Joe Alexander has retold and relived his story of Holocaust survival many, many times over the decades with the hope, he said, that continuing the education of young people removed by the passing years from the nightmare others did not survive will prevent such genocide from being repeated.
“People need to understand what happened,” said Alexander, who in November turned 100 years old. “They murdered 6 million Jews and 1.5 million Jewish children. They didn’t murder them because they were criminals or because they committed a crime. It was just because they were Jews.”
On Sunday, Jan. 29, Alexander, will share his story again at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Newport Beach, telling visitors of being rounded up at age 16 with his parents and five siblings from their small town and sent to the Warsaw Ghetto the Nazis created after their 1939 invasion of Poland. Over the next few years, Alexander said he passed through a dozen work camps, including the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. He was his family’s sole survivor.
“He is a wonderfully positive person,” said Rabbi Reuven Mintz, who organized Alexander’s talk as part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day events, recognized on Friday, Jan. 27. “I marvel about how he and other survivors continued on despite the horrors they endured.”
Alexander’s appearance at the Chabad is among several efforts Mintz said he has undertaken to keep the memory of what happened during the Holocaust in the forefront of people’s minds.
“What better way to show this than through firsthand experiences,” Mintz said. “Joseph survived an entire century and endured 12 death camps.”
In 2021, the Newport Beach Chabad opened its Holocaust Education Center, with some 700 artifacts recovered from Nazi concentration camps and collected by Mel Mermelstein, a Huntington Beach businessman who, like Alexander, was a Holocaust survivor and also lost his family to the death camps. Mermelstein, who also dedicated his life to fighting Holocaust denial and promoting greater tolerance, died Jan. 28, 2022.
The museum includes uniforms worn by the camp’s inhabitants, pieces of barbed-wire fence and even parts of a prayer book buried near an incinerator.
Especially as the survivor generation passes into history – there are fewer than 100 living in Orange County – maintaining awareness of the Holocaust and its atrocities in future generations is very important, he said.
“It is critical to re-calibrate our moral compass to prevent future genocide,” Mintz said. “We need to inspire youth to step up against hate and negativity and channel that darkness into light, creating a more peaceful and harmonious world,.
“That lesson is now more important than ever,” he added. “Antisemitism, hatred and bigotry are at historical levels, and at the same time, other crimes done to various other groups and minorities have spiked.”
Even more disturbing, Mintz said, is that recent studies indicate a growing lack of awareness and even a level of disbelief among millennials.
It is because of the importance of preserving the memory of the genocide that was allowed to happen that Alexander said he’s regularly visited middle schools and high schools since 1989 to share his story. He is also involved at the Holocaust Museum near his home in Los Angeles.
Five months after his family was taken to the Warsaw Ghetto, he and two siblings escaped by paying off guards, Alexander said. They separated and made their way through the streets of Warsaw, returning to their small hometown, where everything still appeared as they had left it, he said.
But within several days, the Nazis rounded up all Jewish men ages 16 to 60 and Alexander was sent to the first of many work camps where he and others dug out hills to build a dam. Food was scarce, with only a slice of bread and coffee in the morning and a soup of potato peels and spinach at night.
“Many people were dying; they were starving,” Alexander said. “Every morning, they were carrying people out.”
As the camps’ populations got smaller, they were combined. He was moved to several others where he did manual labor like laying cobblestones or building sewers. After about seven of those camps, he and others were loaded into railcars headed for Auschwitz, Alexander said. By the time the train arrived, about 40% of the men had died, he said.
Auschwitz was also where Alexander said he encountered Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who performed medical experiments in the death camps.
Alexander said he was in line outside the railroad station when Mengele appeared and began sorting people into two rows.
“He picked out old people, young kids and sick people and lined them up on the left,” Alexander said. “He picked me for that line, too.”
But, after Mengele walked ahead, Alexander quickly ran to the other side, he said. “If I hadn’t gotten out, I would have died. People on the left went straight to the gas chambers.”
At Auschwitz, Alexander was also given a tattoo with the number 142584 – from then on, that would be his only identification as he was again transferred from camp to camp, including passing through Dachau, another notorious concentration camp.
Then, Alexander said, he and a group were taken on a “death march” where they were to be killed near a German ski resort. But, as they marched, the group was divided by nearby gunfire and fighting. Alexander was among those taken to a small German village.
“And then American tanks came in, and we were liberated,” Alexander said. The date was May 2, 1945.
Alexander immigrated to the United States, first living in Victorville in 1950, where like his father, he began working as a tailor.
A few years later, he moved to Los Angeles to start his own business, the Los Angeles Uniform Exchange, on Melrose Avenue near Paramount Studios, making military costumes for movies.
Since retiring, Alexander said he has focused on teaching the youth about the Holocaust and has seen his efforts rewarded.
He’s received thousands of letters from students he’s spoken to, he said. “They tell me they are going to tell what happened to their parents and friends.”
“I saw people run to electrocute themselves on fences; I saw them being beaten to death and watched people being hung,” he said. “Kids have asked me, ‘Did you ever think of giving up?’ I said, no. I thought if I was having a bad day, tomorrow would be better.”
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