Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton
Princeton Resident Ivan E. Becker Remembers His Holocaust Experience
Ivan E. Becker, a native of Hungary, came to the U.S. at 16. He was an orphan; he spoke no English; he was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he was determined.
"I wanted to come to the U.S. because it was farthest away from the fighting in the world, and had the most food. Safety and food were the two major issues, my biggest concerns. And we had always heard about the U.S., of course," recalls Mr. Becker.
Until 1938, his was a normal childhood. Born in Budapest in 1929, he was the only child of Dezsö and Kato Becker. His father, a bookkeeper by profession, was a skilled amateur photographer. Ivan shared that interest, which was encouraged by his mother, and early on, he began taking photos of the world around him, especially of nature and architecture.
"I loved to read," he adds, " and I read a lot about science. I liked certain subjects in school, including science, and I especially liked physics and technology.
Lots of Strudels
"I also enjoyed baking! My mother taught me, and she and I baked desserts together. I made lots of strudels."
He adds that he can still whip up a good strudel today, "but everyone is always on a diet!"
A member of a Jewish family, Ivan lived in a middle class neighborhood, and had a number of Christian friends.
"We were all assimilated," he points out, "and my first girl friend was Christian. Later, she and her family helped me, when it was very dangerous for them."
Everything changed in 1938, when the Hungarian government imposed harsh rules regarding Jewish citizens.
"In 1938, classes in school were segregated, and Jews and Christians were separated. The Boy Scouts were segregated too. I had enjoyed Scouting," he explains. "Life now was totally different."
In 1940, his father, who had been a decorated air corps officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I, was drafted into an army labor battalion, first as an officer, then as a forced laborer. He was shipped to the provinces of Hungary, and later to Germany.
In 1944, conditions got much worse. The German Army occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, and eventually, Ivan wasn't even able to go to school.
"In June and July, they started deporting Jews to Auschwitz. School was no longer an option. I basically had eight years of formal schooling."
Mr. Becker recalls that in December of that year, he and his mother had a call from his father, asking for food and clothing, and trying to arrange a meeting with them in the Budapest Railroad Station.
"We went to the station, but we couldn't find him. I later learned that my father had died one month later in Buckenwald concentration camp.
"My mother and I were then rounded up on December 13th, and sent on a death march organized by Adolf Eichmann to the Austrian border. We walked seven days under the harshest conditions, and then we were separated. My mother gave me her wedding ring, and we said good-bye. I was never able to learn what happened to her."
Ivan, now 15, was placed with a group of children in a barn, where, he recalls, "a very well-dressed German officer came in and said he would return later and take us back to Budapest.
"Shortly after he left, another man, a civilian, arrived, and told us not to trust the German officer, but to come with him, and we would be safe. He was either Raoul Wallenberg or someone who worked for him. I decided to believe the civilian, and he later put us on a train for Budapest.
Raoul Wallenberg, a noted Swedish diplomat and businessman, was responsible for helping Hungarian Jews perhaps as many as 100,000 escape from Nazi persecution. His organization enabled Ivan and others to return to Budapest to the International Ghetto, which was a safe haven.
Ivan was later transferred to another far more dangerous location, however, where starvation, sickness, and constant gunfire and bombing took a terrible toll. In spite of this, he was able to survive until the Russian Army liberated Budapest in January of 1945.
Ivan's father had originally been from Transylvania (now Romania), and Ivan set out, hoping to find relatives there. Unsuccessful, he was nevertheless able to get a job in a photography store in Oradea in Transylvania.
After the European War ended in May 1945, Ivan left Hungary with the Aliyah Bet, organized by the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, and traveled to a Displaced Persons Camp, under the auspices of relief agency UNRRA, in Austria.
"The Brigade was recruiting young people to go to Israel (then Palestine)," explains Mr. Becker. "I wanted to get away from the Russian influence, but I didn't want to go to Israel. I thought there would be more fighting there."
Instead, at 16, he was able to come to the U.S. as a war orphan in 1946.
"I had family in the Bronx, N.Y. my grandmother and aunts, so I didn't have to go to an orphanage," he explains. He stayed with his relatives and later with Hungarian friends, and found work in a photo lab in Manhattan.
"Even without English, I got a job in the lab. I had apprenticed as a photo engraver when I was still in Budapest, and this really helped me."
Anxious to get ahead, Ivan attended night school to learn English, and he was diligent. As he says, "I tried hard to lose my accent early on. I did not want to be noticed, to be pulled out of the crowd."
His interest in and knowledge of photography led him to film-making, and he edited newsreels, shown as short features in the movie theaters.
"I thought I wanted to be a cameraman," he reports, "and I usually had two jobs, trying to get more money. I was offered a job at NBC, but then in 1951, I was drafted into the army during the Korean War.
"I went to Alabama for basic training and then to Kansas to military intelligence school for two months. I ended up back in Alabama, working as an Army photographer."
After his discharge in 1953, Ivan (known to friends as Van) became an American citizen, and returned to New York, where a new opportunity in a new field awaited him.
"A friend was selling plastic bags for turkey packaging," he reports. "The talk then was to get into plastics this was before the famous line in the movie The Graduate, by the way. So I went to work for him in the Bronx. We learned to manufacture the bags. My background enabled me to do this, and I was very inquisitive.
"There were very few of us in the field," he continues. "It was very new and very dynamic. It was an opportunity to mine it. Nothing was handed to you; you had to figure it out how to make it, who to sell it to, etc."
Mr. Becker's determination, resourcefulness, and willingness to work hard enabled him to recognize an opportunity and meet its challenge. This was a mindset shared by many of the immigrants who came to the U.S. after the war, he points out.
"Almost all of us who came to the States with nothing did well. None turned to crime or became a burden to society. In retrospect, the decision to come to America was one of my best decisions. This country gave me the opportunity to achieve success and a life that I could not have imagined."
Mr. Becker moved to a new position in 1955, joining forces with Extrudo Film Company, which was later acquired by Exxon, and became the Exxon Film Division of Exxon Corporation.
In 1960, he was transferred to Pottsville, Pa., near Reading, where he gained experience in manufacturing, technical service, product development, sales, and marketing.
An invitation to a wedding the following year had an unexpected impact on his own life. There he would meet his future wife, Nancy Greenglass.
"She was from the Bronx, and she knew the bride, and I knew the groom. We met in August, and were married in February, after she graduated from the University of Michigan," recalls Mr. Becker.
The couple settled in Reading, and their first son, David was born there in 1964. A second son, Kenneth was born in New York in 1967.
Now back in New York, Mr. Becker saw another opportunity for plastics disposables, especially for use in diapers and other personal hygiene products. He wrote an article on the subject, but the response was tepid.
"One of our customers lived in Princeton, and he introduced me to the chairman of the board of the company he worked for," says Mr. Becker. "They were receptive to disposables, and had me set up a new division extruding plastics, called Edison Plastics, in Metuchen.
That division was regarded internationally as a premium-quality extruder of polyolefin films for diaper markets, personal and professional health markets, as well as agricultural and automotive products.
In 1971, the Beckers decided to move to New Jersey. "We had always been in apartments. We had never lived in a house before, and we wanted to know what it was like," explains Mr. Becker. "We also wanted to be near music and theater. Princeton seemed the right place, and we rented a house on Dempsey Avenue."
Mr. Becker was President of Edison Plastics, which became a division of Blessings Corporation, a company on the American Stock Exchange.
As the years passed, he moved up the executive ladder of Blessings, becoming President and Chief Operating Officer in 1988 and Chief Executive Officer in 1990 until his retirement in 1994. He was president of the International Division and a member of the Board of Directors.
In 1992, Blessings was judged by Forbes Magazine to be one of the best 200 small companies ($50-$200 million sales) in the U.S. It was also named one of the top 100 companies in New Jersey by the Star Ledger newspaper.
"I never envisioned such success," notes Mr. Becker. "I really enjoyed my work there. The company was successful $140 million sales so I was able to do anything I wanted as far as improvements and expansion."
Life was good. Mr. Becker had achieved success beyond his expectations, and the hardships and tragedy of his years in Hungary were behind him. He never thought about those days, he says.
"I was later asked, when I was speaking to a group of people about my experiences of the Holocaust, 'how had I felt, what did I feel?' I replied, 'Nothing.' I hadn't felt anything. You couldn't feel when you go through life-threatening situations. In essence, your reaction was pure survival."
Nonetheless, the impact of that time was dramatically brought home to him in 1983. Many years after the actual events, the memories came rushing back.
"There was a mini series on TV about Raoul Wallenberg," he explains. "I was watching with my wife and kids, and there was a part about his giving official papers to people being deported. Another part of the program was on the death march, and after all those years of never talking about it, I just broke down."
From then on, he was able to share his experiences with others, in an effort to prevent that history from disappearing from the public consciousness.
"The first time I really got involved in talking about it was during the Jewish High Holy Days. We were with a friend, and she forced me to talk to the children about my childhood," he recalls.
"Then, I was able to speak to people about my experiences. I was a docent at Rider University about the Holocaust, and I have talked to college and high school students, including from Princeton High and Trenton High."
"The survivors of the Holocaust are dying out," he continues, "so it is important for young people to know about that time from the survivors themselves. It's a lesson in intolerance, but also in how you can be a righteous person and help someone who is threatened, as so many people did during the Holocaust, saving thousands of families."
Mr. Becker has also shared his personal feelings with friends and family. I've talked to a friend, a professor of psychology, and also to post-graduate students at Rutgers about the psychological residue," he says.
His friend of 35 years, Lawrence Pervin, Ph.D. and retired professor of psychology at Rutgers, has shared some of those memories with Mr. Becker.
"My wife and I had the opportunity to go with Van and Nancy to where he grew up in Budapest. I remember seeing the corner at which the Germans captured him and his mother and forced them to go on the death march.
"Early on, when I knew Van, I marveled at his accomplishments and still do. Here is someone whose parents died in the Holocaust, and he himself was saved by Raoul Wallenberg. He came to the U.S. at 16, and has gone on in the business world to become CEO of a company on the Stock Exchange.
Sense of Humor
"He married a wonderful wife, has two wonderful sons, three grandchildren, and two wonderful daughters-in-law. What a story of success over adversity!
"Over all the years of our friendship and he is a tremendously loyal friend everything I know about him that is positive has increased," continues Dr. Pervin. "This includes his wonderful sense of humor. We meet every week for coffee or lunch. Recently, he ordered an egg salad sandwich, and the waitress came back, saying I can't remember if you ordered egg salad or chicken salad? And Van replied, 'which came first?'"
Last April, Mr. Becker was honored to be appointed by President Bush to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing body of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
"It is certainly an honor, and I look forward to furthering Holocaust education. Over all, I would especially like to teach teachers about it, so they can pass it on to new generations. I want to make it happen, and make a difference."
"Making it happen" has been Mr. Becker's "M.O.", and he continues to so so. Now retired in name only he has just served two years as Chairman of the Greater Princeton Chapter of SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives). He is also a member of the International Executive Service Corps.
"The purpose of SCORE is to help people in business, those who want to get into business and need advice, and also those having business troubles. It's challenging and fascinating. I meet all sorts of people. I have served as a counselor for the past 10 years, and am currently mentoring two companies on a continual basis, with weekly and monthly meetings."
Ray Orens, Mr. Becker's colleague at SCORE, is well aware of his friend's energy, determination, and ability.
"It is always a pleasure to be with Van. He is an interesting and dedicated person involved in numerous cultural and intellectual activities. He's a self-made man, who lived through the horrors of the Nazi era in Hungary, and had the determination as a teenager to emigrate to America, where he became a successful businessman.
"Van gives back to the community through his participation in SCORE to help small businesses and his talks on the Holocaust to community groups, so no one will ever have to relive his experiences."
Mr. Becker has also served on the Advisory Board of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies of the Stern School of Business, New York University, where he taught entrepreneurial classes.
He is a member of many professional organizations, including the Society of Plastics Engineers, Society of the Plastics Industry, the International Disposables Association, the Chemists Club, and the Economic Club of New York. He is listed in Who's Who in America and Who's Who in Finance and Industry.
Mr. Becker, whose appearance belies his age, is also a world traveler, having made many trips abroad both on business and vacation. Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Italy, the South of France are special favorites, as is the American west. On all of these travels, he is able to indulge his continuing interest in photography. His landscapes are professional-calibre, and he also enjoys shooting the occasional unposed portrait.
"If I go somewhere far away, I'll try to sneak in a picture of people. I definitely like candid, not posed, shots."
His travels have also taken him back to the country of his boyhood. "I've been to Hungary several times. When I first took my wife and boys there in the early 1970s, it was under Communist rule. I looked at the map once, and then we drove around all over the area where I had bicycled as a boy, and I never had to look at the map again."
At home, Mr. Becker enjoys the many intellectual and cultural opportunities in Princeton, and he is currently auditing two courses at Princeton University, which indicate the breadth and depth of his interests: (1) Pagans and Christians: Urbanism, Architecture and Art of Late Antiquity, and (2) Early Modern China (1680-1860).
"I enjoy the ambiance of Princeton and the general beauty of the place," he adds. "It used to be a quiet little town when I moved here in 1971, and it's anything but now. The great thing is that anything cultural is here music, theater, dance. We go to McCarter and to lectures at the University."
Skiing and tennis also keep him busy, as does reading about World War II "I want to know what happened," he explains.
He and his wife, Nancy, who has a very successful lobbying and public relations firm, Nancy H. Becker Associates, in Trenton, visit their sons and three grandchildren as often as possible.
"My wife and I did the best we could for the boys, and they turned out to be super human beings," says Mr. Becker proudly. "This was my wife's and my accomplishment together true teamwork.
"Everything I have accomplished, my wife Nancy has really been a part of," he continues. "She helped me in all ways. It's been a real partnership"
With only eight years of formal schooling, Mr. Becker has demonstrated what ability and determination can accomplish. He was always sorry, though, not to have that degree. Hanging on his office wall is a framed "World Class University" degree, with the notation, "Master of Life's Experiences".
"My friends knew I always wanted a degree, and they got me one," he says, with a smile.
Reflecting on his experiences, the opportunities, and the success he has had since coming to the U.S., Mr. Becker cannot help but look back to an earlier time. As he says, "Whatever I did and before I did it, my thought was 'what would your parents think of you?' I believe my parents would be proud of me, and that pleases me."