Paul Benko, Sonoma State professor and Holocaust survivor, dies at 69

Paul V. Benko, a professor of biology at Sonoma State University who also lectured widely on his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, died of a stroke Oct. 31 in Santa Rosa. He was 69.

"He had a way of connecting with you that made you feel special, whether you were a professor or a 7-year-old or a blue-collar worker," said his son Peter of Berkeley. "He would really listen to people and he reveled in their accomplishments."

Benko worked as a research scientist for R.J. Reynolds Industries and the National Cancer Association before becoming a professor at Sonoma State. Deeply involved in his community, the Santa Rosa resident served on the Sonoma County Planning Commission in the 1970s and was active in Sonoma State University's Faculty Union for many years.

After retiring in 1992, he volunteered at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, where he helped teachers work on curriculum development.

He was also instrumental in setting up the Center for the Study of the Holocaust at Sonoma State, and participated in the Sonoma County Survivor Project and the Northern California Holocaust Oral History Project. In addition to delivering lectures himself, he helped raise funds to bring a wide range of Holocaust speakers to Sonoma County.

A dapper dresser who was never without one of his trademark bow ties, Benko kept up to date with both local and international politics. "He saw it as his duty to be informed," said his son.

When talking to children about how he survived the Holocaust, Benko would strive to reassure them that the Nazis did not snuff out all goodness in Europe. Bavaria did not deport anybody, he would say, and the Danes actually rescued some Jews. These were people "whose conscience did not go to sleep."

Born in 1929 in the town of Cluj, Romania, Benko was deported from that country in 1944 with his parents. He spent a year in concentration camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bavaria and Dachau, and narrowly escaped death several times. Both of his parents died in Nazi captivity.

An accomplished linguist, he was hired after the war as an interpreter by Allied forces. An American couple working for the USO adopted him and took him to New York, where he finished high school. He then moved to California and completed a bachelor's degree in natural sciences at U.C. Berkeley and a Ph.D. in comparative biochemistry at U.C. Davis.

Philip T. Northen, chair of the biology department at Sonoma State, remembered his colleague as a teacher who was "very animated, personable and loved to work with students one-on-one."

"I knew he was a Holocaust survivor, but he never carried a heavy burden," said Northen. "His past was something that he used to motivate himself to behave very humanely and generously towards people."

Two years ago, Benko traveled back to his hometown of Cluj with wife Sandra, son Peter and daughter Eleanor, now a Harvard student. "There was a feeling of joy, seeing people he hadn't seen in 45 years and thought he'd never see again," said his son. "He got to retrieve a part of his life then."

A memorial service is planned for Thursday, Dec. 10 at Sonoma State.

Donations can be made to the American Heart Association, 120 Montgomery St., No. 1650, S.F., CA 94104, or make out checks to the SSU Foundation, Holocaust Alliance Account, and send to Myrna Goodman, Center for the Study of the Holocaust, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, CA 94928; or call (707) 664-4296.