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How an Ultimate Optimist Outlived His Would-be Killers

Not only did this hero of the Holocaust survive 12 concentration camps, he also gained revenge on his captors by probably outliving all of them. 
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November 3, 2022
Joseph Alexander (center) after liberation

On November 20, Joe Alexander celebrates his 100th birthday. The active West Hollywood resident, who was born in Kowal, a small town in central Poland,  can claim membership in one of the world’s tiniest clubs: After six years as a prisoner of one of the most evil schemes of the 20th century, not only did this hero of the Holocaust survive 12 concentration camps, he also gained revenge on his captors by probably outliving all of them. 

At one of his recent talks at  the Holocaust Museum Los Angeles, the 99-year-old survivor related his harrowing journey through the most perilous death camps the Nazis could devise. Dressed fashionably in a black-and-white sport coat, black shirt and necktie, the diminutive Alexander took his seat at the front of the room.  After his opening words, he never paused.

He was known in the camps, and has been known since 1949 in the United States, as an optimist. The second youngest of six children, he credits being raised in a Modern Orthodox home for his permanent sunny outlook.

Alexander was known in the camps for his optimism and steel-strong faith in God. He said his belief in doing what God wants carried him through.  Today, he is known for assuring audiences, especially students, that no matter how grim things are, they will get better.  “That belief, which I learned at home, kept me going in the camps,” Alexander said.

Unlike most men and women of his age, Alexander is regularly active, alert and participates daily in society – and not from a distance. He is the gabbai at Hollywood Temple Beth El for his longtime friend, Rabbi Norbert Weinberg. He attends every Shabbat service, removing the Torah from the Ark, and arranging the aliyot recipients.

On January 8, Beth El is planning a doubleheader gala celebrating two 100th birthdays, Alexander’s and the Conservative synagogue’s.

One of Weinberg’s favorite stories about Alexander is how his friend’s knee was shattered in a motorcycle accident shortly after the war ended. “He ignored the pain for 70 years before he decided to fix it,” the rabbi said. “Shortly after the surgery, he was up and around again.”

While Alexander remains familiar with many intimate details from 1939 until May 1945, being around this tireless man, it is easy to forget he is 100.

For the past 25 years — since the lifelong tailor retired from his military uniform shop, L.A. Uniform Exchange, on Melrose Avenue — Alexander carefully has been recounting his thousands of steps through death camps for appreciative audiences of students and adults.

No matter his optimism, he has faced more than his share of challenges. After the early days of the Holocaust, he never again saw or learned what happened to his parents and siblings. In 1995, two years before Alexander’s retirement, his wife Adele – who he had met in Harrisburg, Pa., his first stop in the States — died.

He used to deliver multiple talks a day, and now in the aftermath of the pandemic, Alexander relates his concentration camp experiences twice a week at the Holocaust Museum.

Making no obvious concessions to age, his fact-filled presentations are emotion-free. “I survived 12 camps,” he said. “I grew up in Kowal, Poland, my father was in business, and we had a very good life until 1939.

“That was when the Germans came into Poland and divided the country into two halves. We lived in the part that was annexed to the Third Reich. Every town had a Town Square, where the businesses were. We lived in the town square. 

We were given 10 minutes to get out.”

Mysteriously, three families, including the Alexanders, were overlooked. After the victims departed, Joe’s father put the seven Alexanders into two horse-drawn wagons and they headed for a town 15 miles away where relatives lived.

Within two weeks, though, 17-year-old Joe was sent to a forced labor camp.

“Everybody had to work there,” he said. “They told us on weekends we could go home. But we were building a canal. You stayed in the water, up to your knees, without boots. 

“We arrived around this time of year, October, November, like winter time. I worked there a few weeks, got blood poisoning, sores on my legs and arms. One weekend I went home. I said ‘I am not going back.’ Monday morning the police came to look for me. My dad said ‘he’s not here. He is supposed to be in the camp.’ They left, and I stayed away from home for a while. That was when they were starting to build a wall where the Warsaw Ghetto was going to be.

“After the wall was finished, they announced that all Jews living within 50, 60 kilometers had to move into the Warsaw Ghetto. We moved into the Ghetto, and you cannot imagine how miserable life was. This was a small, walled-in area with barbed wire on top. They put about 400,000 people in there.

“People were dying every day. You went out in the morning, and there were dead people on the sidewalk, in the streets, everywhere.”

The Nazi-inked identification number 142584 remains tattooed on his forearm.

Alexander kept moving camp to camp, laying cobblestones, building sewers, laying down railroad tracks. He mentioned going three days at a time “without food or facilities.”

Alexander kept moving camp to camp, laying cobblestones, building sewers, laying down railroad tracks. He mentioned going three days at a time “without food or facilities.”

Eventually, in early 1943, he wound up at notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau, his eighth stop. 

“When the train doors were opened,” he recalled, “30, 40 percent of the people were dead.

“Whoever could walk was lined up in rows of five. That was when we met Dr. Josef Mengele. He was called the Doctor of Death. 

“Dr. Mengele said there are 6 kilometers to walk through the camp. He selected people to line up on the left and said they would be leaving on trucks. He picked out sick people, old people, young kids. I was a little guy, and he picked me out to go to the left.”

Because of his experience in other camps, Alexander was shrewd enough to strategically position himself.  “Every time I had to go to work, I tried to get in with the biggest, strongest men,” he said. “Being a little guy, I figured I could get away with a lot of stuff. When I looked around here, I only saw sick people, old people, not the types I wanted to be around.”

To survive, Alexander knew he needed to make it to the right side.

One night around midnight, “I noticed Dr. Mengele had moved down the line. Had it been daytime, I could not have done it. I had to make it to the other side. Everybody on the left side was taken away in trucks. If I hadn’t gotten away in the dark that night,” said Alexander, “I would not be here this morning.”

Why has he survived? “Because this is where God wanted me to be.”

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