Returning to Austria
by Laura S. Jones
This past July, Arthur Figur went back to his childhood home of Vienna, Austria to compete for the United States in the 2011 Maccabi Games, an international sporting competition for people in the Jewish community. The trip served a dual purpose for Figur; one goal was to enjoy the swimming competition, certainly, but another and perhaps more meaningful goal was to return as a successful and talented and strong American to a country whose leaders tried to kill him.
Figur, 80, is a member of Connecticut Masters and the fitness chair for the Connecticut LMSC. The competition was particularly meaningful for Figur because as a child of 6, his family fled the Nazi invasion of Austria. And although this was not his first trip back to Vienna—he went once as part of a European bicycling trip and once as part of a trip to visit Auschwitz—it was his first chance to compete as an American citizen in a country once ruled by Nazis.
Figur, like many forced to flee, was able to forge a successful life in America. Following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a doctor, Figur went on to specialize in treating “weekend athletes.” Trained as a hematologist and internist, Figur says he fell into the specialty because he was always interested in physical fitness and because “I never told them to stop, so they liked me. A lot of doctors told people to stop what they were doing and act their age.”
Figur practices what he preaches. He is a two-time finisher of the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii and has swum in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim as part of a relay. He enjoys open water swims in Long Island Sound and often swims with CIBBOWS (Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers). Most recently, he did the Provincetown Swim for Life. He even likes tough conditions when it is hard to see the buoys. “It’s all the other stuff that makes [open water swimming] fun. I’ve surfed a little bit, so I get along with waves. I know how to ride the waves.” But he doesn’t mind the indoor pool workouts, thanks to his team. “I like to swim with my Masters group. It’s very social.”
The Maccabi Games were the first since World War II to be held in former Nazi territory. Two thousand athletes from all over the world competed. "I see it in one way as a symbolic return to a country that would have annihilated me if I hadn't escaped," says Figur. "The day the Nazis marched in [my mother] put me on a train to Holland because that's where her parents lived. I feel proud of where I was lucky enough to grow up and to come back and demonstrate that Jews are survivors." Figur reunited with his parents when they arrived six weeks later; the family sailed for New York in July 1938.
Figur travelled to Vienna for the Maccabi Games with the American team, of which his friend, John Benfield, was also a member. As boys in the 1930s, Benfield and Figur 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.
The competition went well for Figur. For a man whose favorite swimming event is an ocean mile because the “salt water helps his feet float,” Figur dominated the backstroke, winning silver in the 50 and gold in the 100. He wasn’t nervous. “We went for fun and to show our presence back in Vienna. I went purely to be part of the American Maccabi team.” Interestingly, medals are not given for age groups, rather only for overall winners. All ages have a chance because times are handicapped. Figur and Benfield also won medals in the medley and freestyle relays.
Figur enjoyed the irony of being the only Austrian by birth on the medal stand when he won gold, and he was there representing the United States. “All the Austrian Jews left or were killed, so the Austrians who won second and third place were immigrants themselves.”
In a way, Figur’s story shows that sometimes you can go home again. “It was a matter of personal pride to represent the United States. Even though it is not the same, I feel I can see what it is like to represent your country in the Olympics.”