Episode 1 – Dutiful Son Turns Whistleblower
Years after graduating, an alumnus confronts his father’s sordid past.
Guest: Harvy Simkovits, MIT Class of ’76, SM ’77, Course 6, MacGregor House.
Have you ever been pressured to do something against your will or compelled to look the other way? Was it instigated by a close family member? This story offers lessons on navigating this challenge and describes one man’s journey of healing.
This episode is just a small sampling of Harvy’s story. Learn more at his website:
Or get a copy of his first book: Just Lassen to Me! – A First Generation Son’s Story: Surviving a Survivor
If you’d like to dive deeper into the world of con artists, I highly recommend a true crime podcast by my friend Javier Leiva called Pretend, stories about real people pretending to be someone else.
Host: On a sunny spring day in 1999, 2 men dressed in suits and ties met for breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. One was a lawyer named Jay and the other, an MIT grad with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Harvy: We shook hands and Jay sat across from me. To put me at ease, he pulled a quarter out of his pocket and put it on the table in front of me.
“Please take the coin and place it in my hand,” he said. I did.
He added, “Now you’re paying me for this legal consultation. Everything you tell me will be held in strict confidence, according to US law.
Host: That’s Harvy Simkovits, MIT Class of 76, SM 77, Course 6, MacGregor House.
And while he is now protected by client-attorney privilege, he is also exposed within a complex set of family dynamics.
A coupled set of diffeqs [differential equations], if you will. One misstep could land Harvy in jail. But the mere act of seeking help involves betraying the trust his father has placed in him.
This episode is about a deeply conflicted son confronting his father’s sordid past. A past containing a secret Swiss bank account, offshore tax havens, forgery, mistresses, and Playboy bunnies.
I’m Ravi Patil and this is Institrve. True stories about MIT. A trove of wonder discovery, and madness. This podcast explores the diversity of the human experience. The question of what it means to be human is a timeless one. By hearing the stories of others, we just may find a piece of ourselves and be inspired to transcend our own limitations.
This episode grapples with the following conundrum.
Harvy: Is it possible to admire a man’s accomplishments, but abhor what he stands for? To seek his blessing, but spurn his legacy? What if that man is your father?
Host: Understanding the father, Johnny Simkovits, is a natural place to begin.
Harvy: My father was born in 1920, just after the new country of Czechoslovakia was carved out of the Austrian Hungarian empire by the Western allies.
He grew up there during a time of peace between the wars until the fascists started to take over in the 1930s. He was born in the eastern part of Slovakia, very close to the Hungarian border in a small city called Kosice. During the war, he ended up fighting for four different militaries for both sides of the conflict.
Host: You had heard that right. Johnny served in four armies for and against each other. The first three are understandable, but the last one is a sheer act of chutzpah.
Born in Czechoslovakia. He was conscripted into their army at age 18. In 1938, several European countries appeased Hitler by allowing Germany to annex a portion of Czechoslovakia. In the months ahead, additional pieces were given to Poland and Hungary.
Johnny was then transferred to the Hungarian military. Hungary was an ally of Germany and when war broke out against Russia, Johnny was transferred to the German army. That’s three down.
Harvy: As a reconnaissance pilot in the German army, [sfx: propeller plane] he flew many missions over the Russian front, got shot down a couple of times, but managed to get back.
Then, in 1943, he could see the war turning against the Germans. [sfx: plane propeller plane stopping] So he flew over the Russian front, ditched his plane, and surrendered to a Russian patrol.
They didn’t kill him because he could speak Slovak. He spent about six months in POW camp. The Russians then placed my father in a new Czech army to fight the Germans.
Host: Johnny had one more defection up his sleeve.
Harvy: And he escaped that army too. They were passing close to his hometown and he went home and hid for the last couple of months of the war, which was a good thing because that army had a devastating defeat.
Host: It so happened that when Johnny went back home to hide, his father wouldn’t accept him, out of fear he would implicated for sheltering a deserter. I believe the repeated letdowns Johnny experienced by the people and governments around him led to his “me first“ philosophy.
Harvy: The one thing he always said is that he was never fighting for any country or cause he was only fighting to save his own skin.
Host: Johnny had a sharp mind for acquiring languages.
Harvy: Born in Czechoslovakia, he spoke Slovak and Czech. He learned Hungarian in high school. During the war, he learned German. As a POW, he learned Ukraine and Russian. Then when he immigrated to Canada, he learned English and French.
He could swear like a sailor in seven or eight languages. He loved making puns and adjusting the meaning of lyrics to songs and just had fun with languages.
Host: A polyglot with a penchant for risk made Johnny the ideal entrepreneur.
Harvy: After the war, he started his own electronics business. He met my mother a few years later.
He sold radios and he repaired radios. He helped put up power lines across Slovakia as new villages were being formed. He went in and created public address systems in their square. He actually flew a plane to check out the installations, his crews were building.
Host: But the Soviets took over Czechoslovakia in 1948 and seized Johnny’s prosperous business, further sowing the seeds of his mistrust for government.
So up until this point, we see a man who’s very bold, and enterprising. Other than ditching his plane, we don’t really see the seeds of who Johnny Simkovits would later become.
Harvy: Yes, he was a very complex man. He was for the longest time an only child and when his mother died, he was three years old. He was shuttled around to different families for a number of years so he developed this tremendous independent streak. He wanted to be his own man. He wanted to be somebody.
Host: Do you recall the first moment when you felt something wasn’t quite right in the way he handled business?
Harvy: It actually wasn’t until I was about 17 or 18 years old. My father used an expression with me and others that he was giving advice to. He would put his hand on my shoulder, point his finger at me and say, “Son, just lassen to me, for I have much more experience than you do!”
We had come back from Czechoslovakia. He wanted me to help him put the bills through the company.
[sfx: factory sounds]
Host: Harvy’s father owned and operated a stereo console manufacturing business. Harvy spent his summers working at the plant amidst the assembly of radios, cassette players, and turntables.
Harvy: Back then, bills from Eastern Europe were all written by hand. So he said to me, “Son, here’s what I want you to do. Take this bill.” And it says 93 crowns, which was the lunch, “Put a one in front of it, make it 193 crowns.” Or there was a 38 and he changed it to an 88.
At that time, I thought what he was doing was legitimate but there was a piece inside of me that says, “There’s something wrong about this. There’s something not right here.” And that was the first time he introduced me into his finagling.
And also, my father had this boisterous voice when he was upset. It would shake the pants off me, even if he was screaming at somebody else. Both my parents were actually yellers and screamers. I was a very sensitive kid.
Host: So you admired him for being a successful businessman at the same time you feared his anger. Both of those conspired to cause compliance with his wishes.
Yes, exactly, and I was a pleaser kind of child. I wanted to please both my parents, but especially my father who I admired. He was very much an absentee father during my life. He worked six days a week.
Host: Marital discord between his parents created a rift between Harvy and his older brother Steve.
Harvy: I tried to stay neutral, but I think it was pretty obvious that I was more in my father’s camp, even by saying nothing. My brother attached himself more to my mother and first children fight with their father for the love of their mother so he and I developed rivalry. We bothered each other all the time.
We never really confided in each other about the stresses we were feeling about our parents and we grew up pretty estranged from each other and that carried into our adulthood. He and I were only 13 months apart. My mother dressed us as twins sometimes. Two boys don’t want to dress as twins if they’re 13 months apart so it started really early.
Host: While your father was away, he was quite the operator.
Harvy: My father was a womanizer. Some nights, he couldn’t even remember how he got home and he’d have to check the garage to see that his car was still there. So my parents would have a lot of fights but he didn’t want to be tied down.
He entertained his customers. He bought drinks and dinners for everybody. People absolutely loved him. A lot of the Montreal restaurants back then had musicians playing and he would slip money under the table. He was a man’s man and he attracted all kinds of people towards him, including other women and had many affairs, which I found out later.
And, so he lived two lives.
Host: When Harvy came of age, his father started sharing more details. Harvy was eyewitness to the opening of a secret Swiss bank account.
Harvy: We went back every four years to visit my parents’ family in Czechoslovakia. And because it was under communist control, the border controls were very strict. There were barbed wires, fences, and armed soldiers at the border. You had to be very careful when you answered.
One border guard, says, “Can I have your wallet?” And so my father hands him his wallet and as the guy is taking all the money and papers, here is this check for $72,000. And my father and the border guard have a conversation about in Czech, which I didn’t understand, but I asked my father later and he said, “Just don’t say anything about it to your mother or brother.” And I just played along and said, “Okay, I won’t.”
Host: That mysterious check came to life in Geneva, Switzerland, at the end of the family vacation. While Mom and Steve were busy packing for the flight home, Johnny turns to Harvy.
Harvy: “Listen, I gotta do some banking business here. You wanna come with me?” And being the dutiful son, I said, “Sure.” Certainly better than staying in the hotel room and packing.
We walk into this beautiful, ornate, marble wood-paneled, bank. My father and the bank manager talked as if they knew each other. So the guy sits us down in his beautiful office, and I’m thinking that one day I’d love to have an office like this for myself.
He has my father fill out application forms and sign here, sign there. And then he turns to my father and says, “Here’s the new number for your bank account. It’s a secret number. Keep it only to yourself.”
And, I’m sitting there stunned. I suddenly realized what was going on. I felt myself transported into a James Bond movie. My father is Goldfinger, making a secret deposit into a Swiss bank account. And $72,000 back then is worth nearly half a million dollars today. So this was a sizeable amount of money. And, I didn’t say anything in front of the bank manager.
We walk outside and my father turns to me and says, “Son, just keep what you saw today between us. Don’t say anything to your mother and brother.”
And that was his standard line with me. And I think, in part, he was testing me. If he felt that I could be trustworthy, he would divulge more to me. And as it turned out, I was right about that. I didn’t feel great about it, but I kept my mouth shut and he ended up divulging to me more over the years as he moved his money from one tax haven to another.
Host: That comment about being tested was spot on. On that very trip, his father proposed using Harvy as a pawn in an immigration scam.
Harvy: My mother’s brother was worried about his son not having a future in a communist state. So my father just looked at him, says, “What if we give him Harvy’s passport? He can leave with us and Harvy can go to the Canadian embassy and say that he lost his passport and he’ll get a new one in a week.”
And I would say, “Am I not here?” They’re talking about me and giving away my freedom. Fortunately, my mother was in this conversation and she stood up for me and said, “No, Harvy’s not going to give up his passport.”
Host: So the Swiss bank account and potential immigration scam happened just weeks before you were to arrive at MIT as a freshman?
Harvy: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Host: Hmm, Imagine telling the Institute you couldn’t show up for rush week because you were in jail. A gap year for all the wrong reasons.
Why did you apply to MIT?
Harvy: My father heard that MIT was the best engineering school in the world. I wanted to follow my friends to Queens University, one of the best engineering schools in Canada but my father had other ideas and he talked to me many times about it. And I wanted to please him so I decided to go.
Host: MacGregor was built in 1970. And you arrived on campus in 72. What was it like staying in an essentially new dorm?
Harvy: I was in the low rise. The dining hall was just below us. I remember MacGregor especially for the block parties. These once or twice a year, big parties. In those days, MIT was 90% men, 10% women. They’d go invite women from Wellesley and other colleges in the area. And hundreds and hundreds of students would show up for these parties and being an introvert I was not great at starting and holding conversations with women but I learned to dance and it did work.
Host: How did you cope with academic stress and family stress?
Harvy: MIT was my escape. Studying was an addiction and if I really look back upon it, what I was really addicted to was my father because I felt highly dependent upon him.
And studying, fried clams, and ice cream were my release, my ways of forgetting about what was going on at home where the real addiction was.
Host: I recall indulging in the chocolate frappes at Pritchett in Walker Memorial.
Harvy: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m with you.
Host: Note to self: Where on earth does one get fried clams at MIT?
While scratching out 6.002 problem sets, Harvy would make long distance calls to Canada each week. The repeated stress of these calls took a toll on his health.
Harvy: I’d call my father at work during the week. He was always positive and optimistic. Things deteriorated between my parents. I called my mother every Sunday night. She would tell me all the things that were happening at home and it was getting to me.
And I would develop mysterious aches and pains and there were some months that were really tough there but I decided to do my best to focus on my studies. And in the end, separate myself as much as possible from my family, because I felt there was little I could do to change what was happening at home.
Host: Did you confide in any of your buddies about all the family drama that was going on?
Harvy: My basic answer is no, I didn’t say anything. Both my parents were secretive they said, “Never tell anybody about our family problems.”
And, secondly, I was trying to be my father’s preferred son and working to become somebody in the world. I didn’t want other people to think less of me, so I hid. And in retrospect, it was not a good thing. It would have been good had I confided.
Host: At home in Canada during the summer after freshman year, Harvy received a shocking revelation.
Harvy: My father had left my mother a few times, and this was his second time that he left her. She was feeling alone and lonely and she decided to divulge to my brother and me the fact that she was Jewish. My father wanted my mother to hide her Jewish religion because Canada back then was still fairly anti-Semitic. It was very anti-Semitic before World War 2. Things changed after but still they were afraid of anti-Semitism and many of my father’s friends and customers were not Jewish.
They even gave her a middle name of Maria so she would be Anna Maria Simkovits and she hid behind that. But when he left her a second time, she no longer wanted to hide that fact from my brother and me. I was just shocked and stunned. Here, my brother and I had grown up Catholic, had gone to Protestant school. I just couldn’t fathom it.
We felt some of the anti-Semitism in our Protestant school where some of the Jewish students were treated poorly. Not all, but some. And their Jewishness was used as a handle to berate them so I wondered how I would have been treated at school had kids known that I was Jewish. My reaction was just to accept it and move on.
When I was at MIT, I became nondenominational. I didn’t go to any kind of services. So I said, “It doesn’t bother me.” I just try to put it away, and not think about it for many years.
Over the years, it turned out that many of my best friends, business colleagues, even partners in business turned out to be Jewish. There was some affinity I developed for that people, that culture, that way of life, that has made me who I am and I thank my mother for that part of my history.
Host: There is a poignant moment in your book where you reach out to an old classmate of yours from childhood. You weren’t part of this bullying incident, but you felt compelled to reach out to him.
Harvy: Oh, yes, there was one kid in high school. He was constantly berated. I felt badly for him. I didn’t know at the time that I was Jewish too. I never stood up for him, but many years later I did contact him and we had exchange over the phone.
And, I apologized to him for not having stood up for him. And he was very gracious, and grateful too, that I recognized what had happened. He said, “Don’t worry about it.” It didn’t affect his life. He ended up changing schools, finding a new direction, and being a successful person in Canada.
Host: I found it to be a beautiful moment of healing.
Harvy: It was and he held no grudges. He appreciated my reach out and I felt greatly relieved that we had that interaction.
Host: Harvy progressed through Course 6, maintaining a near perfect GPA. His efforts were rewarded.
Harvy: I was home on vacation and he had me come into the office. He pulls out a drawer, brings out two cards, and he puts them in my hand and says, “Son, because you turned 21, I’m giving these to you.” One was a Playboy Club card key. He had taken me a couple of times to the Playboy Club and he gave me an American Express credit card. So having me take my friends out and put it on the company was a tax deduction for him but also entertainment for me. He was trying to entice me into his world. These were his ways of getting me deeper and deeper into his ways of doing things. And, it worked for a while.
Host: I’m picturing you at commencement. Did your family come for the ceremony at Killian Court?
Harvy: They came for my bachelor’s degree. We did the whole event together. The biggest memory I have of that moment is the pride that my father had. That his son graduated MIT.
He got me a gold watch and he told me, “Keep this watch. It’s worth a lot of money, and never, never give it away.” It was a Patek Philippe watch and I was incredibly honored because I knew it symbolized that I had come of age with my father. And, for decades after that, I was the MIT son to him.
Host: Harvy earned a masters degree in electrical engineeering at MIT as well, reaching his father’s educational level, or so he thought. Harvy’s mother later revealed that that Johnny did not have a masters in electrical engineeering but rather, was a master electrician. The desire to please his father academically didn’t end here.
After working as a process control engineer at Proctor and gamble for almost two years, Harvey began his MBA at a school down the road, but called it quits after one semester. Harvard did provide one gift however.
Harvy: What I discovered there was organizational behavior and a few years later because of that keen interest I went into another master’s program in American University having to do with organization development and human resource development.
Host: After completing his master’s at American University, Harvy worked as a management consultant for a few years before opening his own consultancy, which he leads to this day.
So over 2 decades after leaving MIT, Harvy summoned all the courage he had to defy his father and seek legal counsel for the very first time. The burden of keeping his father’s secrets had become unbearable.
Harvy’s first order of business was undoing a university donation scam in his name. Here’s how it worked.
Harvy: Imagine university fundraisers coming to you and saying, “We want you to donate to our university and we’ve got a way you can do it for nothing. You make a donation to us, we’ll send you a tax receipt so you can deduct it off your taxes.
We won’t donate that money to university quite yet. We’ll put it, instead, into a bank account offshore and it’ll generate income for you and what we’ll do with that income, we’ll put in another offshore bank account and you can take that money out anywhere around the world at your leisure.
So for your lifetime, you’ll get all this earning tax free. Then when you die, we’ll send another tax receipt to your estate so can it can be deducted again from your estate. So basically it’s costing you nothing.”
So what my father set up for me was a variation on this theme, but he had done a couple of these transactions over the years, getting tax-free income, going to the bank going to see the teller with a special card, with a special number on it and pulling out cash. No questions asked.
Host: And so the university wins at the end of the chain when the person passes away.
Harvy: Yes, that’s exactly right. And the university is colluding with the bank, colluding with my father to do this arrangement. If you don’t say anything to the government, they won’t say anything to the government. And because they’re foreign entities governed by the laws of their offshore country, they don’t need to follow Canadian rules and report this income to the Canadian government. So everybody wins.
Host: We now return to that fateful breakfast in the Ritz-Carlton.
You placed the quarter back in Jay Henry’s hands. What was the outcome of that meeting?
Harvy: He told me to separate myself as much as possible from my father’s offshore activity.
I knew I couldn’t handle things on my own. I realized I was deep into the soup. I needed to keep myself clean even though my father was deep into the offshore money game. He led me to a Canadian attorney. I needed somebody Canadian on the case and that’s what led me to Andre.
Host: Emboldened by the meeting in Boston, Harvy decided to go all the way. He traveled to Montreal and carefully pried open a ceiling panel in his father’s office and gathered all the documents. With a coat stuffed with these documents, he waited in Andre’s conference room.
Harvy: I’m waiting about 20 minutes and I’m sweating through my shirt, preparing myself to divulge all this money mishigas my father had created. And, I’m saying to myself, “Where there is this guy? I’m dying here.”
It was a very scary moment for me, but it turned out that he was terrific. His help at that time was exactly what I needed.
Host: You went through unimaginable stress resolving your father’s affairs. What cycles of emotions did you experience?
Harvy: I think I felt fear in not being able to live up to his hopes and expectations for me. I felt fear about being caught by the Canadian or US government in having access to offshore accounts. I probably felt anger too towards my father, but there was no way at that time that I could express anger towards him.
So I turned that anger into myself and became depressed. There were times when I even considered harming myself but I managed to get out. I managed to get out of my depression and finally turned my attention to trying to resolve the dilemma that I was in. I had to decide that I needed to find peace and a way out and that led me to many years of thinking through how I would do that.
When the student is ready, the professor shows up. So I was ready and Andre showed up.
Host: How Harvey extricated himself from his father’s financial crimes and settled with the government is a roller coaster involving intrusive relatives, the appearance of an unexpected half-sibling, lawsuits, and divorce settlements. I’ll direct you to that shortly.
Before we proceed to some learnings from this episode, please note an important disclaimer.
Harvy: My story brings to light the less than ethical practices of one global bank and one fundraising arm of an independent university. It’s not my intent to disparage all multinational banks or private universities. I only wish to shed light on the dubious financial practice of some entities, which most likely exist worldwide, and collude with wealthy individuals to skirt paying a fair share of tax in the country they reside in.
Host: What advice or lessons do you hope to impart to others?
Harvy: Don’t become overly dependent on the family that you have. Love them as you can. And there were many things about my father and my mother that I did love but it was important to separate from them and find a life on my own.
Second, find things that you’re proud of and do things that give you pride for otherwise you’ll feel unfulfilled. You’ll feel empty. In the end, I’ve done some things in my consulting practice that I’ve really been proud of. And the way that I ended the situation with my father’s offshore money, I’m very proud of that too, though there were some mixed results. And having worked to create a more normal and healthy family life with my wife and kids has also made me feel good about myself.
Lastly, seek outside help as well as mentors when needed. When I worked in my family’s business, I did find an outside psychologist who was instrumental in changing the trajectory of my life through a new career in organization and human resource development. So having good helpers around you can be very useful, even life-altering, if not lifesaving.
When I stood firmly in front of my father and said, “This is what I want to do,” rather than come into the family business, he accepted it. He was not happy but accepted it. He knew that I needed to find my own life. He had found his own life. He knew that I had to find my own.
Host: With the publication of your books and your organizational development practice, do you feel that you have healed your traumas?
Harvy: I’d done therapy for many years and it wasn’t enough. I really had to figure out what was causing me to be somewhat unfulfilled and needing to please my father.
Certainly writing my books was a big release for me. I wrote to stimulate self-discovery, but also to stimulate the same way with other people.
I couldn’t read the chapter about my mother’s death for many years without breaking down and crying because it was just so moving and I felt partially responsible for her dying. She had a heart attack and died very quickly afterwards.
So it was important for me to get it out of me and to put it in front of me where I could see it and understand it. The best I could do was put it in a place where it has less power over you. You can never forget it. Healing is a process over time.
My parents traumatized too. I don’t blame them for what they did. They didn’t know better but I don’t want that trauma to pass down to my children and continue down the generations. So to the extent that I cleaned up my father’s affairs, tried to clean things up with my brother, and other relatives, I did the best I can and I’m satisfied with that, period.
Host: This episode is a just a small thumbnail of Harvy’s story. If you’d like to learn how he navigated the treacherous waters in his life, I highly recommend his book series entitled Just Lassen to Me. You’ll enjoy his courageous and heartfelt storytelling, filled with vivid, cinematic detail. Check out the show notes for more info. At least 50% of profits from his book sales support victims of domestic abuse and violence.
I was drawn to Harvy’s story because it deals with the collision of nature and nurture. What happens when nature confronts nurture?
A baby giraffe is born and lands on the ground with a seemingly cruel thud. Unbelievably, the newborn take its first steps within just one hour. Nature kicks in and it’s utterly incredible. On the other hand, consider a human baby, defenseless and completely at the mercy of its caretaker. Clearly nurture is important.
We’ve all experienced the conflict between nature and nurture in varying degrees, especially when close family is involved.
I find comfort in Harvy’s story realizing that you can find your center if you give yourself the time and space to reflect. If you treat yourself compassionately and reach out for help.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength because you’re wise enough to admit you can’t do it alone and brave enough to accept another perspective.
This is the inaugural episode of Institrve and I am grateful for the help I received.
Thank you to Javier Leiva for his gracious mentorship. He hosts an excellent true crime podcast about con artists, real people pretending to be someone else. Visit pretendradio.org and enjoy his investigative storytelling.
A shout out to Centerline Digital for the brilliant theme music. If you can spot the MIT easter eggs, you may be able to decipher the story I’m telling through sound.
Thanks to Samudra Vijay, MIT PhD 2005, ESD, Eastgate. His company, SamIT Solutions, generously provided graphics design and hosting services. Thanks to Barking Dog Studios for the website.
Thank you to Emily Taylor and the MIT Alumni Association for their encouragement and support.
And of course, thank you to Harvy Simkovits and all future guests on the show.
Check out institrve.com for comprehensive show notes along with transcripts for the hard of hearing. If you have story ideas or feedback, contact me through the website or an email to host [at] institrve [dot] com.
Thanks for joining and stay tuned for the next episode, a powerful, 2 part series about a child Holocaust survivor who defied the odds and found his way to freedom and MIT.
Choose happiness. See you next time.
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