From Caracas to Stockholm: A Life in Medical Scienceby Baruj Benacerraf
"Benacerraf, a 1980 Nobel laureate for his work in immunology, has lived in Venezuela, France, and the U.S. His autobiography is the fascinating account of a perceptive, forceful individual who can admit making mistakes and has no qualms about stating his beliefs. His discussion of the damage wrought on America by the 1968 student revolution is
"Benacerraf, a 1980 Nobel laureate for his work in immunology, has lived in Venezuela, France, and the U.S. His autobiography is the fascinating account of a perceptive, forceful individual who can admit making mistakes and has no qualms about stating his beliefs. His discussion of the damage wrought on America by the 1968 student revolution is thought-provoking. As a Jew, he saw his applications rejected by top U.S. medical schools because of their quota systems (later he served on the faculty of two of them and turned down the invitations of several others). Born into wealth, Benacerraf was early exposed to the arts and humanities and later had a stint as a banker. Personal interests and good teachers led him to science and medicine and a successful career in laboratory investigation and medical administration. He writes clearly, with humor, and to the point, so that the reader's questions are answered in the next sentence or paragraph. A remarkable, appealing autobiography."
- Prometheus Books
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The Benacerraf Family
I have a strong feeling of identity with my cultural heritage, which may have molded much of my personality. I am of Spanish, Jewish, and Sephardic ancestry. My father, Abraham, was born in Tetuan, Morocco, when it was a Spanish colony, sometime in the last century. His date of birth was never ascertained. I could never settle whether he or his brother Fortunato was the oldest of the nine childrenseven boys and two girlswho constituted the family. My father's family, as well as my maternal ancestors, were born and raised in Tetuan. The early members of my family probably moved across the channel from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. My paternal grandfather, Salomon, whom I later got to know and fear, was the typical Spanish Jewish patriarch who inspired and demanded absolute obedience and respect from wife, children, and grandchildren.
I was told that my grandfather managed to earn a meager living in Tetuan as a money lender when he felt he needed to work. It was a traditional family profession, which may explain the true meaning of our name. "Ben" means son in both Hebrew and Arabic and "seraph" is, indeed, the word for money changer in Arabic. I prefer the fantasy that the real root of my name is the Hebrew word "seraph," which means angel. Since my first name, Baruj, means blessed in Hebrew, I like to think my full name means "Be blessed, son of an angel"!
Salomon was not an effective money maker and his family was very poor; that explains the migration of his sons to Venezuela at an early age.His major concerns were the Jewish religion and the Jewish texts which he studied as a scholar. When I knew my grandfather, later in Oran, Algeria, where my father moved his family after acquiring wealth, my grandfather spent all his time either in the temple or, when my father gave him money, distributing alms to the poor Jews of the town. He lived a very austere life, occupying the smallest room in the apartment, furnished with only a steel bed, a chair, a table, and books. He was, however, fierce about enforcing the religious rules and teaching me to read Hebrew. As a dyslexic I did very poorly, of course, and was castigated regularly. It should be no surprise that I share no intimacy or real affection for my paternal grandfather. My paternal grandmother, his wife, Miriam, was already severely paralyzed and greatly diminished by a stroke when I first saw her in her house in Oran, but one could still detect that she, in contrast to Salomon, was a warm and caring person.
I had a stronger relationship with my maternal grandmother. My maternal grandfather, whose first name I bear, died when my mother was three years old.
When I was a teenager, my father took me to Tetuan to see the town of his ancestors and the house where he was born in the Jewish ghetto. It was a miserable house, without electricity, water, or sewage disposal. I readily understood why at the age of fourteen, alone and penniless, he left for Caracas, where a distant cousin, Nissim, assured him of employment in his little textile store.
My father, Abraham, was a fearless, determined, and highly intelligent young man who enjoyed both selling and buying. These qualities were gratefully appreciated by his older cousin who made him a partner in the business.
Abraham understood the advantages of wholesale over retail marketing or selling and the use of credit. Within a few years the little store became a substantial textile-importing firm with valuable lines of credit with the local banks. During this period, Abraham sent money regularly to his father to support the family in Tetuan, and arranged for his brothers Fortunato, Isaac, Moisses, and Leon to join him in Venezuela.
In time, his cousin Nissim retired, sold his share of the business to Abraham, and returned to Morocco. Abraham took on his least competent brothers, Isaac and Leon, as partners and established Hermanos Benacerraf and Company. The business thrived during the First World War, and Abraham and his two brothers began to experience wealth and comfort for the first time.
In the meantime, their brothers Fortunato and Moisses established an independent business in Carupano, dedicated to trading coffee and cocoa, and were equally successful. However, a tragedy occurred. Moisses, who had been despondent, decided to travel back to visit his family and was mysteriously lost at sea. He probably committed suicide in a fit of depression, but the matter was never discussed in the family. I only learned these details much later from business associates. Fortunato, who was particularly close to his brother, was very much affected by Moisses's tragic death. Either because of these events or due to the hazardous aspect of the coffee and cocoa business or because Fortunato was much more of a gambler and speculator than the more steady Abraham, he soon lost all his hard-earned assets and found himself destitute. Abraham, who appreciated Fortunato's business acumen and recognized that besides himself he was the only brother with outstanding capacity, took him on as a full-time managing partner with an equal participation in the earnings of the business. By then, immediately after World War I, Abraham was ready to return to North Africa to find a suitable wife.
Abraham had realized a few years earlier that it was appropriate to move his parents and sisters from Tetuan to a more civilized and enlightened city nearby where they would find themselves culturally comfortable. The city of Oran, in French Algeria, where many Spanish Jews from Morocco had settled, appeared highly suitable for this purpose. He arranged to move his parents to Oran and bought a large apartment house, where they would occupy the first floor. In 1919, Abraham went to Oran to visit his parents and to seek a wife. Marriages, in those days and in that milieu, were arranged, with proper attention to family background and to religious, cultural, and financial considerations, without any concern for the young lady's feelings or preferences, not to mention her romantic dreams.
Abraham, who was about thirty-five, was told of a lovely twenty-one-year-old lady, Henriette Lasry, who lived near Oran with her mother, in the home of an older sister.
* * *
My mother, Henriette Lasry, was born January 12, 1897, in Sidi-Bel-Abbes, Algeria, the youngest of eight children of Barouk and Sete Lasry. My grandfather and his wife were both born in Tetuan, but had lived, since childhood, in Algeria. He managed a successful wholesale business in Sidi-Bel-Abbes, selling colonial agricultural products. I never knew much about him since he died when my mother was three years old. Pictures of him indicate a handsome, sensitive, serious man. After his death, his business was taken over by his eldest son, Isaac, who was not successful at it. As a result, my grandmother and Henriette lost their home and went to live with my mother's oldest married sister, Simi, in her beautiful country home at Eckmuhl, a suburb of Oran. Henriette was therefore raised very much by her sister, together with my aunt's own children, who were of comparable age.
Henriette was a beautiful young lady, very well behaved, serious, and proper. She had a very happy childhood with her mother, sister, and cousins. It was a united and warm family that I later got to know and love, when I visited them regularly on our yearly winter trip to Oran. Henriette had received a standard French education in the local French lycée, and had the equivalent of a high school degree, differing, in this respect, from my father who was largely self-taught and had barely enough schooling to learn to read and write Spanish. Henriette spoke only French and neither understood nor spoke Spanish when she met my father.
Although Henriette belonged to a highly respectable family, their modest financial resources caused her mother serious concern about her youngest daughter's marital prospects. She, therefore, gave very serious consideration to the inquiries made on behalf of my father. My grandmother was a very tough and realistic lady who had had a difficult life. The information she gathered about my father and his family and background was excellent. When she met Abraham, he impressed her as a serious, bright, rich, capable young man, and therefore suitable to marry her youngest daughter.
My grandmother, unlike her daughter, was fluent in Spanish and could converse with Abraham. Henriette, on the other hand, was totally unprepared for the traumatic experience of marrying a foreigner, fourteen years older than herself, who did not speak her language, and whose words she could not understand. The trauma was compounded by the expectation that soon after marriage, she would be leaving with this strangerher husband whom she must swear to love, honor, and obeyfor a distant and forbidding land, accessible only by a journey of many weeks. She was introduced to Abraham at an official reception, where they could hardly communicate. She proceeded, then, directly to her room and cried continuously for three days before finally agreeing to the marriage at her mother's behest.
Henriette was not a sentimental or romantic girl. She was clear-headed and determined. She was eventually swayed by her own impression of Abraham at later meetings, and by her mother's and sisters' insistence that he was a kind and decent man who would make every effort to bring her happiness. Though worried about being separated from the family she loved so much, Henriette was as keen and tough as her mother. I suspect she made up her mind, at the time, that my father was a warm and sensitive man and that she would be able, after the birth of a child, to convince him to move from South America, closer to her family as, indeed, she managed to do eventually.
* * *
This background will help the reader understand the characters of my parents, the atmosphere of their home, and the nature of their relationship. First and foremost for them, marriage was a lifetime partnership, sacred and unbreakable, as well as the union of two families of similar cultural background. It was designed to create a new family.
Both of my parents came from large, united families who depended solely upon familial relationships for protection against a hostile world around them. They no doubt intended to have a large family of their own since my mother loved children. She was deeply disappointed, after my birth, that, due to a gynecological problem which eventually required surgery, she had to wait ten years to become pregnant again with my brother, Paul. I am convinced that my parents were devoted and had enormous respect for each other. But there was little tenderness that I could detect in their relationship, which was totally different from the very warm, loving, intimate relationship that I have experienced with my wife, Annette.
My mother was not a tender person and she was not prone to displays of affection to my father or to me or my brother. This is probably the reason my wife found me, to use her own words, "starved for affection" when I met her. But my mother was enormously courageous, loyal, and righteous. She had great expectations and ambitions for her sons, and no standards were high enough for the Benacerraf children to achieve. She was supportive of my father in every respect, and was totally submissive to his prerogative to make all important family decisions. She managed an immaculate home, without a speck of dust, but devoid of any personality. She was an excellent cook and enjoyed preparing meals in the Spanish, French, or North African tradition. She greatly enjoyed knitting, and I wore numerous sweaters that she made. But as she was color-blind, a rare affliction in females, the colors were disastrously dull. She hated to entertain except for her own large family to which she was passionately devoted.
There was, however, a distinctly out-of-character trait that amazed me. She loved gambling! She played for real stakes and was very good at it. She is the one who taught me both poker and baccarat, which she played flawlessly. She won at cards regularly, while my father lost, and she loved gambling in the French Casino at Vichy, where they would go to drink the waters, as was the fashion in the 1930s.
As for my father, he was a warm and generous man with great integrity and honesty. He took great pride in his name and in the reputation of his business. He was a man of his word. He had a terrible temper, though, and could easily get angry. Father on those occasions would shout in a manner that would readily frighten a small child.
There were few arguments at home, but when they did occur they were one-sided affairs. My mother never replied, but simply retaliated by withdrawing any comment and keeping silent and sullen until Father regretted his outburst and gave in. By this technique she managed nearly always to have her own way.
Toward their children my parents presented a united front. Efforts to play one against the other were futile. Moreover, Father was brought up in the Spanish tradition which demanded that, above everything, he was owed the kind of absolute respect, support, and obedience in his home that he had always shown his own father. As a consequence, he was very strict and unforgiving even of minor slights or disobedience. His had been a hard life, and he was totally self-reliant, trusting only himself or his brothers and sisters. He had a healthy respect for money and a total distrust of all governments, particularly concerning their capacity to display justice or fairness for the traditionally persecuted members of the Jewish race.
He tried very early to impress upon me that I had to prepare myself to earn a living, preferably by entering the family textile importing business. He wanted me to have the education that he never had, but he had very mixed feelings on this matter. He probably experienced some envy, resenting the fact that I was given free the education that he never could getand considered to be an invaluable preparation for life's struggle.
Nevertheless, he wanted me to have the best education available in Paris, where we resided after I was five years old, and was proud that I did well at the lycée, even if the subjects I studied were foreign to him. But, the only higher education he truly thought appropriate for me was the law, which he felt would be useful to protect his business interests. Accordingly, throughout my childhood and adolescence, I expected that I would dutifully become a lawyer and a businessman to satisfy his wishes. This would have certainly happened if Adolf Hitler and the Second World War had not interfered with my father's plans.
Another important aspect of the home life my parents created for me was that, although very comfortable and luxurious by any standard, with numerous servants, a chauffeur-driven car, and vacations in the best resort hotels, it was culturally deprived. My parents never read books. Bookshelves did not exist in our home, except in my bedroom. After mastering my dyslexia, I loved reading above all else, and would wake up at four or five in the morning to read books or even sometimes the dictionary, occasionally with a flashlight under the cover of my blanket to avoid detection by my parents who were concerned that I woke up too early. As a consequence, my cultural education, beyond what I learned at school, was very uneven, and I had no notion of science until I reached the university.
The same is true of art and music. Art was totally neglected in my home. Mother felt that pictures on the wall gather dust so our walls were bare. I was never taken to the museums. As for music, Mother, who had learned the piano but had truly no taste for music, arranged for me to learn to play the piano. But, it was never very satisfactory, because my dyslexia made it impossible for me to read both clefs simultaneously. I had to learn both hands separately by heart to play a piece. After a few years of fruitless effort, I abandoned it. I returned to music and learned successfully to play the flute, a single-key instrument, much later, after I was married (to an excellent pianist, I might add).
The single cultural activity for which I am grateful to my parents is the theater. They loved all types of theatrical productionsplays, musicals, reviewsand had no hesitation in taking their children to the theater to see and hear everything that was shown in Paris. As a consequence I developed a love for the theater, and I toyed all my life with the temptation of being a playwright or a director (a fantasy that I indulged in at Columbia University, as I will describe later).
My parents, in contrast to my grandfather, were not deeply religious and only observed the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Passover. They, nevertheless, insisted that I receive religious instruction from both my grandfather and a local Sephardic rabbi in Paris. These teachings, however, did not fall upon a fertile ground. I was not receptive, and never became interested in any aspect of the Jewish faith, or any other religion for that matter. I became rapidly convinced that all religions have caused considerably more pain and suffering than good to humanity. Because of their inherent dogmatic nature they have been historically opposed to the basic premise of science that everything is open to doubt and scrutiny by the minds of reasonable people. On the other hand, I have the greatest attachment to and respect for the preservation of historical and cultural heritages, be they Jewish, Spanish, French, or even Anglo-American, which, as I am deeply aware, have at various times molded my complex personality.
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