Holocaust Refugee Sylvain Boni Dies at 92

Sylvain Boni. Courtesy of the Boni family

Jon Marks

Sylvain Boni didn’t like to talk about his traumatic upbringing.

He was reluctant to share the story about how he, his mother and his two brothers fled their home in Paris before the Nazis found out they were Jewish and then moved throughout Eastern Europe trying to stay safe.

Not many knew how he eventually wound up in Philadelphia after boarding the USAT Henry Gibbins in Bari, Italy, an Army transport ship with 982 refugees. It turned out to be the only refugee ship allowed entry to the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. Then, after spending two years at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego, New York, they came to the Philadelphia area.

“My dad was very reserved about what he went through,” said Mike Boni following his 92-year-old father’s death on Nov. 13. “He didn’t like talking about it. Later in life, he decided to write it all down.”

In fact, Sylvain Boni put together a 45-page journal detailing the experience as seen through his then-13-year-old eyes. That included having his mother sew a Star of David yellow armband on his coat while they were living in Sofia, Bulgaria, and later having his grandmother sew diamonds into his clothing before they boarded the ship.

Sylvain Boni as depicted at the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum at Oswego, New York. Courtesy of the Boni family.

“My grandfather kept himself alive until they were safe and then died at 39,” Mike Boni said. “Most of his family was wiped out. All my great-grandparents, aunts and uncles were taken.

“My father and his family were taken to the base in Oswego in upstate New York for safe haven. My mother befriended another family. This family said they knew someone in Philadelphia.”

Once the Bonis settled in their new home, Sylvain Boni proved to be both a scholar and an athlete. After graduating from Central High School, he went on to Temple University. At Temple, he played on the Owls’ 1952 national championship soccer team.

Before that, while working as a helper at Camp Reeta, he met his future wife, Pat. They were married in November 1954 soon after he graduated with a degree in education.
But before putting that degree to use, he was drafted by the Army. During his service, he was sent to Germany, where his first son, Michael, was born.

A year later, he returned to Philadelphia and to Central to teach French. He continued to become involved with summer camps, starting at Big Pocono in 1961. From there he moved on to Camp Arthur, where he served as director for five years. Later, he became the director at Har Zion Day Camp for a couple of years.

All the while, he continued teaching at Central, adding Spanish and honors English to his resume. Along the way, he became involved with the American Federation of Teachers, eventually becoming a union rep.

He remained at Central until retiring in 1994.

While still there, he supplemented his education by taking night classes at Bryn Mawr College, earning his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1981. He began teaching night courses, first at LaSalle University, where taught philosophy, and later at Arcadia University (then called Beaver College), where he taught drama and bioethics.

From left: Claude, Raymond and Sylvain Boni. Courtesy of the Boni family

“My dad was universally loved and respected for his intellect,” said Mike Boni, a board member of the Jewish National Fund since 2005 and a former president for Eastern Pennsylvania. “He wrote his doctoral thesis on [Jean-Paul] Sartre. But was also a down-to-earth guy. I’ve gotten an outpouring of cards and emails from his students saying he made a real impact on their lives.”

In 1975, he married Georgia Koorhan, then the principal at Solomon Schecter Day School in Melrose Park. They remained together for the rest of his life.

In 1998, he and his brothers, Raymond and Claude, returned to Bari for the first time since their 1944 departure to visit the cemetery where their father, Jacques, was buried. Seeing that the grave had fallen into disrepair, they paid the groundskeeper to make it more presentable. After returning home, Claude Boni continued to pay for its upkeep.

Sylvain Boni was the last surviving member of the Boni family from that transport ship. He lost his older brother Raymond in 2019 and younger brother Claude in 2022.

Boni was memorialized at a celebration of life ceremony on Nov. 18. He is survived by his wife, Georgia; sons Mike and Dennis; stepchildren Oren Giskan and Sharona Vakni; and eight grandchildren.

Jon Marks is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.


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