HomeCity NewsFrom Holocaust Horrors to Freedom: A Survivor’s Tale

From Holocaust Horrors to Freedom: A Survivor’s Tale

First published in the Dec. 17 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.

By Mia Alva
Glendale News-Press

Joseph Alexander can recall every single detail of his life under the Nazis until he was liberated and free to live in the United States.
“I’m a Holocaust survivor from Poland. I had a family of parents, three sisters, two brothers, and I am the only survivor. I survived 12 camps,” Alexander said as he opened a recent speech.
Rabbi Simcha Backman introduced Alexander at an event organized by the Chabad Jewish Center of Glendale and described how three of his four grandparents also were Holocaust survivors. Backman told the audience he himself grew up with little knowledge of what they went through and “hardly heard a word about it” from them, something he later realized he and others could have benefitted from.
“In today’s day and age, when antisemitism is on the rise and Holocaust denial is becoming more and more mainstream, listening to this man and his story becomes ever more important. Heroes like Mr. Alexander defy Hitler and the enemies of humanity every single day of their lives by repeating their story,” said Backman.
Alexander, who is now 100 years old, said he entered his first concentration camp in 1939 at age 16. German soldiers invaded his small town in Poland and started taking people from their homes, but Alexander and his family were spared for no apparent reason.
That gave the family hope, and they packed up their belongings and headed to Alexander’s aunt’s house, which was about 15 miles from their home. They did this because there were rumors that the soldiers would come back the next day for them.
However, when they came to the small town named Blonie, Alexander was forced to go to work, and that is when he entered his first camp.
Ordered to help build a canal, he said, he would stand in water up to his knees, without boots, and he eventually contracted blood poisoning. But he was permitted to leave the camp after each workday, so at one point he returned home and decided not to go back. After the weekend passed, police came looking for Alexander because he did not report for work; this is when the Nazis started to build a wall in Warsaw to confine Jewish residents in the city.
The family moved to the Warsaw ghetto and stayed for five months at the place where hundreds of thousands were imprisoned — and many sent to death camps.
However, the family was able to journey back home to see that their dwellings remained intact, but Alexander was free for only three days. German soldiers demanded that all Jewish men ages 16-60 report to the schoolhouse, and “off I went to the camps.”
From there, Alexander’s journey from camp to camp didn’t end until May 2, 1945, when he was 21.
He did work that included building a dam, laying cobblestone, constructing sewers and an airport, until at one point a train arrived and took 40 to 50 prisoners to Auschwitz. At this point, Alexander had been in seven camps already.
When they got off the train, Alexander said, 30%-40% of the prisoners were already dead, and the rest were introduced to Dr. Joseph Mengele.
The crowd at the Jewish Center gasped at the mention of the notorious military officer and physician because of his inhumane medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz.
Mengele separated people on the train to the right and left. The people motioned to the left were sick, old or young children, while the people on the right were strong, big men. Alexander was told to go to the left. He knew he was on the wrong side but realized that only because he had already been in several camps.
“If I didn’t run back to the other side, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. The people on the left were taken on trucks and went straight to the gas chambers,” said Alexander.
That is one of the two moments that Alexander remembers as a time when he avoided death.
After his narrow escape, he got clothes, took a shower, and was given a tattoo. The number across his arm, 142584, would now replace his name.
The Nazis sent Alexander back to the Warsaw to reconstruct the ghetto after a Jewish uprising, and the workers had to put together their own camp. This was when he got typhus fever, as did most of the people working with him.
“Anyone I knew who reported to the hospital never came out,” said Alexander. So he didn’t go to the hospital, and “I was standing behind bricks” — where it was cooler — “for about three days until I got over the temperature and went back to work.”
After this, Alexander was sent to Dachau, another infamous concentration camp.
“It was the first regular concentration camp established by the National Socialist (Nazi) government,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
On April 29, 1945, German soldiers marched Dachau prisoners into the mountains of Germany, planning to execute them, Alexander said. He and the others walked for two days and heard the American troops behind them, knowing there was some hope. After the prisoners were taken to a village called Königsdorf the following day, the German soldiers disappeared — the second time that Alexander avoided imminent death.
Alexander and nine others left the village and stumbled upon American soldiers who let them into an underground bunker to get food, new clothes and bikes to keep going. During his journey, he lived on a farm and eventually decided it was time to go back home to see if any of his family had survived.
“They said that none of my immediate family, nobody came back. The only one that came back was a cousin of mine that was three years younger,” said Alexander.
He met with his cousin, Mark Alexander, and they ventured to Germany and lived there for four years, since they had to wait until a country wanted to take them. Canada opened its application process, and the pair sent in their papers but heard nothing back.
In the meantime, he and his cousin went to Munich and were checked out by an American doctor and the FBI. He got on a boat and came to America on May 30, 1949. Alexander ended up in New York, and in October, his cousin came to Santa Monica. His cousin convinced Alexander to come and live in California with him.
“So I came to California in 1950 and, well, here I am,” said Alexander.
After this, he devoted most of his life to talking to middle and high school students about the Holocaust and his story.
As for Holocaust deniers, Alexander calls them crazy “because the evidence is still in existence today.”
One audience member asked whether the ordeal affected his mental health after he was liberated.
“We didn’t think about these things. We just came here and tried to start a new life and build a family,” said Alexander.
What got Alexander through such a horrible and traumatic time were his belief in God, his motivation to survive, and his determination to never give up, he said.
“I was in bad places where I wouldn’t survive if it weren’t for God [to] help me survive. God wanted me to survive so I can be here tonight talking to you people to let you know what happened. That’s why I survived,” said Alexander.
As for any anger that he might hold about the Holocaust or his experience, it’s nonexistent.
“I don’t forget, but I don’t carry any grudges. If you carry a grudge, you make yourself sick,” said Alexander.
“To see a survivor, and he’s smiling, and [to see] the joy on that man’s face,” said Lucy Erdman, an audience member and Burbank resident. “It’s given me hope because of what’s going on now politically in the world and the division. It gives me hope that we have a future and that there are other people like him who are telling their experiences. … I feel blessed to be able to witness this.”

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