VIENNA, Austria – John Benfield didn’t return to his native Austria to win 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.
“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.
Both men 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.
JTA Wire Service