U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – “Don’t give up.”
These are the last words Jack Adler’s father said when German soldiers forced them apart.
“Don’t ever give up so that we can see each other again.”
Adler is 92, and his father spoke those words 82 years ago when they were separated in a German concentration camp for the final time. The author, grandfather, veteran of the Korean conflict and Holocaust survivor was the guest speaker during the Air Force Academy’s Days of Remembrance Ceremony, April 7.
Adler was 10 years old when the Nazis invaded his Polish town in 1939, forced the population into Jewish ghettos and later, concentration camps.
“I lost my mother, my older brother and grandfather in the ghettos,” he said.
Adler’s father, two sisters and two remaining brothers died in concentration camps.
Since 1992, Adler had spoken to more than 1 million people about the Holocaust, the genocide of European Jews from 1939-1945, when Nazi Germany and its collaborators murdered more than 6 million people, including more than 1 million children.
“This equated to the annihilation of one-third of the total worldwide Jewish population and two-thirds of the European Jewish population, said Rabbi (Capt.) Saul Rappeport, one of four chaplains assigned to Cadet Group 2 in the cadet wing. “Millions of other people from minority ethnic groups, as well as various people considered undesirable by the Nazi regime such as communists, homosexuals, and the mentally ill, were brutally hunted down and murdered.”
The Nazis forced Adler and his family out of the ghetto and separated the population into two groups in May 1942.
“Dozens of Nazi soldiers arrived and marched us onto a soccer field,” he said. “My father, my older sister and I were in group B. My baby sister was in group A.”
Late in the evening, after standing for hours in pouring rain, Adler and others in his group were given baby carriages to collect the other group’s refuse. The teenage Adler was determined to find his sister.
“I slowly moved from group B to group A, bending down, picking up pieces of paper and articles of clothing, so as not to attract attention,” he said.
Adler found his sister, stuffed her under the trash in his carriage and moved back into his group.
“If the Nazis would have found out what we were doing they would have killed us on the spot,” he said. “The following day, we found out what happened to group A. The old, the young, the sick – all of them – were sent to an extermination camp.”
The German’s forced Adler’s dwindling family into another ghetto where they survived on rations of bread and soup.
“People, within months after we were taken into the ghetto, were dying of malnutrition and disease,” he said. “There was no medical care.”
The Nazis took Adler and his remaining family members to the Auschwitz concentration camp in the summer of 1944. His oldest sister went to another concentration camp and his youngest sister was “taken away,” he said.
“I didn’t know at the time, but I found out the next day that she was taken directly to the gas chamber,” he said.
Adler and his father were transported to another camp to build underground hangars and carried bags of cement “back and forth, 12 hours a day,” he said.
At the camp, a German soldier carried a broomstick with a nail sticking out of one end. The guard aimed at Adler for not moving quickly and punctured his neck, but Adler’s father covered the wound with paper torn from the packaging of a cement bundle.
“It finally stopped the bleeding,” Adler said. “I still have a scar on my neck.”
Adler and his father separated for the final time in early 1944. His father went to Dachau and Adler cleaned the office of an SS colonel who hid bread and other scraps of food in the ashes of a wood-burning stove.
“I was 15,” he said.
Adler was among 7,000 other inmates taken from the camp on what he called a “death march in April 1945.” Each night, the Nazis took scores of prisoners into the woods to dig a mass grave.
“They were forced to dig a giant ditch and machine-gunned,” he said.
The U.S. intervened May 1, 1945 but by the time the 3rd and 7th Armies liberated the camps, “there were approximately 4,000 of us left,” Adler said.
After a three-month stay in a hospital, Adler worked for the UN, delivering mail to the former prisoners living in camps for the displaced. He joined a group of surviving children sent to live abroad in 1946, lived in a foster home in Chicago, graduated from college and served in the Army during the Korean conflict.
“I felt that was the only way I could say ‘thank you,’” he said.
Strength of the Survivors
Adler continues to speak about the Holocaust to give voice to the millions killed.
“They would want humanity to know what uncontrolled hate can do,” he said. “It’s very important to remember those who perished, the innocent men and women and children."
Humanity will destroy itself until it takes the Golden rule to heart: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Adler said.
Conveying the message of that Golden Rule to humanity is the only way for humanity to ever live in peace,” he said. “Religion is to teach faith, not hate. Those who use religion to justify the spread of hatred, regardless of what their title may be, are nothing but evil beings. There’s only one race and that’s the human race.”
When it comes to the behavior of Academy cadets, Adler advocates respect.
“Respect others the way you like to be respected,” he said. “A fight won’t help but talk may.”
Rappeport is the grandson of Holocaust survivors.
“The Holocaust was ever present in my childhood,” he said. “It was not so much a topic of history, as it was a part of our present. Whether it was seeing the tattooed numbers on the arms of many members of our community, or overhearing them relive their stories with one another, the Shoah was always present.
“It was not the magnitude of the tragedy that had the greatest influence on me but rather, the enormity of the strength of the survivors,” Rappeport said. “To lose everyone, and everything, to start again from scratch as refugees across the globe.”
Rappeport takes some comfort knowing survivors of the Holocaust, to some degree, were eventually able to rebuild.
“The survivors built families, communities, communal institutions, schools, hospitals, charitable organizations and much more all over the world,” he said. “They did not let their horrible past weigh them down – they used it as a catalyst to propel them forward. Their example continues to guide me daily in my life as an officer in the Air Force.”
Cadet 1st Class Zachary Flash interviewed Adler from his home in Denver during the ceremony.
“Mr. Adler represents what all of us can only hope to be,” he said. “He’s an amazing human being and inspiration. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with myriad amazing people, but none with a more powerful story and message than Mr. Adler.
“My biggest takeaway from the Remembrance Ceremony was the importance of learning about, and from, the past,” Flash said. “When we learn about the Holocaust and history as a whole, we tend to look at it in a very objective manner. This causes us to see history in a vacuum and not see the human side of things.”
Flash said his time with Adler reinforced the importance of studying history within the human context.
“I could never imagine doing the things Mr. Adler did to survive the Holocaust and thrive after it,” he said.
[Editor’s note: Congress passed legislation introduced by Senator John Danforth in 1978 declaring April 28–29, 1979, the anniversary of the American liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 to be Days of Remembrance of victims of the Holocaust.
In 1979, the President’s Commission on the Holocaust recommended annual Days of Remembrance, and in 1980 Congress unanimously passed a law establishing the commission’s successor body, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, with the charge that “Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust be proclaimed in perpetuity and be held annually.”]