Before Dr. Alexander B. White’s father was sent to a death train that would take him to Auschwitz, he shared a few last words with his son. “He had one wish for me, that if I should survive, I should be a mensch — a decent human being. And with that, he marched off with Mr. Heller (a family friend), and I can still see them being marched away together with hundreds of others,” White says.
Since then, White has treasured his father’s words and has strived to be a mensch.
Today, he is a retired physician living with his wife of 60 years, Inez, at Vi at Grayhawk, a retirement community in north Scottsdale. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday.
White has written a book about his Holocaust experience titled “Be a Mensch,” which details his family’s journey from Krosno, Poland, to the death camps. He lost his two brothers, his sister and his parents.
Only 16 when the Nazis invaded Poland, White spent a year in a Luftwaffe (Air Force of Nazi Germany) labor camp and six months in the concentration camp at Krakow-Plaszow, before surviving the last months of the war working as a glass glazier at Oskar Schindler’s factory in Bruennlitz-Bruessau. It wasn’t until well after the war that White learned about “Schindler’s List,” made famous by Steven Spielberg’s movie of the same name. “I never knew I was on the list,” he says. “I wasn’t even aware that there was such a list.”
White doesn’t think luck is the reason his name was on the list, as some have suggested. “When Schindler was going to move his factory, he had to show that he needed workers. He needed craftsmen. Since I was the youngest among the glaziers and painters, I think they decided to put me on the list,” he says. “That’s how I feel. Whether that is the case, I don’t know.”
At the factory, White was assigned to the glazier shop — a small room with a metal door and no windows, which was hidden to the outside courtyard. Through a hole high up on the wall, White could see next door into another factory, where people were working on machines. “They saw me peek through. The following morning there was a piece of bread in that hole. A few days later, a few potatoes. A few days later, something else,” he says.
When Mrs. Schindler arrived, she supplied the factory workers with bread, beet soup and coffee made from roasted grain. At one point, White had a toothache and after the tooth was extracted, Mrs. Schindler had someone bring a kettle of soup that she had made at her home. “She was a wonderful lady,” White says.
On May 8, 1945, a young Soviet soldier rode into Schindler’s camp and the war was officially over, White says.
After liberation, White made his way to Krakow and eventually to his hometown of Krosno. Within a week, one of his first cousins came to Krosno, having survived three concentration camps. The next day, White’s uncle Sam, his father’s brother, showed up.
Eventually White went to Munich, where he attended medical school at the University of Munich. He dreamed of a future in the United States and came here in 1950. During his residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, he met his future wife, Inez. She was a patient at the hospital, and at the urging of a fellow physician, he went to take a look at her. “She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” he says. They were married Feb. 28, 1953.
In the early 1980s, when Mrs. Schindler was in New York to do an interview with the BBC, White arranged a meeting with her. He asked why she and her husband had helped the Jews during the war because it was so risky and dangerous. “She answered in German, ‘menschlichkeit,’ which means humanity.”
White says that he met many decent people along the way. “And that’s where I formed my view that humanity is the same everywhere. It makes no difference whether you’re Ukrainian, Polish, German, Jewish,” he says. “There are the good. There are the bad. But both together amount to only a small percentage. The rest? They are the indifferent. They don’t see, they don’t hear because they are not the target. And that is what happened in Germany,” he says.