He smuggled food into Nazi death camps; now Utah Jewish food pantry bears his name

(Photo courtesy of Casey Lebwohl) Sally and Alexander Lebwohl at their wedding in 1948.

Alexander Lebwohl was a young Jew growing up on the eastern border of Poland at the start of World War II with an edge over others in his faith: He was blond and blue-eyed.

While fellow Jews were being rounded up and driven into ghettos, the Aryan-appearing Lebwohl with a gift for languages — fluent in Yiddish, German, Russian and Hungarian as well as Polish — was able to sneak in and out of their slum without being caught.

And how did he use that advantage? By covertly hauling sacks of grain and other foodstuffs to the hungry masses enclosed in those cramped quarters.

Ultimately, Lebwohl was arrested and wound up in two Nazi concentration camps himself — Auschwitz, then Birkenau — where he was able to leave on work detail occasionally and smuggle back in bits of food.

Being relatively strong and resourceful, the Polish worker survived the war as did his future wife, Sarah.

After marrying in 1948, they emigrated to New York, where they constantly fed strangers on the street, in shelters and in their home as welcome guests.

In a word, food sharing was a Lebwohl tradition handed down through the ages.

On Friday, the tradition passed to a new generation.

Their grandson, Jason Lebwohl and his wife, Casey, honored the Holocaust survivors with a generous donation to a Jewish-run food pantry in an office near Brickyard Plaza.

It will now be called, the “Alexander and Sally Lebwohl Jewish Family Service Food Pantry.”

Jewish Family Service launched its pantry in 2012 after staffers noticed that “food insecurity was a big concern of many of their clients, especially the elderly and the working poor,” said Deborah Lindner, former board member of Jewish Family Service.

Since then, the pantry has “grown tremendously and is known for being more welcoming and more available than others,” Lindner wrote in an email. “We tailor food bags to the individual, don't require proof of need or ID, and try to be an entry for other services if indicated.”

And the demand is growing, “to the point that Jewish Family Service needed to expand, purchase freezers and has formed a partnership with the LDS Church and the Utah Food Bank,” said Lindner, noting that most of the clients are non-Jewish.

Friday’s naming ceremony was timed to coincide with the bar mitzvah of Jason and Casey’s 13-year-old son, Zachary.

“We didn’t want him to have another bowling bar mitzvah,” Jason Lebwohl quipped this week. “It seemed like the right time for Zac to be exposed to his great-grandparents’ story and to give meaning beyond a special day in his life.”

(Photo courtesy of Casey Lebwohl) Alexander and Sally Lebwohl play with their great-grandson, Zachary Lebwohl, in 2006. He is celebrating his bar mitzvah this month.

Both Alexander and Sarah (who went by Sally) Lebwohl were interviewed by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which the director created after filming his Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List.”

Jason Lebwohl grew up in New Jersey, not far from his late grandparents’ Brooklyn home, and heard many of the stories firsthand.

It was there he learned about his great-grandfather’s gift for giving and about the family lumber mill in Sambir (now in Ukraine), where Alexander worked.

Lumberjacks came from across Europe, Jason explained, which is where he practiced his family’s open-arms approach to outsiders and became fluent in so many languages.

When Alexander was transferred to Birkenau, those language skills came in handy as he was put to work building other camps and communicating with team captains (known as “kapos”) from various countries.

Though the modern Lebwohls attend services at Temple Har Shalom in Park City, Jason and Casey have been volunteering at the Millcreek pantry for months.

“It’s a central value we wanted to teach our kids [including 10-year-old Layla] from day one, ” Casey Lebwohl said. “We want them to make life better for others, to be kinder, to lend a helping hand.”

Just like strings of progenitors had taught their children and their children’s children.