Holocaust survivor Joseph Alexander, 99, remembers vividly his fight to survive

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Dolores Huerta Middle School in Burbank, California, invited six Holocaust survivors on April 27 to speak to students via Zoom, and Joseph Alexander, a spry 99-year-old retired tailor who still drives and climbs ladders, recounted his six years in 12 Nazi concentration camps in Poland and Germany.

Alexander, the first speaker at the event, told his story of survival and answered a few questions from the students over the monitor, telling them that his father, mother, three sisters, and two brothers all perished at the hands of the Nazis.

He was just 16 in 1939, and worked with his father at his father’s clothing manufacturing and distributing business in Kowal, Poland when the Nazis invaded their country. They fled from their two-story six-room home to the Jewish ghetto, but his father later bribed a guard to let him and one of his sisters return home. The two siblings were free for three days before they were caught and sent to the camps.

The captured teenager worked six days a week laying railroad tracks, digging potatoes and building dams, cobblestone streets, sewers, roofs and canals. He and his fellow prisoners received very little food. “A small piece of bread and a cup of coffee for breakfast and either soup made from potato peels or spinach for dinner. You couldn’t survive on the food they gave you with the work we did. Because we worked with civilians, we could get a little extra food from them. That is the only way we could survive. If they didn’t help, I wouldn’t be here. The camps all had the same menu,” Alexander said with a chuckle.

Joe, as he likes to be called, is a special person. “He is extremely resourceful, and nothing will stop him,” said Reeva Sherman, his girlfriend, many years his junior. “He is wired differently than anyone I have ever met. He is always happy, grateful, positive, kind, and generous. He never holds a grudge, but he forgives and moves forward.”

After being moved to seven different camps he was sent to the infamous Auschwitz, a trip that should have taken five or six hours. Instead he was trapped for three days in crowded train boxcars with no food or water.

“People were dying in the cars; when we arrived in Auschwitz, 30 to 40 percent of the people were dead on the train. Whoever could walk out of the train walked out, and we were lined up in rows of five. That is where I met Dr. Josef Mengele. He selected people that could not walk to the camp and sent them to the left, and they were to be taken on trucks. He went through and picked out old people, sick people, and young kids, and he picked me out too to go to the left. People going to the left couldn’t walk six kilometers to the camp, so he picked me out.”

“I was already in seven camps, so I always tried to get with the biggest, strongest men to go to work, and here he told me to go to the left, and I look around and I see sick people, old people, children, that’s not the kind of people I like to be with. It was after midnight, and when he (Mengele) moved down, I ran to the other side. … If it was daylight, I probably wouldn’t have done it. So I ran back to the other side, and we walked to the camp. If I hadn’t run back to the other side, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now. The people taken on trucks went straight to the gas chamber.”

After walking the six kilometers to Auschwitz he got a shower and a tattoo. “When I got to the camp, I got a shower, and then I got this present.” He rolled up his sleeve, showing his “142584” tattoo that the Nazis inked on his left forearm. “From that moment on, you had no name. This was your name.” The guards called him only by his number.

Alexander somehow survived starvation, forced labor, typhoid and the darkest cruelty of humankind. When asked what kept him from giving up, he said, “I wanted to survive, I have to survive. The man upstairs wanted me to survive because if he didn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten out of the Warsaw Ghetto to go back home. I would be where my parents and my sisters and brothers went. The second thing is when I got to Auschwitz, and Dr. Josef Mengele told me to go to the left. So it wasn’t me. God wanted me to survive.”

Since 1997 he has been recounting his story at schools and museums for anyone who is interested. “It is important not just for the Jewish children but the non-Jewish children. Because they say that 70 percent of the children I talk to never heard of the Holocaust, so that is why it is important to speak to them to let them know what happened. To prevent another Holocaust, I am doing as much as I can. I have been doing it since 1997. I hope they learn what happened, and we don’t have the same thing again.”


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This story was originally published May 5, 2022 3:00 AM.

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