Holocaust Museum Houston “Guardian of the Human Spirit” Luncheon
Hilton Americas-Houston — Houston, TX
Nov. 2, 2017
This is the speech President Fenves gave in accepting the 2017 “Guardian of the Human Spirit” award after being introduced by University of Texas System Regent Janiece Longoria:
Thank you, Janiece for that beautiful introduction. This is a special day for The University of Texas at Austin, and it is only fitting that you — a distinguished alumna, a UT System regent and one of our university’s greatest supporters, should be here to make this moment possible. Thank you for your sincere words. Thank you for your leadership. And thank you for your friendship.
It is an honor to be in Houston, along with so many of the Longhorn family and leaders of the city and the state of Texas.
The resilience of the people of Houston after Hurricane Harvey has been an example to the world, and this museum embodies their spirit. The motto “Houston Strong” is not just a couple of words, but a way of life in this great city.
I am humbled to be recognized by Holocaust Museum Houston. The work that you do is vital. You teach. You preserve. You enable us to remember and learn. I want to say thank you to every Museum staff member and, especially, to the many volunteers. I am very grateful.
In our busy lives, and in this noisy and complicated world, the Museum is a place for remembrance. We remember through stories.
Each of you here has a story — a life, a family, a history — that is unique. We take our own paths. We make difficult decisions. We fall in love. We choose careers. We leave behind a legacy that is our own. And in this country, we have a longstanding belief in the power of the individual. A belief that our lives are the result of — well, us.
But the reality is that our lives are not only the product of our ambitions, our talents, and a singular focus. Our lives unfold as our individual story intertwines with the stories of others — it’s happening right now, while we are in this room together.
That is why institutions like The University of Texas at Austin and Holocaust Museum Houston are important. They make sense of these intersections. To educate, to understand, to enlighten and to bring people together with diverse perspectives and backgrounds so that we may improve lives for present and future generations.
As president of UT — seeing our students create their own stories on the Forty Acres — you will rarely find me talking about myself. I want to hear what they’re working on. What they’re learning. It’s not about me or my family. It’s about them and their future.
But upon receiving this honor on behalf of The University of Texas at Austin, I feel a need to speak more personally than I am used to.
We are living through a time when our nation is experiencing acts — even movements — fueled by hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim and anti-gay sentiments, and discrimination towards immigrants on college campuses and in our communities.
We must denounce these negative forces. They are inhumane and simply un-American.
Too many people do not understand what hatred can lead to — especially organized, legitimized hatred.
That is why we must remember. Remember through our stories.
So today, I want to tell you a story. A story that helps define who I am, and a story about our nation — my father’s story.
When I was about 8 years old, I came home one Sunday from Hebrew school. On that morning, the teacher had taught the class about the Holocaust. But as an 8-year-old, I don’t think I really got it.
When I came home, I’m sure I wanted to eat quickly and then go outside to play. But while having lunch, I told my mother about what I had heard in school — probably in a typical 8-year-old tone.
At some point, my mother said something like: “We’ve never told you this before, but your dad lived through the Holocaust.” That was the first time I learned my dad was a survivor.
On Sundays, my dad would take a nap to escape from four wild kids. This Sunday, after speaking with my mom, I clearly remember going into his room, looking at my dad sleeping — to see a number tattooed on his outstretched arm. Seeing that tattooed number for the first time is something I will never forget.
My father is a Holocaust survivor.
For my entire professional career, I never talked about my dad’s story outside of our family. Not because of how emotional it is. Not because of how personal it is. But it was his story, and it was our family’s story. It didn’t have anything to do with being an engineering professor.
But my responsibility is different as president of The University of Texas at Austin.
It has been 72 years since the end of World War II and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The number of Holocaust survivors continues to decrease. And soon, they will not be here to tell their own stories themselves — beyond the oral histories many have made.
These stories are important today, and they will be important forever because the darkest moments in history can repeat themselves.
My dad and his sister Eszti grew up in a prosperous upper-middle class, Jewish-Hungarian family in Subotica — a town in a province of Yugoslavia with a large Hungarian population. My grandfather, Louis, served in the army of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire during World War I — and later with his brother, published the most influential Hungarian-language newspaper in the province. The family lived in a large apartment above their newspaper offices and printing plant.
My grandmother, Klara, was a graphic artist who had traveled throughout Europe as an art student. My dad grew up trilingual, speaking Hungarian at home, Serbian in school, and — because of his German governess — he learned German as well.
In April of 1941, as an ally of Germany, Hungary invaded Yugoslavia, and Subotica fell under occupation. My dad was 9 years old.
The Hungarian anti-Jewish laws were immediately put into effect, and my grandfather was led out of his newspaper office at gunpoint, and the business was transferred to a non-Jewish administrator. The family had to sell all of their possessions, including my father’s prized stamp collection, for money to survive. They were forced to live in one corner of their apartment while Hungarian military officers took over the rest of the home.
This dehumanizing process of confiscation and subjugation had happened to Jews all over Europe and was now happening to the Hungarian Jews. They lost their rights as citizens, and the lives that they had built over generations were instantly taken away.
As the next three years passed, life for my dad’s family became increasingly desperate, culminating in the deportation of Hungarian Jews.
To put this in a historical perspective, for Germany, the war was all but lost. The American and British armies had landed in France on D-Day. American and other forces were moving up the Italian peninsula. And the Soviet army was advancing from the east. There was no hope of Germany surviving the onslaught of Allied forces. But the Nazis were so dedicated, and single-mindedly focused on annihilating the Jews, that they continued to deport Jews and operate the death camps to the very end of the war.
So, in 1944, my dad and his family were loaded onto a transport train — a train car built to hold freight — that was packed with hundreds of people.
They did not know where they were going. There was no food or water. The train just kept moving. My dad was 13 years old.
Finally, days later, the train stopped. The doors opened, and the people were ordered to get off. They were at their final destination: Auschwitz.
The guards took hold of the passengers. Within minutes, they selected my great-grandmother to die in the gas chamber. My grandmother Klara was taken into one of the compounds, and my dad and Eszti were put in “youth blocks” in two other compounds.
The average time a person would survive in Auschwitz was four days — my dad would go on to spend five months there.
He survived by using the German language that his governess taught him — acting as an interpreter for the officials who were shopping for slave labor, and for the Polish political prisoners who were the overseers in the compounds.
He worked on a roof repair detail that was allowed to go from compound to compound. In one of these, he saw his sister Eszti who told him that their mother had died. On another visit, he brought Eszti food and warm clothing, paid for by trading trinkets on the black market.
By the late fall of 1944, rumors circulated through Auschwitz that the Germans were planning to exterminate all remaining prisoners, including the children, before the Soviet forces arrived.
With this news, the Polish underground, who had a strong presence within Auschwitz, began smuggling people out in frantic attempts to save as many lives as possible.
I want to take a moment to recognize the bravery of those who resisted the Nazis. History does not often reflect how Jews and other targeted groups fought back. This was at a time when they had no rights, no property, and the slightest infraction was punished by death. Still, they fought back. They organized and resisted. And those resistance fighters saved my dad’s life.
The Polish underground hatched a plan to smuggle my dad out on a transport, where he might have a chance to survive.
Keep in mind, my dad was barely a teenager. And because of his young age, he would never have been selected to work in a slave labor camp. The underground knew this, and coached him to tell the Germans a number of plausible reasons why he would be on a transport from Auschwitz.
One day, as prisoners who had been selected for work lined up, the underground slipped my dad into the line. He was crammed into the train car.
He didn’t know that it was bound for a satellite camp of Buchenwald near Weimar in Germany.
After three days on the train, my dad arrived in the small town of Niederorschel with about 300 other slave laborers. They were going to be forced to work at a small factory, making aircraft wings for Messerschmitt fighter planes.
An SS guard gave a talk to the group, and just before they were dismissed, the guard went up to my dad and said, “What are you doing here? I didn’t select you.”
The guard had recognized my dad from Auschwitz and knew that he wasn’t supposed to be there. The underground hadn’t prepared him for this scenario. But my dad thought quickly and said to the guard — “Well sir, with all of these new inmates, they thought that you would need another interpreter.” The SS guard, miraculously, agreed. My dad was able to go into the factory.
He would spend the remaining months of World War II as a slave laborer, alongside other enslaved Jews and Russian prisoners of war. They were barely fed, and their lives consisted of nothing more than a daily walk from the barracks to the factory, hours of labor, and back for sleep.
Even with the life being worked out of them, they resisted. The workers would sabotage the wiring in the wings of the fighters so the landing gear would retract after takeoff, but upon landing, the wheels wouldn’t lower and the planes would crash. They risked their own lives to ensure that someday, the Nazis would be defeated.
In April of 1945, Gen. Patton’s Third Army was rapidly powering through central Germany as Allied forces converged on Berlin. The Nazis were trying to hide the evidence of the camps. So, they evacuated Niederorschel through a forced march to the main camp 65 miles away — Buchenwald.
Many died along the way. And during the journey, my dad was confronted by a guard, beaten, and his arm was severely broken. He was very ill, but he made it to Buchenwald. Upon arriving, he collapsed and passed out in one of the barracks.
When my dad came to, he was among American soldiers of the 6th Armored Division. American soldiers were liberating the camp. He had survived.
In the weeks that followed, my dad, still 13 years old, had a choice — to declare himself a refugee and face an even more unknown future, or return to his hometown in Yugoslavia, with the hope of seeing his family again.
He chose to go home, and when he got there, he found Eszti had survived Bergen-Belsen, my grandfather Louis had barely survived as a slave laborer in a Silesian coal mine, and two of his cousins had made it through as well. My grandfather was deathly ill and would die a few months later. But before he died, he wrote a letter to a friend living in New York.
My grandfather expressed his hope that his children would move to America. He believed that in the United States, his children would be given an opportunity to flourish — to lead happy, productive lives. My dad never forgot this message, and he still has his father’s letter.
My dad, my aunt Eszti, and their cousins went on to escape what was by then communist Yugoslavia. They ended up in Paris, which was in chaos after the war and flooded with refugees from across Europe. They lived in a Hungarian slum near the Sorbonne that is now a prosperous neighborhood on the Left Bank. My dad learned French and excelled in high school. He and Eszti were able to get American immigration visas, and they arrived in Chicago in 1950.
And then another uniquely American story unfolded. After a couple of years, my dad was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. His unit was preparing for deployment to Korea, but at the last minute, the orders were changed … and he became part of the U.S. Occupation Forces in Germany. Only seven years after being liberated by the same army in the same country.
My dad has always said that he learned what it is to be an American during his time in the Army — that it was where he truly became an American.
But I think he understood what this nation was about long before, when he was at Buchenwald, opening his eyes to see U.S. soldiers caring for the sick and the dying. Fighting for justice. He saw that then.
When he brought his sister food and clothing at Auschwitz, he was already an American. When he helped sabotage German planes in a slave labor camp, he was already an American. And when he came to this nation for the first time as a refugee, he was already an American. The American spirit is not bound by blood, skin color, religion, or place of origin — it is based on a set of ideals found within courageous people.
My dad was honorably discharged from the Army, and his service earned him a path to U.S. citizenship and a college education through the G.I. Bill. While in college, he met and married my mom, Norma, his wife of 62 years, and they raised those four rambunctious kids. My dad would go on to become a renowned professor of engineering, being elected to the National Academy of Engineering at the remarkably young age of 45.
I have one more story.
In 1995, my dad and I were together in Berlin for an engineering conference — where he was giving a keynote address. It was unusual for us to be at a professional event together. But this one had special meaning because it was in Berlin 50 years after the liberation.
One afternoon, I decided to skip the conference sessions. I took the S-Bahn to the western suburbs of Berlin, then transferred to a local bus that drove through a forest to a large villa. The bus came to a stop and the driver loudly announced “Wannsee Haus.” Everyone on the bus watched this one person, me, an American, get off, and I could tell they knew why I was there.
I went through the exhibits of the Wannsee House, which had recently opened as a museum, and saw the documents from the meeting in 1942, where the Nazi’s planned what they called, “the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe.” It was a powerful moment in my life, to stand face to face with the evidence of the evil that had erased much of my family and millions of others from the Earth.
After our conference ended in Berlin, my dad and I drove through the east German countryside to the places he had been taken to half a century before.
We went to the gleaming white train station in Niederorschel, where he had arrived in the harsh winter of 1945. We saw the small factory across the train tracks, the same factory where he had been enslaved. And while driving from Niederorschel, we retraced the path of the march that nearly took his life on the way to Buchenwald.
As we walked around the desolate hill of Buchenwald, my dad —with his superb memory — showed me the places he had been in those few days before the liberation and in the months afterward as he recovered.
At one point, we came across a group of teenagers on a tour. And he talked with them.
I have a photograph of that moment — my dad in full professor mode, standing on a slight mound, with teenagers around him, pointing out the organization and features of Buchenwald.
I think about that photograph. I think about how far my dad came in his life, surviving fascism and escaping communism. What he endured. How courageous he is. How much he has brought to the world.
I think of something else, too. I see in that photograph my dad’s arm extended, pointing into the distance of the deserted death camp. And I think about how his arm is still broken, from that forced march — how it never really healed. There is a part of him that will always be shaped by the horrific experiences he endured as a boy. That will never fully heal.
But then I think: Look what he did with that arm. Throughout his life, as he did that afternoon in Buchenwald, he took it and lifted it up to show others, to teach others, to tell them the truth, so they could better understand themselves, their history, and what human beings — both courageous and evil — are capable of.
By understanding his story, we understand our own story, as individuals, as a society, and as a nation. That is the power of a story.
So now, I’d like to dedicate this award that you have generously given to me, to my dad, Steven Fenves.
He is here with us. And I can’t think of anyone I know who embodies this award more than him. Dad, if you could please come up here …
Thank you all so much.