being murdered one after the other. ‘And just before it was our turn, an officer riding a white horse arrived and put a stop to the killing. A white horse!’ As he retold this story, the incredulous amazement that he had somehow miraculously survived not just that time, but on several other occasions was still palpable.

In late 1943, after Germany had occupied Hungary, Ivan was deported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. What followed was a long odyssey: the main camp and the satellite camps; the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen; from there, assignments to slave labour in Hildesheim and the Neuengamme satellite camp at Hannover-Ahlem. Until – back at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp – he lay down on a heap of corpses either to rest or simply to die; he himself had no idea for how long. Then, suddenly, he heard English voices; he rolled down the heap of dead bodies and found himself at the feet of a British officer: liberation at last!

From Bergen-Belsen he went to Sweden, where he was nursed back to health, and then returned to Yugoslavia. There he studied mechanical engineering and repaired destroyed railway tracks – all the while having to supervise 50 German prisoners-of-war. The roles were now reversed and he could have given vent to his anger – but didn’t: ‘I had ten kilometres of rails to get out that week and it was a real dilemma whether to screw the Germans or to try to get the best output from them. I decided to increase their rations to get more work out of them, and sure enough they were grateful and worked even harder, which increased the output. I was very, very tough with them and I think they were scared of me. But I never revealed to them that I was a camp survivor.’

In the early 1950s Ivan Moscovich went to Israel, where he met his future wife Anitta in 1955, with whom he would share his life for 68 years (‘without her I would not be here with you today’). In 1959, he was one of the founders of the Tel Aviv Museum of Science and Technology and went on to become its director when it opened in 1964. In that capacity, Ivan became a pioneer of interactive ‘hands-on’ exhibition formats and modern museum education. Eventually, he and Anitta moved to London, having acquired from his father a definite fondness for Britain and the British way of life. In 2001, they both moved to the Netherlands to be with their daughter’s family.

Ivan never joined any associations of concentration camp survivors and said that he never really wanted to tell his story. Much later, at the urging of his wife, he did in the end write the book The Puzzleman (which the Hannover-Ahlem Memorial published in German, too). It was not until 2016 that he came to the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial for the first time for the commemoration ceremonies; in 2017 he gave the speech at the 72nd anniversary of the liberation. He began to give talks at schools and adult groups. He very deliberately omitted certain things (‘the worst details’) and talked not only about the horror and his fury, but also – particularly in front of school classes – of those isolated instances (few in number) where he had received some measure of support from Germans. Many of his audiences (and friends, too) were surprised that he did not put Auschwitz at the centre of his narrative. And the fact that he focused on other places such as Bergen-Belsen and the Ahlem Concentration Camp in Hanover, both of which he recalled as being particularly horrific and cruel: ‘[In Ahlem] we were hysterically driven by the crazed SS guards and the capos to accomplish it, while mercilessly killing and decimating my group.’

Ivan Moscovich died peacefully on 21 April 2023, shortly before his 97th birthday.

We are most grateful for the friendship that ensued both with him and his wife Anitta. Theirs was a special kind of generosity: Ivan Moscovich made a very specific distinction between those people who had tormented him and those he met later on in his life.

Obituary by Marco Kühnert and Ulrich Gantz