Obituary: Alexander Eisen, 94, a self-taught electronic engineer and passionate Holocaust educator

Alexander Eisen, a Holocaust survivor and educator, was born Dec. 9, 1929, in Vienna, Austria. He died Feb. 17, 2024 in Toronto. (Toronto Holocaust Museum photo)

Alexander Eisen, a Holocaust survivor and beloved educator and speaker known for his soft-spoken warmth and keen intellect, died in Toronto on Feb. 17. He was 94.

His turn as a sought-after Holocaust educator came in his later years, famously first speaking at his grandson Jared’s bar mitzvah.

At the funeral, Alex’s son Doron recounted the story that started his father’s journey as a Shoah speaker and educator. Alex told of a 13-year-old boy walking in the cold, with newspaper stuffed into the holes of his shoes.  

“Bombs were falling nearby. He walked alone into a small shul, and asked the shamash for an aliyah,” Doron said, standing with his sister, Karin.

“The shamash asks why? Our father answered: ‘Because it’s my bar mitzvah.’

“The shamash asked him: ‘Where is your father?’ And our father answered, ‘I don’t know’. They did give him the aliyah. And that was his bar mitzvah.”

After that, so many people who had heard Alex’s story encouraged him to continue, leading to Alex’s turn in his later years as a Holocaust educator and speaker, and author of A Time of Fear, his self-published 2010 memoir.

Staff at Toronto Holocaust Museum and Alex’s children recalled how his gentle kindness drew young students to sit with him and listen quietly.

“You could hear a pin drop when he spoke,” Doron said one staffer had told him.

Children sitting near Alex would lean in to hear him.

“He has this wonderfully large personality and so much life experience, but he was so soft spoken in how he would communicate,” said Michelle Fishman, the marketing and communications director for the Toronto Holocaust Museum.

“He was so kind and sweet, and you could really hear it just in the tone of his voice, and when he was recounting these very traumatic events in his life… to have it being told to somebody, but with that sort of humbling voice, I think added a whole new dimension to what he was trying to share.”

Alexander Eisen was born Dec. 9, 1929 in Vienna, Austria, and his family escaped to Hungary in 1938. At age 12, in the middle of the war, a cousin taught him about the theory of radio waves, and he soon built his first radio, initiating his lifelong path as a self-taught electronic engineer.

The family lived in the Budapest Ghetto, but became separated in 1944, when the Germans deported Alexander’s sister Itti to Auschwitz and he, his mother, and his sister Aliza remained in the ghetto. They escaped by passing as Christians, surviving until liberation in January 1945.

In spring 1947, he boarded the illegal immigration ship Theodor Herzl, leaving Europe via Belgium with the help of Zionist youth group leaders who were bringing survivors to Israel (then British mandate Palestine).

When the ship reached the waters outside Palestine, the British refused entry, towing it to Cyprus and landing Eisen in one of two detention camps, where he learned his mother and one of his sisters were in the other camp. As the family story goes, Alex snuck out to visit his mother and sister, who would reach Palestine first, then returned to the camp where he was on the roster.

There were monthly quotas for newcomers to Palestine, but Alex eventually arrived in fall 1947 and joined the Israeli military. His family reunited in Israel, including Alex’s father, a cantor at a Jerusalem synagogue. (Years later, Doron’s bar mitzvah, in 1976, was held there, after Alex’s father had passed.)

Alex met Renata, his future wife, through two chance Israel encounters, first on a train, where he summoned the courage to speak to her, and then on an Israeli air force base in the Tel Aviv area where they were both serving.

“He always claimed that she ran after him,” said Doron.

Their first date was a walk along the Yarkon River. Alex and Renata married in 1951 in Jerusalem.

“He was amazed by our mother’s brilliance, her ability to speak six languages fluently—of course, he only could speak four—her voracious love of literature, and her ability to relate to young people, including our cousins, and our friends. He marvelled at how many of our friends in junior high, in high school would regularly seek advice from our mother,” Doron said in the eulogy for his father.

Alex’s wartime radio technology interests were later put to use during his Israel Air Force service in the 1948 War of Independence.

“Our father found as many books as he could about engineering and electronics and taught himself, what would later become his career,” said Doron.

“He was given tasks such as building an amplifier to project the sound of heavy gunfire to simulate a much larger army and frighten away the attacking Jordanian forces.”

Alex and Renata moved from Israel to Canada in 1952, where Alex’s technical aptitudes propelled his career in electronic engineering, with swift promotions in his first job at Motorola soon elevating him there from worker to foreman before he moved on to other companies, first as a project engineer in television design.

“From there [after leaving Motorola, and the next company], he went on to design various items, including his prize mini radio with two transistors, which was at the time, the smallest radio in the world,” said Doron.

When he was in his sixties, Alex enrolled in a Seneca College computer hardware course, becoming an “instant expert,” Doron said, and soon becoming the builder of and technician for his family’s computers.

Alex enjoyed building machines from scratch. Less than a year ago, Doron said, Alex, at 93, fixed his old desktop computer. He’d asked his father “to take a look before I threw it away.”

“With his mind, and the steady hands of his computer technician assistant, (and caregiver) Leticia, he called me a few hours after I dropped off the computer,” telling his son he could come pick up the machine because Alex had replaced the hard drive.

Alex’s daughter Karin says her father valued education and learning in part because the war interrupted his own education, and so Alex was particularly fascinated by what people he met studied or were learning.

This extended to Alex’s deep sense of pride for his five grandchildren, Jared, Jonah, Dara, Nicole and Ruthie, and their academic and professional accomplishments, Karin said, although the curiosity applied to “pretty much everybody he encountered.”

As many of those who spoke with The CJN noted, Alex spoke with great pride of his grandchildren and their careers and achievements; this also would, for some years, include showing a portfolio of Ruthie’s artwork.

“I would guess that every one of dozen or so caregivers who helped with our father, over the last 10 years knew all about his grandchildren and their school degrees and have been shown at least once Ruthie’s album of art,” said Doron.

“Our father was a gentle, warm, loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather. That was always his priority and he showed it in everything he did, with kisses and smiles.” said Doron.

“He was our role model in so many ways, but especially in showing us how much love a parent can have for their children.”

Last fall, Alex’s sister Itti, 97, and her sons visited from Israel for a sweet six-day visit. (They returned to Israel on Oct. 6.)

“It was a magical visit for everyone,” Doron said. “Watching the two of them whispering to each other in Hungarian was a gift we hadn’t expected to see again, and it is such a beautiful and precious memory.”

In the eulogy, Doron said his father was intensely devoted to Israel, his family there, and to Jewish tradition, and while he held strong opinions, he could see both sides of an argument.

“He was always open to debate. He would sometimes even come around to an entirely different position on a topic, as long as it was logical to him,” Doron said.

“We have so many pictures of him sitting proudly surrounded by students of all backgrounds, some of them with their arms around my father, our father,” Doron said. “Many wrote letters afterwards saying that he had forever impacted their view of the world.”  

“His message was always about loving and accepting people and not turning to bitterness and hate, even after what he and so many others had experienced in the Shoah.”

Sasha Stackle, who met Alex through Dinner of Miracles, when she moderated his table for the event, said he became like an adoptive grandfather.

“I spoke to him every Friday before Shabbat,” Stackle said.  She later learned from his caregivers he would “camp out” near the phone on Fridays around the call time to anticipate the weekly phone date.

“One of the things that I just adored about him was truly he was so bright at 90-something, he was still doing flight simulators on the computer,” she said.

Eisen’s wife Renata predeceased him, and he is survived by his children and grandchildren.