As a child growing up on Long Island, Richard Markowitz would hear stories from his Hungarian-born grandparents about an illustrious, distant relative who had died three decades earlier. “I heard that I had a famous cousin who was a fencer,” says Markowitz, now an internist in Hewlett. “They may have said he was an Olympian.” It wasn’t until Markowitz took up the sport in high school, becoming a skilled fencer by college, that he found out exactly who his cousin was. Attila Petschauer, a native of Budapest, won a gold and silver medal at the 1928 Summer Games in Amsterdam and a gold at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, and died a gruesome death during the Holocaust at a labor camp in the Ukraine.
Petschauer, the first cousin of Markowitz’s grandfather, was 38 with no children at his death in 1943. To keep his memory alive, Markowitz 13 years ago established a fencing tournament — in sabre, Petschauer’s weapon — in Albany, where Markowitz was a medical resident. After several venue changes, the Attila Petschauer Sabre Open now is held in the late summer at Vassar College, Markowitz’s alma mater.
“It was as if he was wiped off that map. Being a cousin and a fellow fencer and allowing his name to fade into history because there is no tombstone to mark his grave would have been my shame,” Markowitz says. “I couldn’t live with that.”
For several years Markowitz put up the prize money for the United States Fencing Association-certified tournament, which now draws up to 70 fencers, many nationally ranked, and now awards trophies to the winners.
Markowitz, 41,“a good collegiate fencer” at Vassar, engaged a private coach while studying medicine in Israel, and conducted some research at Yad Vashem on his cousin. He learned that Petschauer, a fencing prodigy in Hungary, whose fencers ranked among the best in the world, was deported to the Ukrainian labor camp where guards taunted him, “You, Olympic fencing medal winner … let’s see how you climb trees.” In mid-winter’s freezing weather he was forced to undress; the guards ordered him to crow like a rooster, then sprayed him with water. Frozen, he died a few hours later.
Petschauer’s life and death were the basis for the 1999 film, “Sunshine,” which starred Ralph Fiennes.
Petschauer was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1985.
From fencers who had competed with Petschauer, Markowitz learned that his relative was a generous sportsman with a sharp sense of humor. At the start of each tournament, Markowitz gives a short speech about Petscahuer’s legacy, then all the competitors point their weapons skyward and shout, as a fencers’ sign of respect for his cousin. A few years ago, feeling burned out, Markowitz talked about discontinuing the tournament. Several fencers talked him out it, he says. “They told me, ‘It’s too important to let it die.’ “They knew what it was about” — keeping alive the memory of an Olympian, Markowitz says. Now, he says, “he will not be forgotten.” The 2008 Attila Petschauer Sabre Open will be held Sunday, Sept. 14 at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. Pre-registration is $20. For information, call (845) 437-7454; the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.