In 1945, while freezing in a German forest, 16-year-old Jack Adler watched countless fellow Dachau camp inmates collapse and die on the infamous “Death March.” As US troops approached, bringing an end to World War II, the Nazis forced their striped pajama-clad prisoners to walk for days on end, without food, water or shelter, and shot any who fell out of line.
Adler, 87, who lost his parents, three siblings and most of his extended family during the Holocaust, remains determined to help put an end to intolerance and bigotry by retelling both his ordeal and his miraculous survival for as long as he is able.
The moral of his story is, Adler says simply, “Live by the Golden Rule.”
“No matter what religion, ethnicity or race you are, we are all part of the same race — the human race,” Adler tells The Times of Israel. “Everyone’s life is precious. No matter what religion, ethnicity or color. Let’s respect those lives. Let’s help each other, not hate each other.”
After the war, Adler, a native of Pabianice, Poland, immigrated to the United States in 1946 at the age of 17. He spent decades working in real estate and with the Department of Justice, analyzing white-collar crime, banking and real estate fraud around the country.
Since retiring, Adler has shared his true-life tale with more than 1.5 million people, including on military bases and at universities, high schools and middle schools. He has also recounted his travails at Auschwitz and Dachau with teens participating in March of the Living trips to Poland. He plans to attend again this spring, perhaps, he says, for the last time.
But that is not the end of Adler’s testimony. He is now sharing his story with even wider audiences, reaching viewers as the star of the documentary Surviving Skokie.
‘Some of you are our future leaders, so it’s important that you never tolerate any racism or bigotry’
“I am speaking on behalf of those whose voices were silenced and they would like the world to know what uncontrolled hate can and did do,” says Adler, who still deeply feels the emotional weight of revealing his experience.
“It’s always difficult but I overcome the difficulty by telling myself that it’s very important to do what I’m doing, lecturing the young, the old. Hopefully we will prevent it,” he says.
“I tell the students, ‘Some of you are our future leaders, so it’s important that you never tolerate any racism or bigotry.'”
The new hour-long film explores the tensions of the neo-Nazis seeking to march in the late 1970s in Skokie, Illinois, where Adler once lived. It also depicts Adler’s war-time survival story, the devastating losses of his siblings and parents, and his only son’s exploration of his father’s story. As the large refugee population of Skokie joined together to confront the hate mongers decades ago, some of them, including Adler, revealed their scars to their families for the first time.
The documentary was co-produced and filmed, in part, by Jack’s son, Eli Adler, an accomplished cinematographer, who learned of his father’s dark past during the upheavals in Skokie. Among many other projects, the younger Adler has shot footage archived at Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.
Since its debut last fall in northern California, “Surviving Skokie,” has become a popular feature on the festival circuit. At the Mill Valley Film Festival — an increasingly prominent awards platform — it landed the coveted Audience Favorite Gold Award in the “Valley of the Docs.”
As the film continues to travel the country, it will make its homecoming premiere in the Chicago area later this month. Jack Adler and the filmmaking team are scheduled to appear March 13 to 15 at the Chicago Jewish Film Festival.
“Choosing the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie for the ‘Surviving Skokie’ Chicago-area premiere was extremely important to me,” says Eli Adler, who co-produced and co-directed the picture with Blair Gershkow. “The late-1970s events in Skokie were the catalyst for the founding of the museum and for a deeper level of bonding with my father.”
As filming progressed, the project led the team into unexpected terrain.
“’Surviving Skokie’ is a complicated multi-level narrative encompassing major historical events that spans three generations,” says Gershkow. “It was quite challenging to weave these disparate elements into one cohesive, yet extremely personal story. Jack and Eli’s trip to Poland placed them at the emotional crux and had a symbiotic effect on their relationship. It changed both of them, and the film is a detailed testament to their transformations.”
‘We had names for some of the guards. I don’t think you want to hear them’
Jack Adler recalls how other inmates in Auschwitz helped him cope with the daily threats. “Even in camp, when we were living day by day, not knowing what tomorrow brings, some of the older people I was with had a sense of humor and it rubbed off on me,” he says. “We had names for some of the guards. I don’t think you want to hear them.”
But with some coaxing, Adler relents. They called the overweight guard the chazer, Yiddish for pig. They called the skinny guard, “musselman,” a term often used to refer to emaciated inmates.
Even with his good humor, Adler remains cognizant of the threat of hatred.
“The Jewish people have been bullied around for 2,000 years,” he says. “And the most dangerous bullies are the ones with a following, a religious or political following because the followers don’t distinguish between truth or fiction. They blindly follow what they are told.”
He adds: “Humanity will continue to destroy itself until we embrace and live by total respect and the Golden Rule.”