But friends and family said his survival of the Holocaust also bred a resiliency “that made him want to be better than anything he had experienced,” said his daughter Roberta Lynn-Wechsler.
He was reluctant for years to discuss his ordeal, but found the determination in his later years to speak out, even as retelling his story caused him to suffer anew.
He did it at the urging of family and friends, he says in a video done in association with the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta. So he began to tell his story to visiting schoolchildren, educators, and civic and religious groups.
Lynn, 90, died Jan. 31 of heart failure. He is survived by Sonia, his wife of 62 years, and children Roberta Lynn-Wechsler (Gary), Anita Lynn and Allen Lynn. A graveside service and online memorial was held Feb 3.
Born Alfred Leicht in Hungary, Lynn was 14 in 1944 when he, his mother and three brothers were packed into cattle cars bound for the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. His father had already been killed.
Upon arrival, he and his family were separated. He lied about his age, saying he was 16 on the advice of a camp inmate, and was earmarked for work. He was taken to a barracks, where he asked another prisoner where his mother and brothers had gone.
“He asked me to come out of the barracks and then pointed at the belching smokestacks [of a crematorium] and said, ‘That is where they are.’” That was an hour after they disembarked.
He did backbreaking labor, was infested with lice, slept three to a bunk in a freezing barracks without blankets, was fed virtually nothing and racked by diseases. Lynn was marked for death 10 times but survived through trickery — such as sliding back into the non-gas chamber line — and sheer force of will. He lived through a forced march of hundreds of miles as the Germans sought to escape invading Russian troops
“It was an abyss of the worst kind,” he said. “Hunger assaulted your mind and body until you became delirious. It was impossible to survive on what they fed us.” He said the prisoners became animalistic as they fought for survival.
“When someone died,” he told the AJC in 2003, “the first thing we did was search his pockets for a morsel of bread. Then, we’d take his clothes.” Then after a pause; “I wore a dead man’s coat.”
Lynn was liberated by American troops then nursed back to a semblance of health.
He wandered Europe, finally making his way to the U.S. in 1949 on a student visa. After college in New York, he moved to Atlanta in 1956 to pursue a career in sales and marketing.
Along the way he said little to his family, friends and business and professional associates about his wartime horror. That changed after he retired in 2000.
“I didn’t like to look back and talk about a past that I could not change,” he said on the video. “But after I retired from corporate life, my family, friends urged me to talk to you so you would better understand what it was like to be Jewish in the cesspool of Europe.”
And talk he did, always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie and working from notes laid down on a legal pad.
His children said he would become visibly upset as he talked about the rape of his mother in their Hungarian home and the kidnapping and murder of his father.
“Just think about the worst experience of your life and reliving it and retelling it over and over,” said daughter Anita.
Sister Roberta thinks his attention to sartorial detail stemmed from his brutalization.
“He was so meticulous in his dress and hygiene,” she said. “Shoes always polished and clothes pressed. That was affected by the loss of control he suffered as a prisoner.”
Friends said the clear prose and effective storytelling Lynn fostered in the business world commanded attention in talks.
“When he spoke, you sat up straighter and paid attention a little harder,” Roberta said.
Those who wrote in his funeral guestbook used the Yiddish term “mensch” over and over — a man of integrity and honor. His word was his bond.
Lynn’s wife had urged him to hang up his talks after two decades, and he had debated that. But he felt compelled to continue as he saw anti-Semitic incidents increased in number.
Rabbi Joseph Prass, director of the Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education at the Bremen Museum, said Lynn refused to spend time stewing in hatred. Prass added that days or weeks after middle and high-school students heard him speak, Lynn would get unsolicited letters expressing heartfelt appreciation combined with sorrow for having hear his story.
One such letter was especially telling, said family members.
“The visit opened my eyes to the excesses of Nazi cruelty,” wrote a middle-school-aged girl. “I promise to keep the memory of all those who suffered in my heart until the day I die. I will spread the word to all open ears.”