About Alex

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How does a Holocaust survivor cope with grief? guilt? depression? Is it by cultivating hatred for his oppressors? By oppressing others? By downing anti-depressants? Here’s the story of a survivor who has found a more constructive, more meaningful, and more compassionate way.

Dr. Alex Hershaft was born in Warsaw, Poland, on July 1, 1934. His father Jozef was a research chemist at University of Warsaw. His mother Sabina was a mathematics teacher.

Dr. Hershaft was five-years-old when the Nazi armies invade Poland on September 1, 1939. He survived the Warsaw Ghetto and many months in hiding at the ripe age of 11. Most of his family and 450,000 other Ghetto inmates perished from starvation or disease, or in the Treblinka gas chamber. (For more details, please visit the “Surviving the Holocaust” section below.)

Following a five-year sojourn in an Italian refugee camp, Dr. Hershaft immigrated to the U.S. in 1951, gained a PhD in chemistry, and engaged in a long and fruitful career in research, teaching, management consulting, and social justice advocacy.

After the war, when his survival was no longer a daily challenge, grief, guilt, and a quest for meaning set in. Why was he spared, when so many deserving people perished?  How could he repay society for the gift of his life? And, most important, was there some valuable lesson to be drawn from the supreme sacrifice of his people?

In 1972, Dr. Hershaft was assigned to do a wastewater inventory of a Midwest slaughterhouse for an environmental consulting firm specializing in hazardous waste treatment. This is where he suddenly came across piles of hooves, and hearts, and heads, and discarded bodies – all bearing silent testimony to hundreds of sentient living beings who were no more…

Instantly, pictures of death camp piles of shoes, glasses, hair, and cremated human remains came flooding into his mind. He tried to dismiss the analogy by repeating  “they’re only animals,” but it didn’t work.

As he became more familiar with animal farming and slaughter operations, Dr. Hershaft noted other striking similarities:

  • the skin branding or tattooing of serial numbers to identify the victims
  • the use of cattle cars to transport victims to their deaths
  • the crowding and housing of victims in wood crates
  • the arbitrary designation of who lives and dies: Christian lives, Jew dies; dog lives, pig dies
  • the objectification and abuse of the victims to make killing more acceptable
  • the deception about the horrors behind death camp or slaughterhouse walls.

Then Dr. Hershaft saw a quote by 1978 Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and suddenly the analogy between slaughtering people and animals made horrifying sense. Singer wrote: “To the animals, all people are Nazis. To the animals, life is an eternal Treblinka.”

This is when Dr. Hershaft finally realized that there was a  valid reason for his survival, and a valid way to repay his debt. This is when he resolved to devote the rest of his life to fighting all forms of oppression, starting with our society’s own oppression of animals raised for food.

Dr. Hershaft has lectured extensively about his journey from the Warsaw Ghetto to his struggle for animal rights at three Israeli universities and at Jewish assemblies in Washington, New York, Baltimore, Denver, and Pittsburgh. His story made the front page of Israel’s largest newspaper.

Some of Dr. Hershaft’s lectures and interviews may be viewed on YouTube. A more extensive biography may be found on Wikipedia.


Surviving the Holocaust

– A First-Person Account

I was five years old on September 1st, 1939, when the Nazi army invaded Poland and set up martial law.

In the following year, my parents and I, as well as 450,000 other Jews in Warsaw and surrounding areas were ordered to move into the Jewish section of Warsaw under penalty of death. Most had to move in with strangers. My parents and I were fortunate to be able to move in with my grandparents who had a large apartment in the Jewish section.

Eventually, we noticed certain streets being blocked to traffic, and sections of walls going up here and there. Eventually, the walls were joined and topped with strands of barbed wire. On November 16th, 1940, The Warsaw Ghetto became a concentration camp.   

The 450,000 of us were crammed into an area of barely 5 sq. km. Crowding and food shortages became unbearable. A Typhus epidemic had victims lining the streets. During the first year, an estimated 80-100,000 people died of starvation and disease.

We did our best to cope with these hardships. There were workshops to manufacture and recycle clothing. Durable goods were traded outside the Ghetto for food and smuggled in by children. There were even health clinics, public soup kitchens, libraries, a Jewish theater, musical performances, an orphanage, and a rudimentary school system.

On July 21, 1942, the Nazis launched implementation of Operation Reinhardt, known today as “the final solution.” In the next two months, they dragged 300,000 people from their homes to the infamous Umschlagplatz, then into packed cattle cars for a trip to the death camp of Treblinka.

A key element of the operation was thorough deception to prevent a mass revolt. We were told that we were being resettled in the East, away from hunger and disease. We were instructed to bring along our suitcases and to label them clearly with our name and address, in the event we became separated from our luggage.

The Treblinka gas chamber was even decorated with a Star of David to simulate a synagogue, and the path leading to it was dubbed “stairway to heaven.” The inside was disguised as a shower compound.

An estimated 800,000 Jews were murdered in Treblinka and millions more in Auschwitz and other death camps. They left behind only piles of shoes, glasses, hair, and charred bones – silent memorials to thousands of sentient, living beings who were no more.

On April 19th, 1943, several thousand Nazi troops, supported by tanks, returned to wipe out the remaining 56,000 residents of the Warsaw Ghetto. They were met with vigorous resistance that lasted four weeks. That date is now observed throughout the world, on the 27th day of Nissan in the Jewish calendar as Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Day.

On May 16th, after leveling every building and massacring the survivors, Nazi General Jurgen Strop reported to Hitler that the Warsaw Ghetto was no more.  Today, a monument to the uprising bears lone witness.


I am alive today because my grandparents had two crucial blessings: a substantial collection of gold jewelry and a Russian live-in maid named Yuliana.

Yuliana had been with them for many years, spoke only Russian, and became part of our family. When the Ghetto was formed, just as Jews were forbidden to live outside, gentiles could not live inside. But Yuliana refused to leave us because we were the only family she had.

Some years earlier, Yuliana had joined a society of White Russians in Warsaw to maintain her Russian heritage and culture. White Russians had fought against the Red Army during the Russian Revolution, and many escaped to Poland. The Nazis cultivated White Russians, with the expectation that they would become their collaborators and puppets when the Nazi armies conquered Russia.

So the White Russian society was able to secure two special permits allowing Yuliana to not only live with us, but to bring us food as well. That became our path to survival. We would collect clothing, jewelry, and other valuables from friends and neighbors. Yuliana would strap these items around her body, trade them for food outside the Ghetto, and bring food back for us and for our friends and neighbors.

One of the mass roundups in the fall of 1942 snagged Yuliana during one of her food runs. She was barely able to extricate herself, even with her White Russian permits. My grandmother decided that the situation had become too dangerous and that Yuliana had to leave us, her only family, and move outside the Ghetto.

Yuliana refused at first, but after many tears were shed, she finally consented, but on one condition. Her condition was that she would take me with her as her son, so that I would live. She did this knowing full well that harboring a Jew was an instant death sentence.

My grandparents gave Yuliana three batches of jewelry: the first was for the guards at the Ghetto gate, so they wouldn’t ask too many questions about her new “son.” The second was for the Polish hooligans hanging outside the gate extorting money from escaping Jews. The third was to allow Yuliana to start a new life outside the Ghetto.

My dad had a sister, a famed dramatic actress in the Polish theater. She married her Christian director, taken on his name, passed as Gentile, and never moved into the Ghetto.

Yuliana brought me to my aunt’s apartment, and we never saw her again. Eventually, my mom and dad were able to join me. None of the rest of our large family made it.

My aunt’s partner was active in the Polish underground, and was able to get us fake identity cards and a place to stay.

Thus began a 2.5-year ordeal of life in hiding. It was a life of constant alerts to any suspicious sounds, statements, or glances, and occasional close calls. My dad lived separately from us, under a different name, so we wouldn’t implicate one another, if one of us got caught.

Eventually, we were all separated by the Warsaw uprising of August 1944, and my mother was deported as a Gentile to a labor camp in Western Germany. Upon liberation a year later, she found me in a Polish orphanage.