By Caroline Benveniste
My father, Jacques Benveniste, a longtime Village resident, died unexpectedly on January 7, 2019. He was 90 years old. He was found unresponsive at home and transported by ambulance to Lenox Health, Greenwich Village, but the paramedics and doctors were unable to revive him. My father was born in Athens, Greece on October 7, 1928. His teen years were mostly consumed by the Second World War. He was Jewish, and in the fall of 1943, a few months after Athens came under German occupation, all Jews were required to register with the German authorities. Initially my father and his parents went into hiding at the house of a trusted employee of his father’s store. His oldest sister, who was ill with tuberculous spondylitis, was admitted to a hospital under a Greek-sounding name and his younger sister accompanied her, using fake papers. My father’s father, Elie Benveniste, had at one point been a Portuguese citizen (after the first Balkan war many of the Jews in Salonika had decided to assume Portuguese citizenship) and while in hiding, the family heard that that the honorary Consul for Portugal was willing to issue a certificate stating that Elie Benveniste’s name appeared in the archives of the Portuguese consulate in Salonika. Since Portugal was a neutral country, the family believed that the worst that could happen to them was a deportation to Germany followed by repatriation to Portugal.
In March, 1944, the family was picked up and taken to a prison near Athens, and then to a train station where they were put in freight cars that travelled for 12 days and finally arrived at Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp near Hanover. Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp, but many people died of typhus there (including Anne Frank). Food was in short supply, and body lice were common. My father and other teens tried to learn or improve their English—my father found a copy of Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and worked his way through it, looking up hundreds of words in a dictionary. It was not until April 1945, after over a year in the camp that they were put on a train that travelled east. They never found out here they were going, because a few days later the train stopped and the locomotive and most of the SS guards disappeared. Soon a tank appeared, and it was an American tank! After that, the family was repatriated to Greece through Magdeburg, Brussels, Marseilles and Bari. In Brussels they were able to communicate with Athens and found out that my father’s eldest sister had died but that the youngest sister was well. In looking through the train that took them from Bergen-Belsen, they found a collective passport issued by the Portuguese government. My father felt this document had saved their lives.
My father had a great talent and love for mathematics: his trajectory in this field was impressive and brilliant. In spite of the disruption in his studies caused by the war, he finished high school on schedule and enrolled in the National Polytechnic Institute of Greece (think Greece’s MIT), having taken second place in the entire country on the national entrance exam. (“And why not first place?” his father is said to have commented sardonically.) While he would have liked to pursue a degree in mathematics, he felt that post-war Greece would need engineers more than mathematicians, and so he followed what seemed to him a more prudent course in studying engineering. His superb performance in college earned him a Fulbright scholarship to study civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, where he earned his Ph.D. in three years. After returning briefly to Greece, he received offers of professorships at Columbia University and the City College of New York. He chose City College, where he taught until his retirement four decades later, eventually becoming Dean of the Engineering School.
I had often wondered how my parents had gotten together. After the war my mother lived in Paris, her family having moved there from Greece. It was not until my father’s memorial service that my mother related the whole story: en route from Greece to New York to start his job at City College, my father stopped in Paris. He had a letter of introduction to my mother’s family, as the two families had known each other before the war, and had lived in the same part of Athens. My father and mother went out to the theater where they saw a play by Tennessee Williams. My parents corresponded for a few months after my father arrived in New York, and he then proposed in a letter. My mother accepted, and moved to New York in November of 1959, and they were married on January 14, 1960. They would have celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary this year. My father is survived by his wife, Isa Benveniste, his children, my brother Jerome Benveniste and I, and his three grandchildren, Amelie Ya Deau, and Eleanor and Ari Benveniste. He will be missed by all of them and by many others as well.