The railroad car doors slammed open. “Heraus, heraus,” the German guards screamed. “Get out, get out.” Joseph Aleksander woke abruptly. He had been hallucinating that he was relaxing on green grass next to a bubbling stream. In reality, he lay on the floor of a cattle car crammed with men, women and children, many of them dead from a three-day journey with no food or water and little air. They’d traveled from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp, and he was terrified as he exited the car.
The prisoners marched an hour to the camp and then were herded into a large barracks, where Joseph spotted his mother. They hugged and kissed, and she handed him a $20 gold piece. “Maybe this can save your life,” she said. Joseph broke into tears. It was May 1943; Joseph was 19.
Joseph Leib Aleksander was born on Aug. 3, 1923, in Warsaw, Poland, to Abraham and Paula Aleksander. His brother, Joel, was two years older. Joseph’s father was a textile distributor. The family was poor, living in an apartment with one large room and a kitchen.
Joseph’s mother taught him to read and write. He then attended public school until 1936, when he enrolled in a Jewish trade school where he learned to be a machinist/mechanic.
American cousins in Colorado sought to sponsor both Joseph and Joel, but only one could immigrate. Joel left Warsaw in 1938.
A year later, on Sept. 1, Germany attacked Poland. Joseph remembers the whining sound of the Stuka, or German dive-bombers, as they attacked the city, destroying buildings. He and his friends played with the fallen shrapnel. Later they saw German troops and tanks enter Warsaw, which surrendered on Sept. 27.
During the German occupation, Joseph continued to work in small machine shops. He also socialized with friends and learned to play the harmonica.
In mid-October 1940, the Germans established the Warsaw Ghetto. It was enclosed a month later, with Joseph’s family’s apartment inside the boundaries. Joseph worked digging ditches for sewers and sweeping streets and, later, as a machinist making carbide lamps.
In fall 1941, Joseph’s father was grabbed off the street by ghetto police and deported. “I cried all the time,” Joseph said.
The situation worsened as the ghetto was made smaller and smaller. Joseph and his mother had to relocate, moving in with a cousin.
In May 1942, having run out of food, Joseph volunteered to repair trucks for the Luftwaffe, even though he had never even ridden in a mechanized vehicle. He presented his trade school diploma and was transferred the next day to a work camp in Makotów, a district of Warsaw.
“The camp was pretty decent,” Joseph said. The prisoners had beds with straw mattresses and food, and the others protected Joseph by giving him unskilled jobs. Joseph remembers one guard, however, who arbitrarily whipped prisoners with a leather belt.
A year later, the camp was liquidated and the prisoners were marched to the Warsaw Ghetto. There, along with women and children, they were loaded into railroad cars.
At Lublin/Majdanek, Joseph dug ditches on alternate days, filling them in on the other. The food, Joseph said, was “just terrible.”
Three months later, in August 1943, Joseph and other prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz. In a long field, the men were ordered to strip naked and run back and forth as Dr. Josef Mengele made selections. Joseph, who was still strong, was tattooed with the number 127915 and given a striped cotton uniform and wooden shoes.
Across barbed wire, in another field about 50 yards away, Joseph saw his mother. They waved. “It was the last time I ever saw her, except in my dreams and in my heart,” he said.
Almost immediately Joseph was transferred to Monowitz-Buna, or Auschwitz III, where prisoners worked in the I.G. Farben factories manufacturing synthetic rubber and chemicals. Joseph was assigned to a technical commando, carrying equipment and supplies to German workers.
One day Joseph and his partner were delivering a 60-pound transformer. They sat on a six-foot-high beam, with the transformer between them, inching themselves across. Joseph’s partner suddenly dropped his end, and the transformer crashed to the ground. The partner blamed Joseph.
Joseph was transferred to the TODT commando, a construction group, where, under the hot sun, with little food and sporadic lashings, he dug out dirt and loaded it onto trucks. “People were dying daily,” he recalled. He saw his life slipping away.
After several weeks, Joseph approached the lageralteste, the senior camp inmate, and explained that he had mistakenly been assigned to a TODT commando when he was really a metalworker. The lageralteste, who had the power to kill him, nevertheless transferred him back to the technical commando.
His new job entailed delivering welding tanks to German workers on pipelines. Some of the non-Nazi workers occasionally gave Joseph a piece of bread or an apple. “It was a lifesaver, this job,” Joseph said.
Other times Joseph unloaded bags of cement from railroad cars. In the winter he put empty cement sacks under his uniform shirt and around his legs for warmth.
In mid-January 1945, the prisoners were given a double portion of bread, lined up and marched out in the heavily falling snow. That night they slept huddled together for warmth, and the next morning Joseph’s bread was gone. “Who took my bread?” he cried. A young farmer from Slovakia, a Christian whom Joseph had befriended, shared his portion, sparing Joseph from starvation.
After two nights, “half frozen to death,” Joseph recalled, the group reached Gleiwitz, Germany. Hours later they were sent to Buchenwald.
There, with no work, the prisoners lay crammed together in three-tiered bunks in a huge barracks. They left only to use the toilet or stand in line for meager rations. “The people looked like ghosts,” Joseph said. Dead bodies were dragged from the barracks every day.
In early April, the German guards recruited volunteers for a labor camp, luring them with food. After the first group of volunteers left, the prisoners heard machine gun fire and knew they had been executed.
Joseph and two other men ran to the far end of the barracks and pulled up some floorboards. They crawled underneath, lying in a muddy area about 18 inches high, and reset the floorboards. They had neither food nor water.
After three days, hearing tanks and gunfire, they pulled themselves out and saw American soldiers. It was April 11, 1945, and Buchenwald had been liberated. The soldiers picked up the prisoners and carried them to German hospitals. “We were skin and bones, just like skeletons,” Joseph said.
Joseph weighed 100 pounds and had typhus. He spent two weeks in the hospital and further recuperated in a convalescent hospital and at a private German house.
When the Russians took control of Weimar, Joseph escaped to a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart. There he met Johanna Gerstenbaum, and they married on May 15, 1946.
Joseph and Johanna immigrated to America, arriving on June 15, 1946. They settled in Los Angeles, where their son Alan was born in 1948 and Michael in 1951.
In 1950, Joseph began working at Mattel Toy Co., becoming a quality control engineer. He retired in 1985. Johanna died in 2003.
Joseph, now 90, takes harmonica classes twice a week at the Culver City Senior Center. He also enjoys spending time with his family, including two grandsons, and with his sweetheart, Jo An.
For the past 14 years, Joseph has spoken weekly at the Museum of Tolerance. He always tells his audience, “It doesn’t matter a person’s ethnicity, religion, nationality or color of skin. It’s the character and the heart that’s in you.”