From Birth to WWII
Anton Berkovits was born in Sigit, Romania, on September 24, 1913, the son of a butcher. In 1939, to escape the Nazis entering Romania and advancing from the west, he decided to go east, and entered Russia. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested in Russia, as were thousands of Jews. Anton was sent to a slave labor mining camp in Vorkuta, a city 900 miles north of Moscow, on the Arctic Circle. Several years later, he met Etta Jacobson, who had been born in what is now the Czech Republic, and was also arrested in Russia. They married in the camp. When World War II ended in 1945, the Russians did not release slave laborers. Etta became pregnant in 1946, and so Anton decided that they needed to escape, even at risk of death, because he did not want to have a child born in a slave labor camp.
Anton and a pregnant Etta escaped in early 1947, and managed to get to Budapest, Hungary, where their daughter, Livia, was born. After less than a year they moved to Austria and three years later, their son, Joe, was born. Anton started a trading business, which included bringing chocolates from Switzerland to Austria, in exchange for Austrian products to Switzerland. In 1951, thanks to the support of several Jewish charities, they were able to board a ship bound for America. The first thing Livia remembers in life is holding her Dad’s hand, standing on the deck of a ship, and seeing a “big lady in the distance” (the Statue of Liberty). Anton and Etta both spoke 7 languages, none of which was English! They came to America with two small children, no money and the shining hope of the American Dream.
The American Dream
After a brief stay in Brooklyn, they moved to Vineland, New Jersey (about 80 miles from NY), where Anton bought a chicken farm. Two years later, Anton realized that chicken farming was not for him! He moved the family to Indianapolis in 1955, as a friend he knew from Hungary was there, and told Anton that Indianapolis was a great place to live and raise a family. Anton found himself in the grocery business, first with Stop N’ Shop and then the Seven Eleven Supermarkets chain. In 1965, the family moved to Chicago, where he purchased several grocery stores of his own.
In 1975, Anton sold the stores and retired to Florida. Retirement lasted just one year! He then bought a grocery store in Liberty City, entered the building business, and opened a deli. There, Anton worked until he was 82 years old, until he eventually decided to sell the business. His wife, Etta, died in 1997, at the age of 78. A few years later, Anton remarried. When asked by he remarried at age 88, he said, “my fiancé drives at night!” This was a man of incredible street smarts and a sense of humor.
A Man of Intelligence & Bravery with a Keen Sense of Humor
Anton loved telling his grandchildren and great-grandchildren stories of life before the war and stories about how he was able to survive in the labor camp. One of the many stories he told was how he kept himself and Etta alive by bribing prison guards with “beef,” which was actually just deer meat. He bribed his way out of the camp by paying off a truck driver to sneak them out at night and take them to a train station with false papers, saying they were Hungarian citizens. Anton was so smart and so very brave.
Anton died in February 2010, at the age of 96. Several months before passing, when asked what he’s learned in life, Anton said, “if you want something in life, never give up.” That was the quintessence of a wonderful man who had a challenging, but wonderful life. Anton was an extremely optimistic man. He lived every day to the fullest, with an excitement about tomorrow. As an example, after he remarried at age 88, Anton took out a 30-year mortgage on a new condo in Boynton Beach, Florida. He said “why not 30-years…the bank has plenty of collateral!” Now, that’s a wonderful optimist with a ton of street sense!