Born in January, 1939, in Krakow, Poland, Alex Larys was only nine months old when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September of that year. He is among the very few Jewish children from Poland to survive the war; according to the Holocaust Encylopedia, of one million Jewish children in Poland in 1939, only 5,000 survived, or half of one percent. Even more improbable is that, while most children who survived did so in hiding, Alex spent two years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, from ages four to six.
An only child during the war—his younger sister was born later—Alex has few memories of his family’s internment first in the Krakow ghetto and then at Bergen-Belsen. His mother, a pharmacist, and his father, who owned a small toy company before the war, managed to forge documents claiming that the family was from Argentina. Consequently, they were deported in 1943 from the Krakow ghetto to the “neutrals camp” in Bergen-Belsen, where Jews from Portugal, Turkey, and Argentina were incarcerated. In this special part of the camp, he and his family were “a little better off than most people” in the concentration camps, Alex recalled. The Argentinian Jews in the camp, according to Alex, were sometimes used as hostages or released to the Allies in exchange for German citizens held in British-controlled Palestine. This may be the reason Alex and his parents not only survived, but were also able to stay together.
Among his very few memories of life in the camp, Alex recalls covertly receiving food from newly arrived prisoners. “What I do remember about it was being hungry frequently,” he said. But near his family’s barracks, he recalls, “there was a little shack. It was sort of a reception shack and people would walk into it and walk out the other way and in the process, everything was taken away from them, including food. And one time, I remember one time, people that were about to come into that shack saw that they were about to lose everything and threw food to us across the fence. It was a barbed wire fence. And people of course grabbed the rice, and when the area cleared up, I went over there and I picked individual rice grains and my mother cooked it. And that’s it.”
On April 7, 1945, about a week before the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp, German officers loaded 2,500 Jews, including Alex and his family, onto three trains bound for Theresienstadt concentration camp, near Prague in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Six days later, on April 13, 1945, as the train was traveling through Farsleven, Germany, U.S. forces captured the town and Nazi guards fled and abandoned the train there. Alex and his family were liberated there by the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.
Alex was six years old at the time of liberation. The moment remains in his memory. “The train came to a stop, and we were outside, outside on the ground. There was a little hill leading up to a road, and then a teenager, a teenage boy came running down, saying ‘Americans are here!’ So, everybody ran up the hill.” There, they met the American forces.
Alex later visited the site as an adult. Today, he says, it is an obscure site in the middle of nowhere. If you did not know what to look for, you could miss it completely.
The American forces brought Alex and the others to Belgium, where his parents applied to emigrate to America. Due to American immigration quotas, which limited the number of Polish refugees allowed to enter the country, Alex’s family would have to wait eight years for U.S. visas. During this long waiting period, they lived first in Brussels for four years, then moved to Israel in 1949. They finally obtained American visas in 1954 and moved to New York when Alex was fifteen years old.
Although Alex and his parents survived the war, his entire extended family died in the death camps. The sole exception was one aunt, with whom they were reunited in Israel after the war.
Only recently has Alex begun to talk about the Holocaust and to tell his story. He remembers his parents discussing the war years with each other, but they never spoke to him openly about it. In college, too, he recalls, “we didn’t talk about it.” In fact, only years later did he learn that one of his fraternity brothers was also a Holocaust Survivor.
He has also been able to make contact with some of his American liberators. “About five years ago,” he recalls, “we were in a hotel about a hundred miles north of here. We were sitting there watching ABC. Suddenly they were talking about the liberation of a train. And it looked very familiar to me […]. Well, they mentioned some names, so I looked some of them up on Google. And I came across the name of Frank Towers and a few other people.”
Frank Towers lived in northern Florida, and Alex has since met him many times over the years. Frank reached out to other Survivors from the train, and Alex and the other Survivors were invited to attend the reunions of the 30th Infantry Division, and became honorary members. In 2011, Lieutenant Towers went to Israel and was honored by the Jewish Survivors and their children in Israel. He died in July 2016, at age 99.
Alex and his wife are now active members of The Florida Holocaust Museum, frequently attending lectures and other events. Alex told us that because he was so young and his memories of the war are scant, The Florida Holocaust Museum, along with other museums he has visited, have helped him understand what happened to him and many other victims. In addition, events at The Florida Holocaust Museum have given him the opportunity to meet people with shared backgrounds. To Alex, The Florida Holocaust Museum provides an excellent way to learn what truly happened in Germany and Poland while simultaneously allowing visitors to pay respects to the dead.
Story by: Megan Weiss and Keeli Armitage
Edited by: Jared Stark and Kristen Wright