Until the film “Schindler’s List” came out 20 years ago, 90-year-old Alexander White never knew how or why he was lucky enough to have survived World War II while most of his family perished in the death camps. He was 16 when the war began. He never knew what Oskar Schindler had done. He had never heard of the famed list.
Born in June 1923 in the shtetl of Krosno, Poland, White’s childhood ended with the Nazi invasion in 1939. Of 34 family members only White and two cousins survived. After living
through the liquidation of the Krosno Ghetto, White spent a year in the Luftwaffe Labor Camp and six months in the concentration camp at Krakow- Plassow before surviving the last months of the Holocaust at Oskar Schindler’s camp in Bruennlitz, Sudetenland. How he came to be on “Schindler’s List” White could only surmise with some added information from a woman named Freda who worked in the office of the factory. “She told me it was pure mazel (luck). But I was listed as a glazier and painter, and I truly believe that’s the reason I wound up there. They had to have some skilled craftspeople in case of any real work that needed to be done. I was the youngest worker there. Most of the others were actually doctors, lawyers and other professionals.”
White has seen the movie and feels that “it was the best that Spielberg could possibly do and portray what had happened. It was done with Hollywood schmaltz. What went on was so much worse than what the audience could ever imagine! In our town it was far more violent. There was no room for the weak and infirm. One woman who was unable to walk and was on a sled, she had no wheelchair, and was being dragged through the streets when a Nazi officer walked up to her and shot her in the head. He walked past, her blood all over his coat, without a thought. Kids were walking down the streets and witnessed this and so many more horrific incidents just like it.”
At the end of the war, White found himself in a displaced persons camp with a huge desire to get an education in anything he could. “I had actually applied to the school of architecture in Germany. I ran into someone who had been in the factory with me, and he said that the medical school in Munich was trying to re-open. I tore up the one set of admission papers and went to the medical school. I had such a thirst for knowledge of any kind. I hadn’t even finished high school, but I became a medical doctor within five years.”
Afterward he immigrated to the United States where he served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He was an associate professor of medicine at the Chicago Medical School where he had a private practice before moving to Scottsdale to continue caring for patients until his retirement.
It took 40 years before he was able to say anything. “My kids knew that something awful had happened. They had no relatives. But they never asked,” he says. But one day while riding with his son and stuck in traffic the story began to slowly come out: “So since we basically had no place to go, we started to talk. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. My son started to tape the sessions – I went on for days. When it ended, he said I should write my memoirs.”
Even though he was very busy with his practice, White says he wasn’t much of a sleeper, so he’d get up and pen a page or two. “I’m not a writer. I learned to speak English on the job, so I just wrote it all down the way that I talked.” Today, thanks to the self-published book that resulted, White goes out to speak to both high school and college students to answer questions about this unbelievably inhumane scar on world history.
“One has to remember that in those days it wasn’t like now, where we know the importance of getting the returning soldiers psychological help to get through it all. We were basically supposed to just come back and pretend it was in the past. But for our children and grandchildren, our grief and pain turned into their anger.”
When going out on these speaking engagements, White has found that American students are not well-versed in what happened during those years. Questions posed to him have included: Do you have a tattoo? (For White the answer is no.) Did the camps make you read the Bible? (To that question, White reminded the student that they weren’t in the death camps to learn religion.) And finally, what do you tell deniers?
“Those who deny are either uneducated and their brain can’t comprehend that one human would treat another human in such violent ways, or they are educated but they feel that it’s OK to have a scapegoat for their atrocities,” says White. White’s views about his adopted homeland reflect his love. “Here, no matter what, we move forward. Once, when I was invited to speak in Indiana at Purdue, most of the attendees were black and I quoted Martin Luther King. I told the students that the Jewish people should thank him. He not only helped his own people, he also assisted us on being on an equal basis with others. Never could I imagine being able to talk so freely in Poland.”
Dr. White’s self-published memoir, “Be a Mensch: A Legacy of the Holocaust,” was published in 2004. “Be a mensch” were the last words spoken to him by his father as the Nazis led him away to Auschwitz, where he was killed that same day. Those three words turned out to be not only his legacy, but his motto in life. Today White and his wife, Inez, live at Vi at Grayhawk, a
continuing-care retirement community in North Scottsdale.
Carine Nadel is a recent and happy transplant to Arizona. In a varied career, Carine has done everything from front page features for the Orange County Register and food columns to having recipes published in major magazines and entries on her family life in Chicken Soup for the Soul books.