Days of remembrance
Jack Adler, 73, a survivor of three concentration camps, spent six years – half of his childhood – in two ghettos and in two of the largest concentration camps in Europe during World War II, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau.
Adler, who was born in Poland and now lives in Denver, lost his whole family in the camps – mother, father, two sisters and a brother.
“One thing I couldn’t spare in those years to lose if I wanted to survive was hope,” Adler told a class full of eighth-graders at Eagle Valley Middle School.
The talk was part of a two-week program organized by the B’nai Vail Congregation and part of The National Days of Remembrance, an annual commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust established by the U.S. Congress in 1980.
“I speak to you as a witness of the darkest pages of human history. During the Holocaust, the world was silent, indifferent and complacent,” he said. “Many could have been saved if that hadn’t happened.”
The Holocaust was the systematic and state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. The Nazis also targeted other groups, too, including gypsies, the handicapped and Slavic people, including Poles and Russians. Other groups were persecuted by the Nazis on political and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.
“Hate is a learned experience. It can be learned at home and within the social environment,” Adler said.
A different childhood
Adler was 10 years old when the Nazis occupied his hometown in Poland. Few months after the occupation, he and his family were moved to Pabianice, a ghetto where his mother and younger sister later died of malnutrition.
From there, he and his remaining family were moved to Lodz, another ghetto in Poland where about 300,000 prisoners were held. When it was liberated in 1944, less than 68,000 had survived the gas chambers and the ruthless treatment of the Nazi guards.
“When I was in Lodz, I realized that people were dying in the gas chambers,” Adler said.
From Lodz, the Adlers were transferred to Auschwitz, one of the most feared concentration camps. Birkenau, which was Auschwitz’ selection and extermination camp, had four gas chambers. At the height of the deportations, up to 8,000 Jews were gassed each day.
At Birkenau, Adler met Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Dead,” a Nazi doctor infamous for his experiments on children.
Mengele was in charge of deciding who was going to survive and who was going to die in the gas chambers. The selections were done according to how healthy and useful for labor the inmates were.
“They separate one group and told them they’d be getting a shower. They told them to remember where they’d hanged their clothes for later,” Adler said. “But they never came back. Once the room was closed, gas came out instead of water. I lost my sister there.”
After being gassed, the Nazis took the piles of bodies to the crematorium.
“You could smell the burning flesh everywhere,” he said.
Adler, who was 15 years old when he arrived to Birkenau, was selected by Mengele for some experiments, which he survived.
The next stop was another concentration camp, Kaufering, where he and his father stayed for six months.
“Then, they separated us. They sent me to Dachau, a concentration camp where 90 percent of the prisoners weren’t jews.”
In Dachau, Adler told the eighth-graders, he found the first decent Nazi, who he credits with his survival.
“He protected me to some extent and helped me get bread,” he said.
Adler stayed in Dachau until April 27, 1945, when 10,000 prisoners at the camp were forced out into one of the death marches.
“At night, the Nazis took groups to the woods. They made them dig ditches and then they machine-gunned them.”
In May, when they were liberated by allied forces, only 4,000 prisoners had survived the death march. Adler was among them. He weighed 66 pounds and had pneumonia. He was 16 years old, the sole survivor of a family of six, a war orphan. The number tattooed on his arm was “96038.”
Hope in the West
After the war, Adler was adopted by a foster family in Chicago. He later married and had two children.
“From the Holocaust I learned that hate is an equal opportunity disease,” he said. “We haven’t learned much from it. We still have so many hate groups in the country and in the world.”
Students, whose faces looked somber during Adler’s talk, stood up to applaud Adler when he finished his story. Then, they asked questions for more than half an hour.
“Which had been his darkest moment?” asked one.
The darkest moment of the Holocaust, Adler told the children, was when he saw babies thrown in the air used as shooting targets.
“Which had been the happiest?”
When he came to the U.S. and experienced true freedom.
“I feel fortunate and a little selfish,” said Michelle Duprey, 13, of Eagle, after the talk. “We want so many things. We hate coming to school and those children couldn’t go to school.”
“I wouldn’t have the courage to go on like he did,” said Amy Strakbein, 14, of Eagle. “I can’t believe how those Nazis could do that to the babies and then go home to their own families.”
To spread his message against hate, Adler talks to more than 15,000 students every year across the country.
“Because we can’t allow any of these groups to succeed,” he told the students. “Mutual respect is the key to coexistence. My advice to you is live by the Golden Rule – “Don’t do to others what you don’t want be done to you.'”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 454 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.