For 30 years after World War II, Al Lachman wouldn’t talk about the Holocaust.
He’d spent the war starving in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, Poland, then been sent by cattle train to Auschwitz, where he survived the selection process that consigned the young, old or feeble to the gas chambers.
He endured typhus, pneumonia and tuberculosis, losing more than half his 200 pounds. Generations of lice went through life cycles on his skin. Once, he hid among the dead bodies of other concentration camp prisoners, afraid that if he were ordered to move, he’d fall down from exhaustion.
In Lodz, he’d seen Jewish children readied for transport out of the ghetto, dressed “like princes” for their journey by unsuspecting parents who didn’t realize they were heading to their deaths.
All these things, he kept in his head. That all changed in 1977, when a group of neo-Nazis announced plans to march in heavily Jewish Skokie. Never again, he thought.
“He wanted to get my baseball bat so he could beat them up if they were going to march in the town,” said his son, Ronald.
Skokie bristled with fury. At the time, an estimated 7,000 people living there were Holocaust survivors — about 10 percent of the north suburb’s entire population. He and others — who’d busied themselves after the war with assimilation, raising families and attempts at forgetting — met in each other’s basements to strategize.
Faced with that opposition, the neo-Nazis wound up marching instead on Chicago’s Southwest Side, in Marquette Park.
But the experience galvanized Mr. Lachman and other Skokie survivors, including his wife, Judy. They were among half a dozen people whose meetings led to the establishment of a small Skokie Holocaust museum. He “personally co-signed the mortgage for the building on Main Street,” said another son, Joseph, then tore down walls and built dioramas.
That small operation led to the creation of the spacious Stanley Tigerman-designed Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie.
“After the march, the survivors decided they needed to do something, and they needed to teach about the Holocaust,” said Fritzie Fritzshall, the museum’s president, an Auschwitz survivor. “Al Lachman was one of the people that was involved with that from the very beginning. . . . He was instrumental.”
One of a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors who were already adults when the war began, Mr. Lachman, 97, died Nov. 1 after a struggle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
He’d had a happy childhood growing up as Alie Lachman in Lodz, where his father was a baker and candy maker, twisting molten sugar into sweets on marble slabs.
After the war began, he was deported from the Lodz ghetto by cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau. When the train stopped nearby, the prisoners saw Polish workers at the side of the road, Mr. Lachman recalled in a 1991 interview with the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois.
“Where are we going to?” they asked the workers. “And they pointed up: ‘You’re going to heaven.’ ”
Auschwitz “was unbelievable hell,” he said in the interview. “We were very close to the crematoriums . . . the smoke, the smell.”
He ended up at Kaufering, a satellite of Dachau. He wept when he remembered American liberators’ attempts to feed emaciated inmates. “No brother, no parents, could do more,” he said.
Al and Judy Lachman at their wedding in 1948 in Sweden.
After the war, he moved to Sweden, where in 1948 he got married.
In 1954, Al and Judy Lachman arrived in America with their first son, Joseph. Their only possession was a baby buggy that arrived by plane. They lost everything else when a freighter sank with all of their belongings — including silverware they’d bought in hopes it could be trusted more than cash.
Judy and Al Lachman
He worked at a manufacturing company and knitted sweaters for a clothing shop. Mr. Lachman also invested in real estate.
Many of his relatives perished in Chelmno, a Nazi extermination camp in Poland, including his brother and his father, Yitzchak. Al Lachman designed and paid for a large monument at Chelmno to memorialize the Jews of Lodz. He spoke at its 2001 unveiling.
At the site of the Chelmno extermination camp, Al Lachman unveils the memorial he designed to honor the Jews of Lodz, where he grew up. His sons and grandchildren accompany him. / Provided photo
In his oral history, Mr. Lachman said the Holocaust taught him this: “When people are bad, they’re worse [than] tigers. Because [a] tiger, when he eats, you’re safe. And people there could eat other people without being hungry.”
Skokie’s Al Lachman speaks at his presentation of a Holocaust Memorial in Poland to honor the Jews of Lodz. / Provided photo
About 20 years ago, Al and Judy Lachman moved in with their son Ronald and his family. Mr. Lachman did the marketing, prepared beef tongue and other Eastern European specialties and helped make a weekly batch of chicken soup. He also enjoyed watching TV’s Lawrence Welk show and “Dancing with the Stars.”
Mr. Lachman, whose wife died in 1997, is also survived by seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Services have been held.
Holocaust survivors Al and Judy Lachman and the family they built in America.