Peter Nemenyi
(1927 — 2002)

Memories

As remembered by Sheila Michaels

Could one say that Peter Nemenyi's life was exemplary, any more than Gandhi's or Einstein's was exemplary? An example to whom? Who could have lived such a life, other than they? He was a saint & his path was difficult. He lived up to his own ideals: but he could not admit that even to himself, because it would have seemed presumptuous. And yet, he was joyous.

Peter Nemenyi (Ne-MEN-yi) was born in Berlin, in 1927. His parents had fled the rise of Fascism in Hungary, the first Fascist state in Europe. They fled to Germany.

They belonged to a small Socialist party, ITSK (it-sk), founded by Leonard Nelson (Neil-sen), which believed that truth could be arrived at through neo-Kantian Socratic principles. It broke with the Social Democrats, which it saw as too frivolous, but aimed to unite the fragmented German Socialist Parties to oppose Hitler.

ITSK had a progressive, vegetarian, school for children, out in the country. Peter, at three, was placed in the school, visiting his parents during summer break. His parents parted & the school cared for him until he reached adulthood.

When he was six, the Nazis came to power. They closed his school & seized its property. His mother fled to Paris, she died some time later. His father a specialist in fluid dynamics (I believe he said, though I can't find it where I thought it was on his tape), taught various places in Europe & eventually in the United States.

Peter's school moved across Europe with its few charges, settling first in a farm village on redistributed noble landholdings in Denmark, where they hauled water & fertilized their farm with refuse. Then they resettled in a collective of unemployed coal miners in an abandoned factory & manor in Wales. Teachers & students grew their own food & worked to support the school. On the brink of war, the teachers  — members of the anti-Nazi underground — were relocated to internment camps on the Isle-of-Man, in the Irish Sea, as possible German agents. Peter remembered them with great love & respect: but then that was his gift to so many people. In September 1940, the week before Peter was to join his father in the United States, a U-Boat sank, the children's transport,("The City of Benares"), which preceded his, & war soon began. He spent his adolescence in various Quakers' homes & young refugee hostels in the U.K..

In the United States, meanwhile, Peter's father started a second family, which also did not work out. His American son was the chess legend Bobby Fisher*, whom Peter remembered with some fondness, although their philosophies could not have been more at odds.

At war's end Peter joined his father in Hanford, Washington, but was drafted within months. His father — who apparently [from my Google search] was on the Manhattan Project team there, as he seemed to have been when Fisher was born in Chicago — attempted draft counseling, but Peter chose induction & served in Northern Italy, outside Trieste.

After service, he attended Black Mountain College: a cooperative, experimental, avant-garde school, which existed for twenty years, in the vicinity of Ashville, North Carolina. It was owned & run by the faculty: originally those who were fired or resigned from Rollins College, in Florida, (which was once a progressive college for Northerners in delicate health). They were soon joined by European refugee artists, who became the majority. The students did both academic & manual work; including constructing the school itself. Grades were abolished.

He received his Doctorate from Princeton in 1963. From my internet searches Peter seems to have pioneered specializing in computational statistics, & wrote part of a textbook on statistics for the student with little background. He was trying to do more work on statistics for the unprepared student when I last saw him.

I first met Peter in 1961, when Frank Nelson & Pat Smith were living with him in Brooklyn. One of the things he said that amazed me was that his second wife, who was Black, had been an opera singer. In our interview he mentioned that his second wife was named Berlia Torres & that she was Puerto Rican. (So it might have been his first wife, or it might have been the same woman.) I couldn't imagine how he could have persuaded someone immersed in the arts (with so little likelihood of breaking the iron color barrier), nonetheless two different women to lead the Spartan life he did, out in the shabbiest, farthest reaches of once lower-middle-class Brooklyn. Even the subway was grudging about going there. And for him to have even attempted to move into someone else's (assuredly) more comfortable life was also an alien thought. Every time I have ever visited him, he seems to have the same furniture & yet no one would have saved such things. Even thrift shops would not have tried to sell them. But Peter could not have had anything better, while anyone in the world had less than he. It was also his obsessive abnegation & self-sacrifice that made me wonder where he would have found a soul-mate.

And the food! The food! He must have had neither the slightest sense of what was palatable nor the meagerest sense of taste or smell. Any two cans of vegetables within reach was what he ate, & yet the result was always appalling. It was only on this last visit, when he had become part of a food co-op, that I knew him to have actually prepared something nutritionally suitable & at least as appealing as boiled potatoes can be. It was probably because he now needed to take care of himself, since he had lost a part of his ilium when he was working for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

One of the little gestures of Peter's that touched Frank Nelson most deeply was the three aged steaks that Peter left him when Frank returned from a 26-day fast in jail, in North Carolina. Pat had had to return to Brooklyn, to Peter's, because the jailers would not recognize their interracial marriage & would not allow Pat to visit Frank in jail. Her unhappiness was palpable. Frank had been sentenced to three months, but the jailers, who could not break his fast, claimed it was three concurrent counts of 30 days, including pre-trial time served, with time off for good behavior. They drove him across the state line & dumped him. When Frank finally got back, he found that Peter had left the apartment so Pat & Frank could have it for themselves. Peter was one of the most committed vegetarians I have ever known, but he was so concerned for Frank's health that he had actually bought those steaks & left them for him, because he knew Frank would be terribly run-down & needed a fast source of protein. The story of Peter's gesture absolutely astonished every person who knew him.

Peter didn't remember when he had joined CORE. He had volunteered around the National CORE office before the New York CORE chapter was formed in 1961. It was no fun to run up against his principled analyses in meetings, but he was always a joy to canvass with. I remember a voter registration drive we were working on in 1962, in Harlem. We were going door-to-door, having long conversations with everyone who consented to talk to us, & yet we covered huge amounts of territory. It was heady. The drive was being coordinated by a vice-president of NYCORE who always wore three-piece suits & hoped to advance in the Republican Party. One afternoon we came in with sheaves of contacts & said that maybe half of the people had promised us they'd come to participate in CORE meetings. The man stepped back & said, in a strangled voice, "Oh, I wouldn't go that far!"

That summer I got to Mississippi, supposedly working for the Free Press, but wound up holding down the Jackson Freedom office. Joan Trumpauer was out of the state, Bob Zellner was too & I was told I was the only Movement person not of the Black persuasion in the state, just then. I set about tidying up the records of recent work on a slow day & found....tons of canvassing reports, with a wealth of statistical analyses, from Peter Nemenyi. He had been to a statisticians conference in the south, had gone to the Atlanta office & Julian Bond had sent him to Joan Trumpauer in Jackson. He had set up a voter registration canvassing project & had also gone to get the reports of the Mississippi department of Education for them to use. It was really beautiful work. I had only to look at the reports to get a pretty good idea of what was really going on in every neighborhood he had canvassed: from the patterns of migration North to the marital possibilities open to the people left behind. Gorgeous stuff, yet not intrusive: pure Peter.

It was while he was in Mississippi that he became friendly with Medgar Evers, whose gentleness & kindness he remembered. Evers' death affected him deeply. He was returning from a conference in New Orleans when Evers was killed & he went to Jackson to participate in the demonstrations & was arrested there. His reminiscences are on his oral history.

He was then teaching at Downstate Medical Center in New York, but he returned to Mississippi the following year, 1963, to teach at Tougaloo College & work with SNCC. In the summer of 1964 he taught at Oberlin, but decided not to accept a permanent post there. He had also not committed to a second year at Tougaloo &, he said, as a result of his indecision, decided instead to spend the year working on the COFO project in Laurel, Mississippi. He also participated in Selma.

The following year he went to teach in Chapel Hill, then Virginia, & a number of other universities. He could have taught in any university in America, but he preferred teaching minority students with limited opportunities & little access to a first-rate education. It has always been difficult to find Peter, because he moved around so much. When occasionally I did hear of him & got in touch, he would immediately write me to tell me what actions I should be involved in.

When he was visiting colleagues in Central America in 1979, he went to Nicaragua. He then told the Sandinistas he would like to work with them, & when they drove out Somosa he joined the new government, but decided not to teach, because his Spanish was not sufficient to make his teaching of benefit to the students. After three years he became so sick that he had to have three operations on his digestive system. Because of the United States embargo the proper drugs were not available. He was not expected to survive. The U.S. government was blackmailed into using a "repatriational American fund" to bring him to Florida in an ambulance plane. He needed three more operations there & had to go on disability. Although disability is not really enough to live on, I believe he also gave most of that money away to people & causes he saw as more in need.

He had been in very poor health since the 1980s; but when I last saw him, in 2000, he was radiant & beautiful. Sometimes, just sometimes, life has a way of catching up with you & showing what you're made of.

Peter was a supporter of Witness for Peace. Contributions could be made in his memory.


*From bobbyfisher.net article with Fisher interview in 1962.

[1] When I asked Peter if his father had died in Israel, as I'd somehow heard of Fisher's story, he said that his father never left the country. He died (I suppose in Washington, D.C.), in 1951, while Peter was still at Black Mountain.

[2] Probably also not true, as Peter did some afternoons of babysitting & I believe it was because his father was unable to be there, but it might have been because his father wished them to know each other.


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Last Modified: August 15, 2002.
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