Dallas Holocaust Museum “Hope for Humanity” Dinner
Hilton Anatole — Dallas, TX
Oct. 24, 2018
This is the speech President Fenves gave in accepting the 2018 “Hope for Humanity” award after being introduced by University of Texas System Regent Janiece Longoria:
Regent Longoria, thank you for the very kind words. As a UT Distinguished Alumna, your life and career reflect the core values of our great university. As a UT System Regent, you are working to ensure that more Texas students than ever before have access to life-changing educational opportunities. I thank you for your leadership.
I’d also like to thank:
- Senator Florence Shapiro for her decades of service representing the people of her hometown, Dallas, and for her remarkable work as Chair of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, particularly in leading the effort to create the new Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum;
- Thank you to John Massey for enthusiastically supporting this event and, as always, for his longstanding commitment and love for The University of Texas;
- And thank you to tonight’s Dinner Chairs — Dawn and Todd Aaron, Lisa and Neil Goldberg, Lisa and Steve Lieberman, and Elaine and Trevor Pearlman.
I want to express how grateful I am to Mary Pat Higgins and everyone at the Dallas Holocaust Museum for presenting me with this award and for inviting me to represent The University of Texas at Austin this evening.
And last but certainly not least, I’d like to thank every person here tonight for supporting the mission of the Dallas Holocaust Museum and the Center for Education and Tolerance. This is an incredible institution, and your engagement and partnership enable it to thrive.
Here in Dallas, we are many miles away from the countryside and cities of Europe where the Holocaust took place. More than 70 years have passed since the concentration camps were liberated and World War II ended. But the lessons of the Holocaust are not constrained by geography or time — they are as resonant today as they have ever been.
My father’s family was nearly destroyed during the Holocaust, but as a kid, I didn’t know much about it.
My three siblings and I were raised in a home filled with drawings on the walls. Drawings of street scenes, buildings, cathedrals, rivers, canals, and a few portraits. They were made by my grandmother, Klara Gereb.
Because of her art, I felt — even at a young age — that I knew Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and the canals and lagoon of Venice.
Her work transported me. Out of my small town. Out of America. Across oceans.
I never met my grandmother Klara. All I had was an ethereal impression of what she looked like from her portrait. I had her art. That was all.
But as I got older, I learned about her life and gained an understanding of the depth of her talent and the generosity of her spirit.
Klara lived in Subotica, Yugoslavia, near the border of Hungary.
She trained as a graphic artist, won prizes for her work, and spent years traveling, studying and drawing throughout Europe in the 1920s. She was independent and creative — regarded as far ahead of her time.
Eventually, she returned to Subotica, married my grandfather Louis, the editor-in-chief of a widely circulated newspaper, Napló. And had two children — a daughter, Eszti and a son, Steven. My dad.
Last year, I gave a speech in Houston about my dad’s story of survival during the Holocaust. And that speech was the first time I told his story in a public setting. It’s a story of resilience in the face of terror. A story of bravery in the face of certain death. A story that is a testament to my father’s courage.
It is also a story about our nation — a nation that fought evil, liberated my dad and thousands of others and gave my family the opportunity to build a new life in America.
Tonight, I will again talk about my dad’s experiences during the Holocaust. Why? Why do I tell his story again? Why is it important?
When most people think of the Holocaust, they think of a number — 6 million, for the 6 million Jews who were killed. They don’t think of names. And so, it’s difficult to feel empathy or understanding.
Time has a way of numbing us to the pain of the past. History has a way of condensing human life into a remote series of dates and events. Names and stories, however, have none of these shortcomings. They can be clear, vivid, and relatable for all time.
That’s why I tell this story tonight.
In the 1930s, the Fenveses were an established Jewish family in Subotica. They were well-educated, well-respected, hard-working and prosperous. They lived in a beautiful building, with their apartment located directly above their newspaper offices.
In April of 1941, when my father was nine years old and his sister Eszti was eleven, the family’s world changed forever. School was suddenly dismissed in the middle of the day. My dad returned home to find out that Nazi Germany had declared war on Yugoslavia, and that Hungary, an ally of Germany, had crossed the border to re-occupy the province that included his hometown.
My dad and Eszti heard gunfire nearby and crowds cheering in celebration. The family’s German governess soon marched out of their front door, stating that she would not spend another night in a Jew’s home.
She was emboldened by the Hungarian anti-Semitic laws that had been put into effect in the occupied territories that day. Laws that allowed property owned by Jews to be confiscated and regulations to be instituted to humiliate and harass them. Laws that soon led to the public hanging of eleven young Jewish men and women in Subotica.
And Jews were no longer allowed to employ non-Jewish workers. So, even though she wanted to stay on with the family, their cook, Maris, had to leave them.
On the afternoon of the occupation, my grandfather Louis was led out of his own newspaper offices by a Hungarian military officer. And as he was taken to the door, cruel slurs and insults were yelled at him by the editors and printing press crew he had employed for years — his staff.
For three years, the Fenves family lived in their apartment under increasingly restrictive and degrading laws, and they had to sell nearly all of their personal possessions just to get by. Then, in March of 1944, Nazi Germany occupied Hungary. Among the Nazis who led the occupation was SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who proceeded to implement the Final Solution in Hungary.
A week after the German takeover, four Hungarian plainclothes police came for my grandfather Louis. My dad and Eszti went to the window and saw their father put into a black car. They didn’t know if they’d ever see him again.
A few months passed. Then suddenly, my dad, his mom and sister were told that they were to be evicted within 24 hours. By the time they were ready to leave the next day, every inch of their staircase was occupied by people waiting to ransack the apartment. Neighbors cursed at them and spat on them as they walked down the stairs, leaving the only home my dad had known for a cramped and filthy ghetto.
June 6, 1944 — D-Day. The Allied forces landed on the beach in Normandy, a thousand miles from Subotica. That day was also my dad’s 13th birthday — June 6, 1944 — the year he was supposed to celebrate his bar mitzvah.
By this time, the ethnic cleansing of European Jews was nearly complete. The Hungarian Jews were some of the last remaining.
A few days after D-Day, my dad learned that the Allies were in France, fighting the Germans on the Western Front. Would the Allies defeat the Nazis and arrive in time to save his family?
No. It wouldn’t be soon enough.
A few weeks later, the families in the ghetto were ordered to line up along the railroad tracks, facing a long line of boxcars. They were quickly filled — 50 to 60 people per car with two small-barred windows and one bucket for sanitation. As my dad looked back through the closing doors, he saw townspeople sneaking into the ghetto, eager to once again loot any possessions left behind. The doors were locked and the train started rolling.
After many days without food or water, people — including friends my dad had grown up with — died in the boxcar, their bodies pressed against the living. Finally, the train stopped and the doors opened with a clang. They had arrived at Auschwitz.
Somehow, my dad, Eszti and their mother found each other amid the chaos of people being herded away from the tracks. Holding hands, they reached the point where men and women were being separated. My dad squeezed his mother’s and Eszti's hands, as the crowd thrust him forward alone. It was the last time my dad ever touched or saw his mother, Klara.
He was sent to the Youth Block in one of the many compounds within Auschwitz. The average time a person would survive in Auschwitz was four days — my dad would go on to spend five months there.
Over time, my father’s friends began to waste away, victims of a steady regimen of starvation and degradation. They became weak and detached, turning into shuffling ghosts with glassy eyes before being carted off to the crematorium.
The Auschwitz compounds were ruled by Kapos — mostly criminals from German prisons who worked for the SS to control the other inmates. They hated the Jewish prisoners and did whatever they could to torture and intimidate them. They were more feared than the SS.
Between the terrible conditions and the merciless harassment by the German Kapos, my dad had little chance of surviving. But, he had a unique skill that would extend his life. In an ironic twist of fate, the German governess who had abandoned their family had taught my dad fluent German.
And based on his ability to speak German and Hungarian, he was chosen to interpret for the Kapos and the German civilians who came to Auschwitz to select slave laborers.
My dad had been in Auschwitz for a month when the makeup of the Kapos changed drastically. The vicious German criminals were replaced by Polish political dissidents — intellectuals who had been arrested for their anti-Nazi actions. This new group of Polish Kapos became the leadership of the underground movement in the camp — determined to resist the SS by any means necessary.
In addition to Hungarian and German, my dad also spoke Serbian, which is similar to Polish, and the Polish Kapos started using him as an interpreter.
The Polish group’s rebellious spirit and commitment to sabotaging the Nazis deeply inspired my father and changed the course of his life. He no longer feared that he would end up another casualty in the crematorium. Now, he had hope. And the will to fight back.
My dad managed to get assigned to the camp’s roof repair detail, which enabled him to pass through the many compounds of Auschwitz, doing black market trading as well as intelligence collection and exchange.
On a visit to a women's compound one day, my dad was recognized by inmates from Subotica. He heard shouts: "Eszti is here!" The cry "Eszti!" "Eszti!" rang out loudly. He eventually found his sister, face drawn, thin as a bone, her long braids replaced by a short shock of red hair.
Eszti told my dad that their mother Klara had died. She had been so weakened by the three years of worry and persecution preceding her deportation that Klara lasted only a few weeks in the camp.
After this one and only meeting with his sister, my dad traded all his black-market goods for a sweater and a shawl for Eszti, who was scheduled for an outgoing transport and paid a courier to take them to her so she could keep warm during the coming cold winter.
As the Soviet army approached Auschwitz in late 1944, inmates were being selected and killed. During one selection for the gas chambers, my dad hid in a latrine trench submerged up to his mouth.
With the compound virtually empty, the Polish underground prepared my dad to escape. They ran through different scenarios with him and helped him develop stories and responses to potential questions he might be asked.
Eventually, an opportunity came and the underground slipped my dad into a line of inmates for an outgoing transport. At the end of the line was the tattooing station. My dad was tattooed on his right arm with the number he would have for life: B-13874.
Then, he was loaded into a boxcar.
Three days later, the train came to a halt in the small German town of Niederorschel and the inmates lined up.
A German foreman who he had worked for in the camp walked right up to my dad — by far the youngest person in line — and yelled in an angry voice: "What are you doing here? I did not select you when you interpreted for me at Auschwitz!"
At first, my dad didn’t know how to answer. This wasn’t one of the situations the underground had prepared him for. But my dad thought quickly, cleared his throat, looked the man in the eyes, and in the coolest voice he could muster, said: "Mister foreman, with this many new inmates, they thought that you would need an additional interpreter."
The foreman, surprised, shook his head and turned to the SS sergeant: "Not a bad idea, that!" he said as he walked away.
My dad became a slave laborer in a satellite of the Buchenwald concentration camp. It was filled with Jewish survivors of death camps and Soviet prisoners of war. They worked 14-hour shifts in a small factory, manufacturing wings for Messerschmidt fighter planes.
The inmates often risked their lives to sabotage the planes — cutting cables, making subtle tears in the aluminum and intentionally not tightening rivets. The workers used hand signals to show the painting crew where the sabotaged components were, so they could paint over them.
Air raids happened twice a day. In the morning, the inmates would cheer as the tight formation of U.S. bombers flew to the east. In the afternoon, they watched the American squadrons returning in "missing man" formation — and they cried as they counted the number of empty spaces, signaling downed U.S. planes.
But as winter turned to spring, there were fewer and fewer missing planes. The Americans were winning.
On April 1, 1945, the factory was evacuated.
My dad and the others were forced to march. They trudged through the farmlands and villages of Germany for days. At one point, two guards started talking about the “victory of the Reich.” My dad yelled at the guards, “You are crazy,” and one of them viciously slammed my dad with his rifle butt, breaking his arm. His fellow inmates quickly made a sling out of branches and cloth so he could continue.
As the march dragged on, people started to weaken, and many were shot. During one stop, they heard from a member of the local underground that the Germans were planning to execute everyone as the U.S. Army approached, and that they should stall as long as possible.
The next morning, the surviving inmates had a plan. Two of them hid, and the SS guards went out to search for them. As the group waited, my dad could hear the sounds of artillery fire in the distance.
After being stalled for eight hours, the SS sergeants gave up the search and marched the inmates up a tree-covered hill. As gunfire and roaring tanks drew nearer, the SS started shooting more inmates. The group began singing in Polish, Russian and Hebrew — singing, just to find the strength for one more step.
As they reached the top of the hill, they could see barbed wire fences and guard towers. They had arrived at Buchenwald. My dad was marched to a bunk and collapsed from fever and exhaustion.
The next day, the U.S. Army’s Sixth Armored Division reached Buchenwald. All of the SS had fled. The surviving inmates took control of the command tower, and they raised a white flag.
While this was happening, my dad was fast asleep, exhausted beyond all measure. Eventually, his friend shook him awake and yelled, “You idiot. You slept through all of the excitement! Now the Americans are arriving.” My dad and his friend raced to the fence, squeezed themselves in to see Army tanks, armored vehicles and trucks rolling down the road.
With his face pressed against the fence, my dad saw the American soldiers liberating Buchenwald. The GI’s looked at the emaciated inmates with alarm and disbelief. My dad collapsed and lost consciousness.
In total, 21,000 inmates at Buchenwald were saved by the Americans. Imagine that number. More than a dozen ballrooms like this one full of people, saved. Think of that.
In the weeks of recovery that followed in the U.S. Army's 120th Evacuation Hospital, my dad had a choice — to declare himself a refugee or return to Subotica with the hope of seeing his family again.
He chose to go home, and when he got there, he found Eszti, who had survived Bergen-Belsen, and my grandfather Louis, who had barely survived as a slave laborer in a Silesian coal mine. The guards had severely beaten him. Kicked his teeth out. And he was half of his original weight.
Although gravely ill, my grandfather Louis only thought about his children. In December of 1945, he wrote a letter to a friend living in New York City. And from my father’s translation of that letter, I quote Louis:
“I was deported for sixteen months … and went through endless suffering, humiliation and illness … We had escaped from a hell that man's mind could invent, but the horrors of which no pen, no word can even approximately convey.”
Louis wrote that his children were, “the only ones for whom I live and carry on and suffer.”
And he closed the letter with a request.
“Finally, I ask you … to let me know … whether you … could send affidavits, first to my children, and if possible for me. My only hope is that the children will be able to get out, it would be a great pain to be separated from them again, but I would have to do it for the sake of their future. … I see no other way out, I repeat, I am not important, I only want to send my children out, and would only go if their emigration were settled.”
Louis Fenves died five weeks after writing that letter.
A few months after my grandfather’s death, Winston Churchill gave his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, stating, “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” The Fenves survivors were now behind that Iron Curtain.
My dad, his sister Eszti, and their two cousins set out to escape communist Yugoslavia. Using exit documents that my dad forged for the train journey to Italy, he and his sister crossed the border at Trieste ¬¬— the Trieste of Churchill’s speech.
My dad tells the story of the train arriving at Milano Centrale, that enormous fascist-era edifice in the middle of Milan. He disembarked from the train. He walked out of the station and sat on the steps, savoring his first taste of freedom.
More than fifty years later, my wife Carmel, my daughters and I spent time at a university near Milan. I have passed through Milano Centrale many times. And each time I’ve walked out of that train station and down those steps, it has reminded me of my father, surviving fascism and escaping communism. To me, those steps symbolize freedom. The freedom he earned for himself and for me and for my family.
During a trip to Paris in 2001, my family and I met up with my dad. I had grown up with an idea of Paris that had been refracted through my grandmother’s eyes. And during this trip, we could see the places she had drawn with my dad as our tour guide.
We stood outside the apartment where he lived as a refugee in a once-rundown neighborhood near the Sorbonne on the Left Bank. We ate at a French country restaurant by the Odeon Theatre, where back in his day, he could eat for just a few francs. Well, decades later, the bill was in euros, and I can assure you, it was much more expensive.
My dad told us about how he and Eszti waited and waited in Paris while he completed French high school, until finally receiving the U.S. immigration visas that their father had dreamed of. He told stories about how he arrived in Chicago in 1950 at age 19. Then, how he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve his new country as part of the Allied Occupation Forces in Germany, only seven years after being liberated by the same Army.
He went to college on the GI Bill, became a U.S. citizen, married my mother Norma, and together raised a family of four children, and became a renowned engineering professor.
We were sitting in a restaurant with him in an area where he once waited patiently for his chance at the American Dream. And on this day, my dad was reflecting on how that dream had come true. We were in Europe. The Europe I had learned about from the drawings of my grandmother, Klara.
Today, Klara’s art represents many things to me.
There is her talent and spirit, which I got to see displayed every day as a boy. There is the tragedy of the Holocaust, which took her from this Earth far too soon. But then there’s something else. The bravery of an individual who could have stood by and done nothing. Who could have turned her back on the Fenves family, but didn’t. Let me explain.
Remember that painful scene I described on the day the Fenveses were marched down their stairs and out of their home? The insults? The curses? The looting? Well, in that crowd, among the thieves and rioters, was someone else: Maris, the family’s former cook. She had a different plan.
Maris stormed into the deserted home alongside the looters and grabbed Klara’s cookbook along with as much of her artwork as she could carry, stuffing it all into binders. And 20 years after the war, when my dad and Aunt Eszti were settled in America, Maris returned over 250 pieces of Klara’s art to our family.
And that’s why we still have it today. Because of the bravery of one person. One person who stood up and fought for what she believed and knew to be right. In the face of long-standing hate, sanctioned and sponsored by the state and by national leaders, Maris had the humanity to care and, most importantly, the courage to act.
And that’s the idea I want to leave with you tonight. The idea that though evil and hatred define the Holocaust, there was, and always will be, a choice for people to make. A choice to do good. A choice to resist. A choice to stand up for those who are oppressed. A choice to fight back.
In my dad’s story, there were the SS, who hanged young boys and killed innocent people by the millions. There were neighbors who, at the slightest whiff of opportunity, stole from, exploited and degraded their Jewish countrymen. And there were leaders who conspired to commit genocide and wipe out an entire people.
But also in my dad’s story, there were members of the underground in the camps. There were the slave laborers, who sabotaged German planes. There were American soldiers, who poured across the borders to conquer evil and save the lives of people whom they did not know, but who needed their help.
And then there was my dad. A boy — a boy — who traded everything he had in the death camp for warm clothes for his sister. Who sabotaged planes. Who survived the death camps to create a family of his own. To bring his father’s dream of freedom in America to life.
There is always a choice. And when we listen to the stories of survivors and visit institutions like the Dallas Holocaust Museum, we gain the knowledge necessary to make the right ones.
My mother is here tonight, along with my two sisters, my cousin, who is a daughter of my Aunt Eszti, and several grandchildren of my dad and Eszti. And my dad is here with us as well.
Now, I’d like to call up my father Steven J. Fenves and my mother Norma Fenves to be recognized. Mom and Dad …