Even at 82, Alex Lebenstein was still a towering figure who could capture a room simply by standing up. He hugged everyone in sight, especially children he met during school presentations across the commonwealth and beyond, encouraging them to dispel hate. He was, unfortunately, an authority on the subject of hate. On Nov. 10, 1938, as an 11-year-old German Jew living in Haltern-am-See, a city about 175 miles southwest of Hamburg, Alex watched as unruly mobs — at the behest and blessing of the Nazis — destroyed anything related to Jews, be it their property or their lives. The brutality took place throughout Austria and Germany on Nov. 9 and 10, an event now called Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, so named for the broken shards piled in the streets.
Every November, a service is held in Richmond at the Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery to commemorate Kristallnacht, and Alex participated in the program in 1997, the first Holocaust survivor I ever heard speak. His experiences, which included watching his father go mad from an untreated case of lockjaw in a Jewish ghetto and discovering that his mother had been murdered while Alex labored in a prison camp as a teenager, left him an orphan and something of a tortured soul. Liberated by Russian soldiers in 1945, he immigrated to America, married, had two sons, established a butcher business, divorced, retired and moved to Richmond. We became friends and often appeared as panelists together at authors' events. At one such function, I heard Alex read from The Gazebo , a book that's based on his memories, recalling how he lay terrified beside his parents in a ditch and listened to the screams of neighbors as they were beaten, mixed with the sounds of pillaging.
Now I was sitting across from four Germans, their 24-hour flight to Richmond taken to honor Alex, who died suddenly on Jan. 28.
"Within a few minutes of learning of Alex's passing, we knew we had to come," said Bodo Klimpel, the mayor of Haltern-am-See. "Our city did cruel things to the Lebensteins during the Hitler era. It was, for us, unbelievably difficult to accept what happened. In a very simple form, Alex spoke with our children and told them about it in a kind way, so they could understand. That's what we have to do in the future, so that nobody forgets. It's my promise here today to do it."
The unlikely relationship between Alex and Haltern began when Georg Nockemann, the city's former minister of culture, attempted to persuade him to return for the city's 700th anniversary in 1988. Alex refused.
"I called him in 1990," Nockemann said. "Again, he wanted nothing to do with the city."
Alex finally agreed to a visit in 1995, after schoolchildren wrote him, the only Jew to survive the city's deportations, asking him to come and explain the Holocaust. He was stunned to learn that the students were suffering from what their ancestors had done. Together, they helped each other to heal.
Nockemann fought back tears while recalling the first time he met Alex in Germany. He and his wife, Erica, have visited Alex in Richmond, as has Maaike Thomas, a Haltern city council member who echoed Nockemann's deep admiration and respect for their friend.
Alex often spoke lovingly of the children in Haltern and how they rejoiced together at the 2008 dedication of the Alexander Lebenstein Realschule, School Against Racism, School With Courage. Alex always had a shield in place, but when he spoke of his hometown's children, his face softened, a crack permeating the armor surrounding my friend.
Robert Sipel, who teaches at the school, apologized for his English, saying, "We put all the children into the school hall, and we said to them about Alex. All had been quiet and was very touched. We decided the children should put together a compliment book, and every children — 1,100 students — sign in this book for him. We brought it to Richmond and give it to David [one of Alex's two sons]."
I wrote this column on Feb. 1, designated Jewish Arbor Day. During one of his visits, Alex helped the children of Haltern plant an apple tree in his honor at their school. I'll bet it produces huge apples, nurturing any child who comes near, just as he did.
©Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2010.