A Chance for Life
Former prisoners of war launched new beginnings at F&M after World War II
Jerzy Benczak ’52 was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany before he was a student at Franklin &Marshall.
The 84-year-old native of Warsaw, Poland, can’t help but remember clearly the five years he spent in camps for prisoners and the displaced in West Germany before he received a letter that changed his life. It was 1949, four years after the end of World War II—and four years after his official liberation—but the 21-year-old was still searching for a new beginning, a path to a new start.
As a former member of the Polish Home Army and a survivor of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Benczak feared he would be imprisoned again—or recruited once more in the fight against Communist rule—if he returned to Poland. Australia had rejected him for a work program because the war and camp rations had left him malnourished and underweight. Canada had denied him a visa when officials learned that sponsors had offered him a job and an apartment in two distant cities. And Germany had no place for him, even if he wanted to stay.
The letter came to Benczak in June from the World Student Service Fund, informing him that a liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pa., had agreed to support and finance his education. Soon after, he heard from Franklin & Marshall College, receiving notice that he was one of three displaced persons admitted that year.
“When this letter arrived, it was really an answer, something I never expected,” recalls Benczak, who goes by the name George, during an interview at his home in Queens, N.Y. “This was the culmination of my dreams. I wanted to go to (college). Here was a chance.”
In the post World War II era, Franklin & Marshall was among a number of colleges and universities that invited former prisoners of war, displaced persons and others from overseas to continue their studies in the United States. The aspiring students crossed the Atlantic on ocean liners or cargo ships—landing in Boston or New York City—then traveled by train to their respective host colleges. F&M and the other colleges and universities were committed to educating this young generation of war veterans and refugees so they could become productive citizens of the world.
Between 1948 and 1952, just a handful of international students—between five and nine each year—were pursuing their studies at F&M, according to annual reports in the F&M Archives. Among that handful of students were Benczak and Kurt Hellfach of East Germany, both Class of 1952. Hellfach, now 86, also spent time as a prisoner of war before becoming an international exchange student at F&M in 1946. Hellfach returned to Germany at the end of his one-year program but came back to F&M to finish his degree program.
Although the men did not know each other well as students, they share similar stories of pursuing a well-rounded education at F&M and then going on to launch fulfilling careers, Benczak as a banking executive and Hellfach as a manager at General Electric. Their experiences serve as an example of F&M’s and other American colleges’ commitment to post-war rebuilding efforts and to ensuring that those displaced by war could lead productive lives either in their home countries or as U.S. citizens.
A Harrowing Trip
Today, Benczak’s eyes glimmer as he recalls his first days at F&M, revealing a sense of gratitude undiminished by the decades. Dressed in a pressed shirt, a light blue fitted sweater and gray trousers, he sips strong black coffee from a Central Market mug he collected from one of his many trips to Lancaster.
Benczak arrived on campus just before Thanksgiving in 1946, after a trip across the Atlantic Ocean that produced the unfortunate discovery that he was prone to seasickness, a lesson learned while performing obligatory kitchen duties as the ship rolled through high seas. He recalls seeing during his first days in Lancaster the dramatic Georgian spires of Old Main, the impressive brick façades of the buildings where he would take his classes, and the sprawling quadrangle leading to his new home in Dietz Hall.
His most vivid recollection was arriving at the former Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, where he would have his meals—free of charge—for his entire F&M career. Benczak was never a member of the organization, and he did not learn why he was offered free board, but he believes it was another example of the unquestioning generosity of the F&M community to those displaced by war.
“Of course, I had a lot of trepidation,” Benczak says in his slight Polish accent. “I spoke very little English and did not even speak much German. Everything was new—the food, the campus, everything.”
Born in Warsaw in 1928, Benczak grew up in turbulent times as his homeland struggled against Communist rule. He was 11 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. In 1943, the Soviet Union bombed Warsaw, and his family’s apartment was destroyed. He, his mother and sister moved in with his grandmother, but a year later, her home was bombed, as well. His father died during the war from an infection he developed in a hospital.
Benczak joined the Polish Home Army at age 16, soon before the Aug. 1, 1944, Warsaw Uprising, in which the Home Army sought to liberate Warsaw from the Nazis. The rebels were counting on their Soviet allies to help them defeat the Germans, but in a now-infamous tactical move, Communist dictator Joseph Stalin ordered his troops to stop on the east bank of the Wisla River, cutting off the Poles from aid and supplies. Thousands died in the 63- day battle.
“Those of us who survived the uprising were taken to a prison camp in Germany,” Benczak remembers. “But it was close to the end of the war, and in effect, a good time (to be captured). When I arrived at the prison, I had my first good meal in 63 days. They brought out big loaves of bread and divided them in four parts. Then, when things got tougher for the Germans, they divided the loaves into eight parts.”
In April 1945, Benczak was freed by British troops, but he continued to live in camps for those displaced by the war. Twice he was brought to a hospital for jaundice. The first time he was turned away by a German doctor. The second time, he recovered and negotiated to stay on as a nurse. Benczak later enrolled at a German university, where he was identified as a promising
candidate for a program matching displaced people with U.S. colleges. In 1949, the letter from F&M arrived.
‘An Understanding of American life’
A year earlier, in 1948, Hellfach received a similar letter informing him he was admitted to F&M as an international exchange student.
“The exchange program was intended to provide students that had been deprived of access to the outside world an understanding of American life,” Hellfach recalls during a telephone interview from his home in Chatham, Mass.
Hellfach had not heard of F&M. “As it turned out, it was a perfect fit,” he says.
Born in Erfurt, East Germany, Hellfach grew up during a deep depression. His father was out of work for several years before securing a job as a teacher, but in 1939, when Hellfach was 12, his father was drafted into the Army. Hellfach “became the man of the house.”
“We were bombed out several times,” he says. “Both my grandfather on my father’s side and my grandmother on my mother’s side were killed by bombs. We had some experiences that shaped us. We became survivors.”
Hellfach was drafted into the Army when he was 17. With little training, he and his fellow troops were vulnerable, and one day, while walking along the edge of a forest, they were confronted by American soldiers.
“All of a sudden, we heard the rumble of huge tanks,” Hellfach said. “We didn’t even shoot a bullet. We were taken as prisoners.”
The Americans treated Hellfach well, he said, but after the war, things changed.
“It was a very unfortunate situation,” he said. “As part of the agreement among the United States, France, England and the Russians, Germany was cut up into four parts, and they declared that the prisoners should be returned to where they were born. I had to return to Communist country. I went back to Erfurt, and it was ravaged.”
Hellfach returned to high school, but he longed for a different life. His parents were forced by government officials to divorce when his father denounced Communism, but they formulated a plan to reunite and later remarried. Hellfach fled to West Germany to escape Communism. He enrolled at Frankfurt University, and while there applied to the international exchange program that connected him with F&M. He was accepted with a full tuition scholarship and free housing.
Benczak and Hellfach were among hundreds of students who were admitted to U.S. colleges through government programs that supported refugees with scholarships, loans for living expenses, transportation and books during and after the war. The World Student Service Fund that supported Benczak and its parent organization, Student Service of America Inc., coordinated such efforts in recognition of the important contributions young people displaced by circumstances of war would make, according to a 1943 report outlining the goals and vision of the organization.
“Through the years, the work for refugee students in the United States has been an effective and valuable piece of work,” states “The Story of World Student Relief, 1937-1943; A report to the constituency of the World Student Service Fund,” which is housed in the University of Michigan digital archives. “Many students expect to return to their homelands after the war, and therefore are being trained here for the tasks of reconstruction. Others plan to stay here and become American citizens.”
Colleges and universities played an important role in the support of refugees, the report shows. In an appeal to institutions of higher education to participate, the report authors declare: “A generation is at stake—the student generation whose trained leadership is so essential in the tasks of today and tomorrow.” Franklin & Marshall was among the institutions that heeded the call.
‘You'll Catch Up’
At his home in Queens, Benczak retreats to an office in the corner of the house, where piles of papers, magazines and books help him keep track of the past. The records that outline his path from the displaced persons camp to F&M are easily found. He returns with his 1952 Oriflamme yearbook, still in near-perfect condition, and picks up his narrow, brown reading glasses, places them on his nose and leafs through to the pages with his senior picture and other portraits of the mentors who helped guide him through his career at F&M.
Benczak remembers that, at the urging of his adviser, Professor Winthrop Everett, he began to take accounting classes toward a degree in economics.
“He [Everett] kept saying, ‘You’ll catch up,’” Benczak says. “I didn’t know why he was talking about ‘ketchup,’ which I knew about from eating at the fraternity. The first semester, I audited all of my courses except German.”
In the margins of his F&M yearbook, next to pictures of his classmates, are notes marking those who are “deceased” and the months and years of their deaths—collected from Class Notes in Franklin & Marshall Magazine.
Although he made a few friends on campus, Benczak mostly concentrated on his studies. “I was so busy looking in my dictionary translating from Polish to English and English to Polish that I just went to class and back to my room,” he says.
While Benczak struggled to adapt to a new language and culture, Hellfach spoke fluently and embraced campus life, participating in sports and joining many student organizations. He worked in a fraternity kitchen to pay for his meals.
“Coming to F&M was a life-changing event,” Hellfach says. “F&M opened up a new world of interests I didn’t know I had. In many ways, it gave me the preparation to work and be successful. It reinforced my belief in myself and my self-esteem.”
Both men were embraced by the Lancaster community and were invited to speak at local churches and in private homes. On Oct. 18, 1950, Benczak and Hellfach were among four students to address the Future Teachers of America in Old Main on the topic, “How and Why I Came to Franklin & Marshall,” according to an article in the Student Weekly newspaper.
“People wanted to know how it was possible for all these atrocities to take place in Germany and what would happen in the future,” Hellfach says.
It was common after the war for communities to embrace former prisoners of war, especially in communities with strong German heritage, says Tim Gray, chairman of the World War II Foundation in Kingston, R.I.
“A lot of times, former prisoners did not have a lot to go back to,” Gray said. “Communist rule in a lot of cases was as bad as Nazi rule. Even in the D.P. (displaced persons) camps, the conditions were better than at home. A lot of them were probably surprised by the reception they received in the United States.”
Benczak became especially close to a Lancaster doctor, the late Henry Williams, after Benczak and his longtime girlfriend, Janina Mieleszuk, were married in 1950. Benczak sponsored Janina, whom he had met in a prison camp, to come to the United States. But Janina was not permitted to live with him in the dormitory, so she went to live with her brother in New York City. Williams learned of the situation and offered Janina a live-in position as a childcare provider. The Benczaks later moved into an apartment above the doctor’s office on West James Street.
Put on a Path to Success
Shortly before graduation, in 1952, a representative from Hanover Bank of New York interviewed Benczak on campus during a career fair, and he was offered a job in the auditing department. He worked there for nine years before joining the New York Banking Department, where he stayed for 35 years, until his retirement in 1996.
The Hanover Bank visit was part of F&M’s ongoing commitment to preparing students for meaningful careers after graduation and represented its continuing pledge to help refugees of war.
Hellfach also found work soon after graduating from F&M. He was admitted to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for a master's program in industrial administration, which led to a 37-year career with General Electric.
“My education at F&M and Carnegie Mellon and my knowledge of the European culture and languages helped me enormously at GE,” he says. “I was asked to participate in an international task force and to help plan new business ventures.”
He served as managing director of GE International and lived in Geneva for six years before returning to the United States. Hellfach retired from GE in 1987 and moved to Chatham. There, he began a second career as an environmentalist, serving on the board of the Association of Preservation of Cape Cod for 12 years and as a founding member of the Chatham Alliance for Preservation and Conservation.
Franklin & Marshall today carries on the legacy of supporting international students inside and outside of the classroom, in part through the Joseph International Center, established in 2006. Roughly 11 percent of F&M’s student body is international. The center is named for former F&M professor and alumnus John Joseph ’50, who came to F&M from Iraq during the post-war era.
Joseph, now 89, received a full-tuition scholarship with the support of Calvin Staudt, Class of 1900, who founded a boys’ school in Baghdad where Joseph studied and taught. Joseph developed an interest in Middle Eastern history at F&M. After earning his Ph.D. from Princeton University, he returned to F&M in 1961 and taught Middle Eastern history for 27 years, until his retirement in 1988.
In 2006, his former student, Andrew J. Schindler ’72, the retired president and CEO of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc., contributed the lead gift of $679,000 to establish an international center at the College. Schindler requested that the center be named for Joseph, whom he credited with giving him “one of the most valuable gifts a college can offer: an international perspective.”
“You carry it with you your whole life,” Schindler said in a 2006 interview. “It gives you a framework for thinking about things and analyzing things in a way that’s a little bit broader.”
Joseph, who now lives in Lancaster, is proud that the tradition continues, as students gain a global perspective and seek to make a difference in the world. Students such as Benczak and Hellfach were part of that tradition that had its early beginnings in post-war America, when students were brought from the European theater to F&M.
For Benczak, Franklin & Marshall provided “a grounding in America,” a foundation that allowed him to lead a productive and meaningful life.
“After 10 years of occupation, when you went out on a street and didn’t know if you’d come back—then after that five years of being in camps, being dependent on others, being fed, being limited where you would go or what you could do, I was given an opportunity others did not have,” he says. “F&M was a complete change in life, and then basically, I became an American.”
Franklin & Marshall Archives and Special Collections Assistant Michael Lear and Social Media Coordinator and Web Producer Tim Brixius '00 contributed to this report.
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