Meet Jack Adler: Holocaust Survivor and True Mensch

10/21/2017 11:25 pm ET

So, the word “mensch” means a person of integrity and honor. Jack Adler is the opposite of much of what we see today because he doesn’t use the tragedy of having spent the ages of 10 to 16 in two ghettoes and three concentration camps, to pummel people with hatred. He knows the Golden Rule is crucial for human survival. And he knows that bullies are very insecure people.

Psychologically speaking Jack Adler is someone who has grieved and mourned and become more vivid and alive rather than entrenched in revenge. He seems to have had beginnings filled with love, so that when he remembers all the members of his family of origin—all who died of illness or were killed during the Holocaust—there is affection. There is the heartbeat of memory, more than just a longing that would be nostalgic only, but actually the missing and appreciating of something that was real.

We meet at a Chili’s on a Sunday morning south of Denver, Colorado, near to where Jack lives. It’s a beautiful October day.

We thank each other, me for Jack’s agreeing to our meeting and Jack thanks my friend Craig and me for coming a long-ish way. Jack’s humor is Jewish; he is ironic, he is witty, he is quick and he is pretty funny. It’s clear that like many Jews who connect with a people who have suffered at other hands, through this kind of self-poking (better to be the first one), he has been able to cling to humor as a kind of oxygen that gave him hope and greater resilience.

Let me share a little of what I’ve recorded and what I remember.

Me. When I heard you on NPR I knew I had to meet you.

Jack. And now you wish you didn’t. (Remember the inflection is often the most important thing, CS)

Carol. I’d like to ask you about the role of religion in your life. Since you talk so much against hatred and intolerance, and for respect for everyone everywhere, you don’t seem to me to be only for one nation or one religion. And you don’t seem like a Zionist-Zionist.

Jack. I’m a believer in the worth of all people. I respect people of all religions. Some people need religion for a crutch; I don’t think I’m one of those people.

Actually I’m very optimistic. You almost had to be, to survive what I went through. Every day, my father, before he died, would bring me to him and remind me to hope and to not give up. And you know it’s kind of a miracle, even though I’m not religious, that I’m here.

We were walking from Dachau in what they now call the Dachau Death March. The Germans had heard the Americans were coming so they moved us by foot in a march that killed more than 3,000 people out of 7,000 people in three days. If it had been one more day, I wouldn’t have made it. People were dying left and right. And suddenly US Army soldiers intercepted us; it was May 1, 1945. The loudspeaker screamed we were free.

And then I was in the hospital. I was so sick, I weighed 65 pounds and I was 16. One day I watched the doctor after he saw me, take a look at me and my chart, and he looked at the nurse as if to say, “Nah, this one’s not gonna make it.” And I thought to myself, “No way. No way I’m going to give up after I’ve been through all the pain, the fear, the loss I’ve been through.

Craig. Was there any laughter in the camps?

Jack. They couldn’t take away what was in our heads. We called the guards names, among ourselves. I can’t even say the names here-- they were pretty bad. But we said to each other, “So and so is coming” and it was our way of having a little lightness among ourselves. You had to look forward to something to survive.

Carol: How did you start speaking about your experiences during the Holocaust?

Jack: I started by accompanying a friend when he would go to talk to groups. And then questions would come up about things I knew about and he would call on me. For 25 years now I speak to civic, church, student and military groups.

Carol: When you talk about the experiences in the camps, is it very painful?

Jack: At first it was very hard. I tried to create a way to not visualize the experience. But even 70 years later, it doesn’t go away. Six million—using babies for target practice, making lampshades from people. One woman, Elsa Koch, the wife of an officer in Buchenwald, liked the tattoo of a particular prisoner; she actually had him killed so she could use his skin for her furniture.

Craig, after a pause: So, are you thinking of a next chapter in your life?

Jack: Well, I may be pretty near the checkout counter. I’m 88, you know. And they never tell you when it’s quitting time.

Since my retirement in 1992 I’ve spoken all over. I feel there is so much meaning in this. I’ve spoken to a million and a half people already.

Speaking to students is so enriching. I feel I have a purpose. So many people died and their stories need to be remembered. Maybe we can learn that hatred is such a waste. I’m sick from the amount of hatred in this country today. It’s as if Trump took the lid off so much anger that it’s coming out all over.

Carol. Can I write this?

Jack: Of course.

The phone rings and it’s Eli, Jack’s son, texting me from California; Jack has his phone off. The text reads, “Please tell my Dad he just became the great-grandfather of a healthy baby boy.”

I get the chills as Jack tears up. He says, through the tears, “It’s another miracle.”

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