Tri-Valley residents are set for what could be the opportunity of a lifetime to hear a first-person account of the Holocaust, with one of the few remaining concentration camp survivors scheduled to share his experiences at the Bankhead Theater next week.
Joseph Alexander, 100, is traveling from Los Angeles for his first speaking appearance in the region, a talk entitled "Survival and Triumph" hosted by Livermore Valley Arts and Chabad of the Tri-Valley.
As the years since the Holocaust wear on, Alexander is among a smaller and smaller group of survivors who can share first-person testimony about the atrocities of the era, having made it through 12 concentration camps himself and being the only one of his immediate family to make it through the Holocaust and out of Nazi Germany following the invasion of their home country of Poland in 1939.
"The motivation is to let the people know what happened, because I'm asked to speak for six million Jews who can't talk," Alexander said.
Although the centenarian is well into his retirement from a career as a Hollywood tailor, Alexander said that he continues to travel and speak throughout the world with more urgency than ever, as he sees younger generations start to forget the lessons learned in the wake of the Holocaust.
"I speak to people almost globally," Alexander said. "I was told I speak to hundreds of towns already, to junior high and high school students. 70% of those kids never heard about the Holocaust, so that's why I'm talking -- to let them know what happened. That's the most important thing, especially high school students."
Tri-Valley communities, however, have not been among those hundreds of towns until now. Rabbi Raleigh Resnick of Chabad of the Tri-Valley called the event historic, and potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students, who he is hoping will help fill the limited seats available at the Bankhead.
Resnick noted that during his lifetime so far he has seen the remaining number of survivors grow smaller and smaller, whereas it had been far more common to hear first-hand accounts when he was younger.
"It was very regular for me to see numbers on their arms -- for these children, it may be their last time," Resnick said. "Literally, we're in the last few years where someone can hear a first-person account. There's this connection between generations -- these high school students will then tell their children that 'I saw someone with a number on their arm.'"
Alexander, of course, has seen even more changes over the course of his own, much longer lifetime, having been born in Poland a century ago and spending most of his youth in a time when the world was naive to the atrocities of the Holocaust and the massive death toll from World War II that were on the horizon.
"We had a very good life," Alexander said. "We had Jewish organizations; we belonged to the organizations, and it's hard to explain how nice and good a life we had until 1939 when the Germans came in and everything changed."
At 16 years old -- the same age as many of the students he speaks to in the present day -- Alexander had his first experience in a camp promptly after Poland was first invaded.
Initially, prisoners were allowed to return home on weekends, which Alexander took advantage of by staying home one weekend and not returning to the camp, leading to a police search. Things soon grew more restrictive, however, and the conditions in the camps -- which were already severe -- grew worse and worse as the death toll began to rise.
"That was the time when it started to get worse and worse," Alexander said.
Resnick pointed to the conditions in Germany in the leadup to the war and some similarities with the Bay Area and other parts of the United States 100 years later.
"We are living in the greatest time ever," Resnick said. "There are fewer discriminatory actions, there's less racism, fewer than ever in the history of humanity, and I think it's very, very important to put that in perspective."
While he noted an uptick in public displays of discrimination and antisemitism in the present day, Resnick said that the fact that these are upsetting and shocking to most people -- rather than everyday occurrences -- is a sign of progress.
"I think that having that as your baseline is good to know," Resnick said. "But I do think it's very, very easy in one moment to lose that. We human beings are capable very, very quickly of slipping, and if there's ever an example of that it's Germany in the 1930s."
Like much of the Tri-Valley and broader region, Resnick said that German people in the 1930s were largely well-educated, well-cultured and generally politically liberal.
"These are the educated; this is the creme de la creme -- literally as they're slaughtering they're playing classical music," Resnick said. "In Germany they had laws that protected dogs from cruelty. So I think that we ought to remember: how does it happen?"
With only 500 seats available, the event is expected to sell out quickly. Student tickets can be purchased at a reduced rate of $20.
"Survival and Triumph" is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. next Thursday (Aug. 24) in the Bankhead Theater at 2400 First St. in Livermore. Tickets and more information are available at livermorearts.org.