Chairs Linda and Les Allison, Tali and Eric Blumrosen, Hannah and Cal McNair, and Kelly and Bill Montgomery welcomed a massive crowd of more than 1,000 to the Hilton Americas-Houston as the Holocaust Museum Houston honored the University of Texas at Austin and its 29th president, Gregory L. Fenves, for commitment to service and building an open-minded society.
As the son of a Holocaust survivor, Fenves told the moving story of the survival of his father, Steven Fenves.
“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,” Gregory Fenves explained.
At age 13, Steven Fenves spent five harrowing months at Auschwitz concentration camp before the Polish underground smuggled him out so he would have a chance to survive. Having escaped Auschwitz, he was then forced to work at a small factory in Niederorschel, making aircraft wings for Messerschmitt fighter planes, before being moved to the slave labor camp of Buchenwald near Weimar in Germany.
“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.”
Steven Fenves returned to his hometown in Yugoslavia. Before his death, his grandfather, Louis Fenves, 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,” Gregory Fenves told the audience.
After immigrating to the United States in 1950, Steven Fenves served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and went on to become a renowned professor of engineering, being elected to the elite National Academy of Engineering at age 45.
“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,” said Gregory Fenves.
As the UT-Austin president accepted the award, his father joined him onstage to a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd as Gregory Fenves’ wife, Carmel Fenves, their children Hannah Fenves, Emily Fenves, and Carson Healy, and his mother, Norma Fenves, looked on.
The event raised $700,000 to fund general operations and educational programs and outreach programs of the Holocaust Museum Houston to promote awareness of the dangers of prejudice, hatred and apathy against the backdrop of the Holocaust.
The museum established the Guardian of the Human Spirit award in 1997 as a platform for acknowledging dedicated institutions and leaders who have worked to enhance the lives of others and to better humankind.
Spotted in the large crowd were Pauline and Alfie Meyerson, mistress of ceremonies Linda Lorelle, Jill and Brad Deutser, David Mincberg, Dr. Kelli Cohen Fein and Martin Fein, Gina Gaston and Mario Elie, Sunni and Gary Markowitz, Kathrine McGovern, Sue and Lester Smith, andHolocaust Museum chief executive officer Kelly J. Zúñiga and Luis Zúñiga.
Dignitaries included Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen, and Houston Chief of Police Art Acevedo.