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Archive for Friday, April 24, 1998

AN EVENING WITH A SCHINDLER JEW AT KU OPENED A WINDOW TO A LIFE MORE REMARKABLE THAN FICTION.

April 24, 1998

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The son of a Polish violinist, labeled subhuman for his Jewish heritage, said Thursday that he learned a valuable lesson during five years of Nazi terror.

``I learned about differences between people. There are none,'' said Alex Rosner, who escaped death in a gas chamber by relying on an accordion, typhus fever, snowballs and intervention by Oskar Schindler.

Speaking to more than 500 people at Kansas University on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rosner said men of radically different appearance -- the Alaskan hunter, the Polish Jew, the African tribesman -- would look the same after six months in a Nazi concentration camp.

``We behaved like animals in a zoo,'' he said. ``Foraging for food and finding hiding places to survive.''

Rosner, who moved to the United States with surviving family members after being liberated by U.S. soldiers at the end of World War II, said the sameness inside people was what he wanted everyone to grasp.

``If we don't take that lesson to heart, unfortunately, there will be more Holocausts.''

Rosner began by telling his story of survival. The words came slowly, as if his throat were in the grip of a darkness that didn't want the words to come out. His childhood had mingled the haunting slaughter of 6 million Jews with Schindler's desperate rescue of 1,200 Jews, known as "Schindlerjuden."

``Fortunately, I'm not running for office, so I don't have to make anything up.''

Truth was spellbinding enough.

When Rosner was 5 years old, Germans rounded up his and other Jewish families. They were forced into the Krakow ghetto. The Steven Spielberg film, ``Schindler's List,'' didn't do justice to the brutality of life there.

``If it were made realistic, no one would go see it.''

When the ghetto was liquidated, he said, the family was sent by boxcar to a concentration camp. The German commandant pulled Rosner's father aside and ordered him to play violin for Nazi functions. His father agreed, as long as little Alex stayed alive.

It was at one of these parties that his father met Schindler, a businessman from a prominent Czech family. Schindler also was an alcoholic and womanizer interested in slave labor supplied by the Third Reich for his factories. In time, Rosner said, Schindler became an angel to Rosner's family.

In the camps, Rosner learned to play an accordion. Officers of the invading army were amused by his talent and allowed father and son to perform together.

``That was one of the moments that saved my life,'' he said.

On a 10-day train to Dachau, site of brutal medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners, Rosner was repeatedly pelted with snowballs by German guards. He ate the snow and stayed alive.

In camp, he caught typhus. A Polish barber, warden of the infirmary, restricted him to bed beyond his recovery from the lice-borne disease. ``He kept me in there while other kids were taken away.''

Rosner became accustomed to life as something less than human.

``The mind parks the body in a survival mode,'' he said. ``You learn where to hide the heart.''

Rosner and his dad remained together, while his mom was left behind in a Schindler factory. In 1945, American soldiers liberated father and son.

``That's when the difficulty began,'' said Rosner, who was unprepared to deal with the enormity of his experience.

Reunited with his mother in Munich, the family moved to the United States. Rosner learned English by studying hard in school, watching western movies and reading comics.

He refused to talk about the Holocaust.

``For 25 years, I lived with no reference whatsoever to the past. I hated everybody, except my parents and the United States.''

Rosner's life began to change while staring at a friend's tropical fish tank. In an unguarded moment, he understood there was a God. He also fell in love with a woman. He started pulling his heart out of a shell.

``Healing began,'' he said. ``When love comes in, you can't love and hate at the same time.''

Yet he still refused to discuss the Holocaust.

Then Spielberg sent Rosner a letter asking him to appear in ``Schindler's List,'' the movie about a man who outwitted Nazis to save 1,200 Jews. Rosner appeared in the film in a poignant scene where Schindlerjuden walk with relatives to the cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where Schindler was buried in 1974.

Rosner subsequently was asked to speak to groups about his experiences. The talks have helped him confront past demons. The most frequent question: Why did Schindler do it?

Rosner said Schindler attended his 22nd birthday party, giving him a watch. Schindler, asked to explain his wartime actions, said he did what he did because he couldn't stand the bestiality of the ``final solution'' mapped by Nazis.

Rosner's father had a different theory.

``My father said Oskar Schindler was an angel. I believe my father was closer to the truth than Oskar.''

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tcarpenter@ljworld.com.

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