Opinion: Village Matters


Lingering Shadows

ann christoph
By Ann Christoph

On Dec. 1, the Artist Theater at the high school was the setting for a detailed recounting by 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Alexander. Sponsored by Chabad Jewish Center, Alexander described episodes of his life after the Nazi takeover of Poland in 1939. For six years until the end of World War II, he lived a life of uncertainty and terror, one among millions who were swept into the maelstrom engineered to rid the world of Jews and so-called “undesirables.”

But before death, in the case of those strong enough to work like Alexander, the Nazis extracted as much labor as possible—a slow death, as their extremely low-calorie diet–bread and coffee in the morning and potato peel/spinach soup at night could never match the energy expended by the heavy labor demanded to build dams, canals, and roads. Through two stints in the Warsaw Ghetto and being captive in a total of twelve different camps, culminating in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau, Alexander managed to find meager but critical assistance, took important chances, thwarted the worst of danger–to which he credits “the man upstairs,” who he says must have wanted him to survive and tell the story–so that next generations learn what happened and will prevent such evil from ever taking over again.

It was impossible for words to convey the horrible feeling of dread that must have been constant and inescapable. Now it’s a story of horror told in the safety of the high school auditorium in Laguna Beach. 

The threat was then, but not now. 

It was there, but not here.

Stories told so often can become unreal.

So I go back to my first awareness of the Holocaust. I was born two months after the end of World War II in Europe. I grew up listening to adult conversations about the war. My grandparents were being asked to send coveted items like coffee to relatives in Germany. There was talk about concentration camps. In my child’s mind, I thought that would be a good place to go—a place to concentrate, to think! Then in seventh grade, we were among the last families to get a TV set. For the first time, I saw films about the horrors of the concentration camps, the emaciated bodies, the cruelty, the fear and the hatred. That’s when the dread enveloped me, a reaction I will never forget. 

For days I couldn’t sleep. I quivered under blankets in my cold bedroom. 

Those images have never left me. 

It was such a strong reaction that I fantasized that I had been in one of those camps, had died, and had come back to live another better life here and now. Even now, the thoughts of those cruelties continue to haunt me.

Alexander believes he was saved from death for a reason—to be a face and a voice, to be sure we all know that hatred and discrimination can produce a society gone terribly awry. 

Holocaust survivor Joseph Alexander meets with an attendee during his talk at the Artist Theater on Dec. 1. Photo by Ann Christoph

We need to be sure we are forever vigilant about the next insidious voices— Kanye West, Nick Fuentes, those who think hate speech is just free speech and “there are good people on both sides.” We who have been spared the direct impact of that perversely deviant Nazi movement have an even greater obligation to compensate by spreading humane goodness and preventing the lingering shadows of hatred from ever dominating again.

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