Jews who fled Nazis return to swim at Vienna games

2 Jewish doctors from US return to compete in European Maccabi Games; "I need to show the Nazis that we're still around," says John Benfield.

Vienna 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Vienna 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
VIENNA - Having escaped the Holocaust as boys, two 80-year-old Jewish doctors from the United States have returned to Vienna to swim in the European Maccabi Games and have the last laugh at the Nazis who tormented their youth.
Competing at the Jewish version of the Olympics caps a life intertwined for John Benfield and Arthur Figur, boyhood friends who learned to swim in Vienna, fled when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and became successful physicians in their adopted home.
"When I heard that the Maccabi Games were going to be in Vienna I said: 'This is right, this is something I need to do', and even though I'm not a very good swimmer...I need to show the Nazis that we're still around," Benfield said in an interview.
Benfield -- who was born Hans Bienenfeld -- and his lifelong friend Figur are among the nearly 2,000 Jewish athletes from 37 countries competing at the European Maccabi Games, which are held every four years.
The 2011 Vienna Games, which run until Wednesday, are the first since World War Two to be held on former Nazi territory.
"I see it in one way as a symbolic return to a country that would have annihilated me if I hadn't escaped," said Figur, an adventurous type who is associate medical director at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
"I feel proud of where I was lucky enough to grow up and to come back and demonstrate that Jews are survivors."
The two men helped to carry the United States banner at the opening ceremony.
Doctor insists on swimming as part of US team
Benfield, a retired thoracic surgeon and lecturer from Los Angeles, recalled how the two friends almost did not get to come to the Games, where they are competing in the over-50 bracket.
At first organizers said there would be no swimming facilities, then suggested he swim for the Austrian squad given his dual citizenship.
"I replied by saying well that's very nice of them but I'm alive because I'm an American and I want to swim on an American team," he said.
"If it weren't for him there wouldn't be any swimming for old folks," noted Figur, who has competed in the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii and climbed mountains and is preparing to swim in a relay race around Manhattan.
As boys in the 1930s the two learned to swim at the Hakoah Jewish athletic club, founded in 1909 in Vienna because other sports clubs at that time did not admit Jews.
Benfield's uncle was the coach there and was married to Hedy Bienenfeld, a well-known Jewish swimmer who competed for Austria in the Olympics before a rising tide of anti-Semitism made such a thing impossible.
Vienna's Jewish community had been a bedrock of Austrian society, producing artists, musicians, doctors and scientists of world renown. That ended as the Nazis took control, bent on eradicating Jews from Europe.
An uneasy debate still smolders as to whether Austrians were Hitler's first victims or welcomed him with open arms.
"My mother was born in Holland so she never felt comfortable living in Vienna to begin with," Figur recalled. "The day the Nazis marched in she put me on a train to Holland because that's where her parents lived."
The Bienenfelds slipped out of the country on a purported holiday and made it to relatives in the Netherlands as well. Both families sailed for New York on the same ship in July 1938 and shared an apartment at 172nd Street and Fort Washington Avenue.
The boys learned English, went to grade school and high school together, and remained close friends for life.
Visit makes participants contemplative about past
Both have been back to Vienna before, but the country's dark wartime chapter -- acknowledged by Austria's president and Vienna's mayor at the Games' opening ceremony -- still weighs on them.
Benfield, who speaks fluent German, remembered bringing his wife to a conference in Vienna in the 1980s, showing her the sights and enjoying the food with gracious hosts.
"But when we got off the airplane from Vienna to Amsterdam I looked at my American-born wife and I said: 'You know, I feel liberated'."
More than 70 years after fleeing the country where relatives perished, his visits -- this time with a son who also swam in the Games -- still made Benfield contemplative.
"I have become more comfortable in being here. At the same time I am still wary of the history," he said, noting he remained very careful when interacting with new Austrian acquaintances "because I don't know what they think".
He said he had reclaimed Austrian citizenship "primarily so that I can vote, because I want to vote against the fascists. I don't want this country again to have a fascist regime".
Figur listened to his friend's comment and turned pensive.
"I don't feel comfortable. It's hard to say. The city is beautiful, the buildings are beautiful....but still even though it is supposed to be a gemuetliche city I don't feel that way," he said, using the German word for cozy and comfortable.
"And if my mother were alive she would probably be very upset I came back."