Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goodbye Alex, The World Will Miss You

The human community lost a great soul this morning. Alexander Lebenstein, of Haltern-am-See, Germany and Richmond, Virginia, USA, died at the age of 82. We will all miss Alex, even those of us who never had the joy of meeting him.

Alex was eleven years old the night of November 10, 1938, when the nation-wide anti-Jewish riot in Germany commonly known as Kristalnacht reached his town. He and his parents were driven from their home and were able to survive by hiding in a depression in the Jewish cemetery. After the violence subsided, the few remaining Jews in Haltern were moved into a small ghetto. In January 1942, the Lebensteins and the other two remaining Jews in the town were shipped by cattle-car to Riga, Latvia, a trip that took more than five days. Alex spent the rest of World War II in various slave-labor and concentration camps. Neither of his parents survived the war. Alex immigrated to the United States in 1947. He established a career and a family. However, he spent the next thirty-five years filled with anger and hate for all things German.

In 1987, Alex discovered that the government of Haltern-am-See was trying to contact him, the only survivor of the town’s Jewish community. Apparently, they wanted him to return to Haltern so they could make amends. Alex told them he would never return to Germany. In 1994, however, when the children of Haltern wrote to Alex, asking him to come help them learn about the Holocaust, he reluctantly agreed to go. And that was when he found his calling. Working with the children of Haltern helped him to overcome his anger. It also began his campaign against hate, which lasted for the rest of his life.

I met Alex a couple of years ago when my wife started working at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Here was this big line-backer sized guy that you really expected to be mean and tough. But, out of his mouth came only love and gentleness. Alex was a whirlwind going from school to school, both in Richmond and elsewhere, spreading his message of tolerance to our young people. He also used his life story to help some schools deal with racial conflict, teaching what happens when we let hate control us. His late-found gift of communicating with young people made Alex one of those people that the world can use a lot more of.

I last saw Alex less than two weeks ago. He came onto the second floor of the museum (Alex always used the stairs, not the elevator) but without his usual broad smile. I asked him how he was and he replied “Not too well.” I didn’t know it but Alex was suffering from acute abdominal pain. An aneurism was badly leaking blood into his belly. Yet Alex continued with his plan to attend a meeting of teachers at the museum. After the meeting I took a group of those teachers on a tour of the museum, not knowing that I would never see Alex again.

When I was training to be a docent at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, I was lucky enough to shadow Alex on a tour. He was amazing. Afterward, I told him that I was afraid that I would never be able to tell the Holocaust story as well as he could. He replied that we each had to tell the story in our own way. He reminded me that it was important that I continued telling the story when he was no longer able to. He also told me to make sure that I found others to continue telling the story after I could no longer tell it. Now, when I end tours of children at the museum, I stress to them that they have two responsibilities—to tell the story and to speak out against oppression.

Alex left us with one unfinished goal. He wanted to start a program of hate-free schools, starting in the Richmond area. Under Alex’s idea, children at a school would be taught the message of tolerance and acceptance. Then their school could display the “hate-free school” sign next to their “drug-free” or “crime-free” signs. We need to implement Alex’s plan.

To learn more about Alex’s amazing life journey, see the videos at
(especially numbers 5 through 7).