July 11, 2011
For native Austrians, a symbolic swim ‘to show the Nazis’
When he come to the 13th European Maccabi Games in Vienna, John Benfield didn’t return to his native Austria for any medals.
“I’m not a competitive swimmer,” said Benfield, 80, of Los Angeles. “But when I heard that the European Maccabi Games were being held in Vienna, I knew it was something I needed to do.”
Sitting next to him on a sofa off the lobby of the Austrian capital’s elegant Hotel Imperial, Benfield’s lifelong friend Arthur Figur, also 80, nodded in agreement. “It’s a symbolic return to a country that could have annihilated me if I hadn’t escaped,” said Figur, of New Rochelle, N.Y.
Benfield and Figur are members of the U.S. swim team in the masters, or over-35, category of the 13th European Maccabi Games being held here July 5-13—the first time the Games are being hosted by a German-speaking country since the Holocaust.
“I’m doing really a symbolic swim,” Benfield said. “I need to show the Nazis that we’re still around.”
Benfield and Figur both were born in Vienna in 1931, and both escaped to the United States as children in 1938—the year that Adolf Hitler rode triumphantly into the city and addressed cheering crowds after the Nazi regime’s annexation of Austria. Hitler stayed at the Hotel Imperial and spoke from its balcony.
Benfield and Figur were friends as children, and both were taught to swim in 1936-37 by Benfield’s uncle, who was the coach of the swim team of Hakoah, the famous Jewish sports club founded in Vienna in 1909 in response to a law that barred Jewish athletes from Austrian sports clubs.
Benfield’s aunt, Hedy Bienenfield-Wertheimer, was a popular fashion model and Hakoah swimmer who won a bronze medal in the European swimming championships in 1927. Her story is recounted in the 2004 documentary “Watermarks,” which tells the story of the Hakoah women’s swim team.
Hakoah, which had grown into one of Europe’s most important sports clubs, was disbanded by the Nazis in 1938.
“The day the Nazis marched in, my mother, who was Dutch, put me on a train to Holland,” Figur recalled. “My parents got out six weeks later.”
The Benfield and Figur families arrived in New York as refugees in July 1938 and shared an apartment there. Benfield’s father joined the U.S. Army after World War II broke out. He died in 1945 in the China-Burma-India theater, though not in combat.
Benfield and Figur both went on to have distinguished careers in the medical field and still lead active professional lives. A thoracic surgeon, Benfield is professor emeritus at the UCLA Medical School and the recipient of many international awards. One facet of his current work is helping researchers and scientists whose native language is not English.
Figur, a hematologist and internist, is the associate medical director at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. The striking Figur, who in Vienna wore a cowboy shirt and sported an earring dangling from his left ear during his interview with JTA, has maintained an enthusiastic involvement in sports. He has traveled the world on adventure treks and taken part in Ironman competitions. This summer, he is planning to participate in a relay swim around Manhattan island.
Figur says he feels little connection with Vienna. “I don’t feel comfortable here,” he said. “If my mother were alive she’d be upset—she was Dutch and she never felt comfortable here, either.”
Benfield, who has been back to Vienna a number of times since 1938, says he has grown more comfortable over the years but was still “wary of the history and wary of the significant faction of fascism” in Austria.
He said he had reclaimed his Austrian citizenship so he could vote here—and vote against the far-right nationalist parties that have made gains in recent Austrian elections.
“My advice to the Austrians is to please recognize that diversity is a good thing,” he said. “Diversity can contribute to the strength of society.
“The events of the past are real, awful and inexcusable. But we have a responsibility to never let it happen again.”