“I wonder how much evil those eyes saw…”
This thought haunted me, as I glared into the piercing hazel eyes of 96-year-old Dr. Alexander White, while he shared with us his fascinating Holocaust-survival story, today, in honor of “Yom HaShoah veHagevurah,” Holocaust day (which begins tonight until tomorrow evening).
Born Alexander Bialywlos in 1923, Dr. Alexander White grew up in the town of Krosno, Poland. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, he lost his mother and older sister first, and later, his two younger brothers. His father was shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp. After the liquidation of the Krosno ghetto in 1942, White spent more than a year in several camps before moving to one of the camps where Oskar Schindler saved thousands of Jews by employing them in his factories.
He told us how his family contemplated suicide to avoid the inevitable separation and death sentence that awaited them in the concentration camps. But he talked them out of it. In his words: “I said, ‘look, if we all die, is there going to be anyone after the war to tell people what went on here?’ Nobody will believe it.”
As he told his heartwrenching story, his face radiated with palpable optimism. I was amazed. How could a person who experienced such unfathomable darkness, exude such light? How could his beautiful eyes, who saw such evil, look into our eyes with such hope and love?
The answer became apparent when Dr. White shared with us his father’s parting words before he was forced onto a train to Auschwitz, where he met his death in a gas chamber.
“Be a mensch,” Dr. White’s father told him as they said goodbye for the last time. “These words,” Dr. White shared with me, “have kept me strong, even during the darkest moments of my life.”
Hitler wanted Dr. White dead. So he decided to live. The most un-mentsch forces in the world wanted Dr. White to lose his dignity. So he resolved to “be mentsch,” and honor his father’s last command.
Dr. White’s eyes may have witnessed the worst of evils, but within them, his eyes also saw a cathartic vision.
There, he saw himself fighting indifference, teaching the world about the power of good over evil, and how – regardless of the challenges one may face – tears can be turned into triumph, pain can engender gain, and suffering can be transformed into blessings.
On this Yom Hashoah veHaGevurah Holocaust Day, let us learn from Dr. Alexander White, to be mentsches, and to heed the call of our six million brothers and sisters to respond to death with life, to replace hatred with love, and to expel darkness with light.