SOUTH HOLLAND | Alexander White had a three-pronged message for those who came to hear him speak Thursday at the Kindig Performing Arts Center on the campus of South Suburban College. He hoped the young people, in particular, were listening.
The 91-year-old White asked his audience to remember the reasons behind the injustices he experienced as a Polish Jew during World War II were hate and indifference.
"It's very easy to kill someone that you hate," White said. "From hate to killing is a very short distance."
Thornton Township Supervisor and Chairman of the SSC board of directors Frank Zuccarelli introduced White.
"(White has) had to endure some things that many of us could never imagine," Zuccarelli said. "He's a very special individual and that is the reason why we have him here today."
White was born in Poland in 1923. He, an uncle and a cousin were the only members of his extended family to survive WWII.
He was imprisoned in the Luftwaffe labor camp for a year and then a concentration camp at Krakow-Plassow in Poland for six months. He then, for reasons still unknown to him, found his name on Oskar Schindler's list and spent the last few months of the war in a camp in Bruennlitz, Sudetenland (Czechoslovakia), as a glass maker. That camp was depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film.
White shared stories of watching German soldiers kick down doors and point pistols at him. He remembered his father pulling out his hair when his mother was taken away. He remembered seeing the flames from his synagogue burning and watching Soviet prisoners of war being marched to a camp only to be shot later to make room for another concentration camp. He talked of seeing a German soldier beat a young girl who clung to her mother as she was being loaded into a train car likely headed to a death camp.
"I want you to know how many evil people there are in this world," he said.
White attended medical school in Germany before moving to the United States and serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He kept his experiences during World War II to himself for 40 years.
White has written a book about his memories, "Be a Mensch: A Legacy of the Holocaust," and now speaks to high school and college students around the country. "Being a Mensch" is the second thing he wanted people to remember.
"Be a decent human being," he said. "(Being a mensch is) being an unusual human being, being tolerant and kind and charitable."
A man made the same request of White after handing him a piece of bread from his pocket before being sent to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he knew he would likely die.
"He said to me, 'I won't need (the bread) anymore,'" White said. "I've lost everything. I've lost my family. I've lost everything I've worked for."
The final portion of his message was aimed at the youth in attendance.
"Make something out of yourself to be useful to society," White said. "Go and study."