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Monday, May 16, 2022

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Alex Lebenstein, 1927-2010

Alex Lebenstein was a Holocaust survivor who had more than enough reasons to hate, but was instead an advocate for tolerance and forgiveness. He died Thursday, Jan. 28, at the age of 82.

Lebenstein survived Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, on Nov. 10, 1938, when he and his family were beaten and his house and family's business were destroyed because they were Jewish. He, his mother and father hid in a garden, a cemetery and a hotel basement until they were found in 1942 and taken to a work camp. His father died a painful death after contracting blood poisoning while being forced to work in a slaughterhouse in the camp. After being transferred to other camps, his mother disappeared and Lebenstein was transferred to a work camp where he contracted Typhus.

Lebenstein said in a documentary that he would have died soon if the Russian army had not liberated the camp he was in. Lebenstein was treated and attempted to go back to Haltern, Germany, his hometown. When he got there after several months, he found that his childhood friends had become Nazis who didn't want him there.

He was the only survivor from Haltern.

He realized he was not welcome and decided to come to America. The boat floated into New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty and into the land of freedom, or so Lebenstein thought. He told a story about his first bus trip through New York. He wanted to see the city so he decided to sit at a window seat at the back of the bus. The bus driver suddenly stopped and yelled at him. Lebenstein said he was confused and afraid because he saw the Nazis in the driver's eyes. He later learned that the driver was yelling at him because he was sitting in the "Colored" section of the bus.

Lebenstein said in a documentary that, at first, he had so much hatred for Haltern that he thought about what it would be like to drop a bomb on it. Lebenstein began receiving letters in 1987 from elementary-school students in Haltern asking him to explain the Holocaust to them because they knew their families were not telling them the whole truth. The letters kept coming until Lebenstein realized hatred was not solving any problems. He went to Haltern and told the students about what had happened to him. They named their school after him, a school which was later honored as a "School without racism; School with courage."

Lebenstein told his story to anyone who would listen, including the University of Richmond community. In November 2009 Lebenstein was the keynote speaker at Overcoming Hatred Week.

Camisha Jones, arts and education director for the Chaplaincy, said even though she had only known Lebenstein for a couple of hours, he touched her life in a profound way.

"It's hard to put it into words," Jones said. "He's somebody that has made an imprint on my life forever. That he survived what he survived, it makes me admire him tremendously and then for him to take that experience and create such positive energy from it."

Lebenstein had lunch with Jones and others, including senior Zach Ferguson.

Ferguson said he was astounded by Lebenstein's modesty and humility. Lebenstein also taught Ferguson to pursue his passion.

"It's keeping that message," Ferguson said. "I think that if you're passionate about something, you have to go out and do it."

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Lebenstein was one of the few Holocaust survivors left in the United States and he wanted to make sure people heard his story and learned tolerance. You can find a documentary of him reading his story online, "A Calling to Teach Tolerance." He also published a book, "The Gazebo," which is about his experience during the Holocaust.

I encourage everyone to listen to him tell his story. I also encourage you to participate in the Chaplaincy trip to the Holocaust Museum sometime this spring.

I want to echo the words of one of Lebenstein's friends, Miriam Davidow, who told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "Alex will be remembered as a man who was bigger than life and stronger than death. ... May his memory be a blessing."

Contact news editor Stephanie Rice at stephanie.rice@richmond.edu

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