Dr. Białywłos-White survived the horrors of the Holocaust, and became a Doctor in the U.S.- Years later, a reflection on his life.
“The word mensch in German means ‘a human being.’ In Yiddish,the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe, with German and Slavic roots, the word mensch denotes something a little more. It means ‘a special, ideal human being: a person endowed with the finest attributes by Our Creator, including charity, kindness, tolerance, honesty, and love of mankind.’ It is up to each individual to develop his or her Menschlichkeit to the fullest.”
As I reflect over the past year of my life, two incidents particularly stand out as highpoints: celebrating with close family members my cousin Amit Tishkoff’s Bar Mitzvah atop historic Masada in Israel, the other, meeting one of my heroes: Dr. Alexander Białywłos-White in his native town and my ancestral town of Krosno, Poland.
After 5 years of maintaining a correspondence and talking on the phone, I finally got to meet Alexander, whom I consider one of those rare individuals who exemplifies not only a true survivor, but even more importantly, one who has consistently taken each and every hurdle he has faced in stride leading the way with grace and dignity. Alexander Białywłos-White represents one of those individuals whose indomitable and perennially optimistic spirit and whose warmth and light radiate from his very being illuminating all in his presence.
Alexander Białywłos (“White Hair” in Polish) was born in Krosno, Poland on June 4, 1923. He was a member of a rather large family including his maternal grandparents, Chaim and Mala Platner, many uncles and aunts, cousins, and siblings: sister Mania, and brothers Solomon and Heniek. His parents, Mendel Białywłos and Leah Platner Białywłos owned and operated a glass glazing business out of their store located across the street from their residence.
Alexander had a good and full life for his first 16 years, until that fateful day of September 1, 1939 when Nazi German troops invaded Poland. Since Krosno was located not far from German-controlled Czechoslovakia, and it contained an airbase and rich oil deposits and drilling capacities, Nazi troops bombed and invaded Krosno soon after crossing the Polish border. Like many of the approximately 2700 Jewish residents, his family fled east, but finding no place to hide, many, including his family, returned home.
By 1942, Nazi troops had killed most of the Jews in the area. Near Krosno, Alexander’s mother, Leah, and sister, Mania, were taken and shot to death. His older brother, Solomon, was murdered in the nearby town of Jaslo. His eleven-year-old brother, Heniek, the Nazis transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and gassed. Except for a small number of remaining Jews whom the troops crammed into a small ghetto in Krosno, most others were transferred to Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration campus where only a very small handful survived.
Having technical and mechanical skills in glass making and repair, Alexander and his father, Mendel, were sent to the nearby airbase where they worked repairing airplanes until December 1943, when the Nazis cleared out the ghettos and sent all remaining Jewish residents to Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp just south of the town. On May 7, 1944, German soldiers forced prisoners into a “Naked Parade” for selection either to be sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, or for only a few, to be shipped to work details somewhere under Nazi occupation.
Alexander’s father, Mendel, was selected for Auschwitz-Birkenau. In his book, Alexander wrote:
“’Be a mensch,’ were the last words that my father said to me before he was led to the death train and disappeared forever. We were standing on the Appelplatz assembly place in the Concentration Camp Krakow-Plaszow one early morning in mid-May 1944. Moments later, in complete clarity about his fate, he would be led off to the box cars of the train that was to take him, and others selected by the Nazi doctor, to Auschwitz. There he would be murdered in the gas chambers.
I tried to give him the only thing I had — a small piece of bread I carried with me — as an expression of hope for his survival, even in Auschwitz. He said, ‘You keep it. I will not need it anymore. I do not care to live. I have lost everything, and if I live another ten years, I will eat another ton of potatoes.’ He pushed the bread back to me. It was the last time I saw him.”
Though he can only speculate how it happened, Alexander somehow turned up as #270 on a list of about 1,100 Jews transported to the factory of Oskar Schindler (what became known as “Schindler’s List”). Beginning in October 1944, Alexander and hundreds of other Jews worked at Schindler’s factory in Bruennlitz, which is today part of the Czech Republic. He often remembers Emilie Schindler, Oskar’s generous and compassionate wife, giving the workers extra food to keep their bodies and their spirits alive.
Rescue came on May 8, 1945 when the Russian army freed him and the others at the factory. Alexander immediately returned to Krosno in order to discover whether any family members had survived, only to find that only he, his Uncle Sam Białywłos, and his cousin Joseph Fruman had lived through the horrors.
Once back in Krosno, Alexander walked to the house owned by his parents where he grew up, but Polish people soon confiscated it after Nazis evicted Alexander and his family. Talking then with the current residents, one angrily quipped to Alexander:
“Oh, we thought you would be dead by now and the Nazis had made you into soap.”
He knew that Krosno was no longer his home.
He moved to Munich, Germany and lived there between 1945 and 1950 where he completed his high school and medical degrees. On June 8, 1950, he immigrated on the ship General Sturgis to the United States. He completed his medical internship in New York City, and he eventually moved to Chicago to begin his practice. There he met the love of his life, Inez. They married and had three children: Denise (who now lives in the Phoenix, Arizona area), Julie (who now lives in San Francisco), and Les (who remained in Chicago). Alexander and Inez retired to Scottsdale, Arizona in 1998. At age 91, he returned to Krosno with Inez and Les, where we all met.
I arrived at the Rzeszow, Poland airport on a warm August day. My friend Iza Jedkiniac, an English high school teacher in Krosno, picked me up at the airport, and we spent a nice few hours in Rzeszow enjoying a tasty lunch and lively chat. We then drove to Krosno about 50 miles south. Iza dropped me at my hotel, and she invited me to join her and others later for dinner with Alexander Białywłos-White at a café in Krosno’s central Market Square.
I came to Krosno on Iza’s invitation to present a talk regarding my Krosno relatives and to screen for the residents of the town the film my grandparents, Simon and Eva Mahler, took in the summer of 1932 when they returned to Simon’s birthplace to visit family and friends. This had been the first time Simon had returned home since emigrating from Poland to the United States at the age of 16 in the winter of 1912.
As 10 of us, including teachers, historians, museum curators, and other residents of the town sat at a table overlooking Market Square, with its array of shops and restaurants on the parameters of a vast open pavilion with strolling shoppers and joyous children, Alexander shared with us the pride and the pain of his extraordinary life among the horrors of this very place following that terribly day in September 1939 when Nazi troops invaded and occupied his town.
He told me he remembers my family, the Mahlers, since one of my grandfather Simon’s brother’s was in his school class. Also, he and his family shopped at my Great-Grandfather Wolf Mahler’s butcher shop just a few short blocks from where he lived in the Jewish quarter. He, of course, does not remember my Grandfather Simon since he was born after Simon moved to the U.S.
Reading Alexander’s book on the plane flight coming over to Poland, I had a profound shock and surprise. On page 92 of his book,Holocaust Memoirs: Be a Mensch. A Father’s Legacy, he wrote:
“The story of my own cousin, Malka Fruhman, is perhaps typical of the fearful treachery of those days, when it seemed that qualities like trust ceased to have meaning. A [non-Jewish] friend promised to hide Malka, but this ‘friend’ instead turned Malka over to the Gestapo, who shot her without compunction. Many years later, Malka’s brother told me that Malka’s boyfriend, a man named Trenczer, located the traitorous friend in Krosno after the war, and avenged my cousin’s death.”
As I read these words, chills stung my entire body because I knew that I am most certainly related to this “Trenczer.” My Great-Grandmother’s name was Bascha Trenczer. I informed Alexander about this, and he asked me to tell him what I know about the Trenczer’s of Krosno. He did not realize that Bascher, whom he knew, was a Trenczer.
I asked Alexander to tell me more about this story. Evidently, Malka’s boyfriend, our Trenczer relative, was in the Polish army and fled east following the Nazi invasion. After the war, he investigated Malka’s death, and he found the women who betrayed Malka. He walked up to her and shot a bullet into her head instantly killing her. As someone who opposes the death penalty, I surprised myself when I felt a sense of righteous relief upon hearing how he “avenged [Alexander’s] cousin’s death.”
The next day, after having a 10-hour sleep, I met with my friend Kasia Krepulec-Nowak for lunch. She works at the Subcarpathian Museum here in Krosno. We first met in 2008 when I went to the Museum to donate the film my grandparents, Simon Mahler and Eva Schoenwetter (“Nice Weather” in German) Mahler, made during their visit to Krosno in 1932. Kasia invited me to present the film to Krosno residents at the Museum first in 2011. Though the museum auditorium held only 125 seats, over 600 people showed up. Unfortunately, we had to turn away about 500 people. Since that time, Kasia and I have become good friends, and I spend as much time as I can with her and her wonderful husband Matt and son Antony, who is now six-years-old.
We met with Alexander and a group of Krosno residents for his remembrances tour around the town. He pointed out the buildings and areas where he reminisced about the people and events in his life before and during the War.
He showed us where he and his family and other Jews lived. He pointed out the building where the Blumenfelds lived (yes, in addition to Mahler relatives, I might also have Blumenfeld relatives from Krosno).
“The Blumenfelds,” he told me, “were rather odd. The father, when he davened (prayed), he shuckled (rocked back and forth) in a very strange way by twisting his arms and exhibiting a weird expression on his face as if he were distasteful of what G*d was telling him.” The son, who was Alexander’s age, also waved his hands and arms around as if he were pulling a string from the sky. “
I never understood what he was doing,” said Alexander.
“I remember your Great-Grandfather Wolf at his butcher shop, and also since we were both some of the last of the Krosno Jews not to be shot in the forest by Nazis or deported right away to the concentration camps,” Alexander told me.
The Nazis placed the remaining Krosno Jews, about 600, in a small ghetto area, where my great-grandfather died. My friend Kasia investigated, and she found the death certificate the Nazis wrote for Wolf where it lists as the cause of death “diabetes,” which I learned is a code word for either “starvation” or a “bullet.”
Since his liberation by the Russians, Alexander has come back to Krosno 3 or 4 times with his wife and son, and they have been welcomed back enthusiastically by Polish residents, with the exception of his return immediately following the Nazi evacuation. In 1980, he also visited Emilie Schlinder for what would be the last time he saw her.
Mensch & Tzadik
Throughout his remarkable life, Alexander has certainly become the true mensch his father had hoped. But Alexander has become something more.
Tzadik in Hebrew means one who follows a path of righteousness, one who practices the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam of transforming, healing, and repairing the world so that it becomes a better, more just, and more perfect place.
Throughout my life, I have known only a few Tzadikkim, Jews and non-Jews alike, individuals who act in the world on a daily basis in ways that uphold the highest ethical standards while refusing to compromise their integrity, their humanity, and their compassion, even when facing difficult, often tragic circumstances. These individuals respond in the world thinking not for the acknowledgment or recognition they may receive, but they respond because it is just.
Alexander has dedicated his life to serving and healing the bodies of his patients, and to healing our world from the horrors of the past. As I stood listening in quite respect to this incredible man, tears welling in my eyes, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.
A Reflection by Warren J. Blumenfeld
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Photo’s provided by the Author