Print Mensch fulfills his father’s last words
Written by Greg Ruland   
Monday, 16 May 2011 00:00

Dr. Alexander B. White was 16 in September 1939 when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi troops and tanks invaded Poland. By October, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, signers of a nonaggression pact, controlled the country.

In May 1942, White’s family and others were ordered by the Nazis to construct and then move into a newly created ghetto in Krosno, Poland, known as Little Krakow. At the gate to the ghetto, a sign read, “Abandon hope, all who enter here.”

Multiple families, including White’s, crowded into a single apartment, all sleeping on the floor or in two- and three-level bunk beds.

“At this time our family — our uncles, aunts, cousins — as well as other Jews in our town were still alive. But in the short space of seven months, almost all of us would be dead,” White wrote in his memoir, “Be a Mensch.”

Of the 4,000 Jews forced to take up residence in the Krosno ghetto, 3,200 were dead of disease, starvation, overwork or violence by the end of the year.

“Be a mensch,” were the last words White’s father spoke to him before he was led to the death trains and disappeared forever, White said.

Skylar Martinez, right, and dozens of other Cottonwood Middle School students and their families solemnly observe a moment of candlelit silence to honor all those who suffer under tyranny at the school’s Day of Remembrance event Thursday, May 5.“I tried to give him the only possession I had — a small piece of bread I carried with me — as an expression of hope even in Auschwitz,” White wrote. Auschwitz was a concentration camp where more than 1.1 million people were executed or died.

His father wouldn’t take the bread, knowing the fate that awaited him.

The only member of his family to survive, White told Cottonwood Middle School students and their families about the Holocaust during the school’s third annual Days of Remembrance observance Thursday, May 5.

Because the program was only 30 minutes, White said he would not be able to tell the entire story of his survival. Instead, he urged the students to “Be a mensch.”

Dr. Alexander White, a Polish survivor of the Holocaust, spoke with Cottonwood Middle School students and their families about his experiences being detained at Auschwitz during the school’s Day of Remembrance on Thursday, May 5.In Yiddish, “mensch” is the word for an ideal human being, a person blessed by God with the finest human attributes, including charity, kindness, tolerance, honesty and love of mankind, White said.

Students normally give him their full attention and ask pertinent questions when he speaks, even in some of the toughest urban schools in Phoenix, he said.

Eighth-grader Tyler Sabo and seventh-grader Mitchell Vize proved the point shortly before the program started. The duo was engaged in trying to sell books they wrote and illustrated about genocide as part of Angela Hillman’s seventh- and eighth-grade Holocaust studies class.

“It’s amazing how somebody could go through so much and survive — days without food and losing their family, which is something I couldn’t do,” Sabo said. “I want to ask him how he survived.”

“It’s important history,” Vize said. “More than 12 million people were killed. How could someone do that to another person?”

Hillman said the class raises important issues for her students to consider.

“I never heard a Holocaust survivor say, ‘Poor me,’” Hillman said. “It teaches the kids that they can survive even the toughest situations in their lives.”

The class helps her students become better leaders and teaches them the importance of standing up for what is right, she said.

Hillman is building a website for teachers who teach learning disabled students about the Holocaust, and will present her project “The Strength of the Human Spirit” in July at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

White tells his story at schools and other venues across Arizona through his participation in the Phoenix Holocaust Survivors Association, a Scottsdale nonprofit.