Society / The Seen

University of Texas President Shares Harrowing Story of His Father’s Holocaust Escape

Tears Fall as $700,000 is Raised

BY // 11.15.17
photography Priscilla Dickson, Wilson Parish

Prior to the Holocaust Museum Houston Guardian of the Human Spirit Award luncheon, University of Texas president Gregory Fenves had seldom shared, and never publicly, the harrowing story of his father’s journey from surviving the Holocaust to life in America where he became a lauded professor of engineering.

It was a riveting recounting that held the audience of close to 1,000 in rapt attention. When he accepted the museum’s coveted award, Fenves dedicated it to his father, Steven Fenves, who joined his son on stage at the Hilton Americas-Houston.

“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,” Fenves told the gathering. “We must denounce these negative forces . . .

“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. So today, I want to tell you a story. A story that helps define who I am, and a story about our nation — my father’s story.”

Tears fell across the ballroom as Gregory Fenves told of his father’s imprisonment at age 13 at Auschwitz, resulting in the loss of the young teen’s mother and grandmother, and how his trilingual skills as an interpreter enabled him to stay alive and to assist his sister who was kept in a neighboring compound. He was liberated by the Americans and in 1950 immigrated to the United States where he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He later became a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois and later at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg and was elected to the elite National Academy of Engineering at the remarkable age of 45.

As the 29th president of UT, Fenves was honored for his lifelong dedication to teaching, research and academic leadership. The award was established in 1997 “as a platform to honor dedicated institutions and leaders who have worked to enhance the lives of others and to better mankind.”

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Two of Houston’s leading families and one education leader served as honorary chairs of the luncheon that raised $700,000 for museum operations and educational programs. Representatives of the Jack Blanton Family and the Cockrell Family along with UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven held the post of honorary chairs. Contributing to the day’s success were luncheon chairs Linda and Les Allison, Tali and Eric Blumrosen, Hannah and Cal McNair and Kelly and Bill Montgomery. Joining in luncheon duties were host committee chairs Pauline and Alfie Meyerson.

Who: Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen, Houston Port chair and UT Regent Janiece Longoria, Houston First chairman David Mincberg, HMH board chair Gary Markowitz and wife Sunni, Sue and Lester Smith, Kelli Cohen Fein and Martin Fein, Jill and Brad Deutser, Gina Gaston and Mario Elie, Regina Rogers, Gail and Milton Klein, Fred Zeidman,  Nancy Li-Tarim and Dr. Soner Tarim, HMH CEO Kelly Zúñiga and Luis Zúñiga.

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