The Lifelong Learner

The remarkable life and times of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who reminds us to not give up in finding goodness in people and to never stop learning.

Who was the lifelong learner? His name was Sandor Teszler, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who overcame immeasurable odds to come to the United States in search of peace, refuge, and an intellectually enlightened life.

Born in Budapest in 1903, upon receiving his degree in textile engineering, he founded his own series of textile mills in what is now the former Yugoslavia. One day in one of his plants, a worker was caught stealing hosiery, and Mr. Teszler faced the daunting task of choosing to incriminate the man or to let him off. He pleadingly asks him, “Why do you steal from me? If you need money, you need only ask.” He lets the man go, and reassures his angered guardsmen, telling them, “It’s okay, he will not steal again.

Years later, after the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia had been well underway, Sandor Teszler and his family were captured and placed in a death house, where Jews were beaten, killed, and ruthlessly thrown into the Danube River. One day, Sandor and his family were taken out to the edge of the Danube, where they suffered a merciless beating. In a seemingly sick twist of fate, one of the overseers of the death house was none other than the hosiery thief! Before their impending capture and imprisonment, Teszler and his family had begun wearing cyanide capsules in lockets around their necks, in the hopeless event they would ever need them. In this moment, they felt that it was the end for them, and were on the brink of indefinitely ending their misery. In a true instance of serendipity, the guard leaned down and whispered to Sandor, “Don’t take the capsule. Help is on the way.

Soon enough, Sandor and his family were escorted to safety by members of the Swiss consul and reclassified as Yugoslav citizens. Not long after, they immigrated to the U.S., where they eventually settled down in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Doing what he did best, Mr. Teszler opened a textile mill in the region. But this was no ordinary mill. This one was special.

At the time, which by then was sometime in the late ’50s, Spartanburg was one of the most racially segregated towns in the country, rife with the racist resentment from the common white Southerner to the Ku Klux Klan. But Sandor was well aware of this — after all, he was no stranger to a story of this kind. He deliberately settled in this segregated place, so he could prove that his integrated mill would not only thrive and prosper just fine, but far surpass the performance of any segregated mill. Surely by no fluke, Mr. Teszler’s plant — the first racially integrated textile mill in the region — did just that.

“I rented an empty store in King’s Mountain and engaged an English mechanic to put in six machines. When everything was ready, I brought in eight black and eight white workers. These sixteen workers worked together in three shifts until they had become good friends. They used the same bathroom, drank from the same water fountain and ate together as in the main plant…I opened with only one water fountain and restroom for all.” — Sandor Teszler

Not long after Sandor’s wife and children had passed away and he had entered into his retirement, he took interest in the small college nearby, Wofford College. There, he quickly became known as an avid learner, and audited over 50 classes. He particularly enjoyed classes in the humanities, philosophy, art, and history. He had a love of the opera, with a particular fondness of compositions by fellow Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók.

Recounting his eagerness for learning, Sandor said:

“Every day I go to the library for two or three hours and I see my dear friend, Mr. Coburn, who is head of the library now. And he does everything to help me to get the books that I need and want to read. I am able to get over my loneliness because I am still able to read books — not novels or light reading, but biographies and history books.

….I am still involved in the Holocaust, studying and reading very often about this tragedy. In my heart and in my life, I suffered very much, losing all my family, and it was an unbelievable fate that I could escape.”

Though having endured unspeakable tragedy throughout his life, experiencing and witnessing the worst instances of mankind’s infliction of injustice onto others — Mr. Teszler was known for not losing faith in his fellow humans:

“Not long before Mr. Teszler’s own death at the age of 97, he heard me hold forth on human iniquity. I delivered a lecture in which I described history as, on the whole, a tidal wave of human suffering and brutality, and Mr. Teszler came up to me afterwards with gentle reproach and said, ‘You know, Doctor, human beings are fundamentally good.’ And I made a vow to myself, then and there, that if this man who had such cause to think otherwise had reached that conclusion, I would not presume to differ until he released me from my vow.” — former President of Wofford College Dr. Bernie Dunlap

I revisit this story often. Apart from it being a remarkable story in its own right, I am fascinated by this man — a Holocaust survivor — and his unwillingness to give up on humanity. I haven’t endured 1/1000th of what he did in what was a fraction of his life, and yet I find myself increasingly disheartened by this duality of extreme wickedness and extreme suffering of people. It’s often difficult to believe in the notion that humans are “fundamentally good” when there is so much iniquity and hatred reverberating throughout the world that feels particularly heightened in this era of human history. But it’s clear as ever that if this man was able to find goodness in people just as he did the hosiery thief and the mill workers of King’s Mountain, then surely I — we — might be able to, too. I am also in admiration of his passion for learning. I remember this man not only as a Holocaust survivor who unapologetically fought racial segregation at one of its starkest points, but also as an eternal student. I wonder if this is also how he might have liked to have been remembered. Not only by his many trials or successes, but by his genuine curiosity in exploring anything and everything in which he found a peculiar interest.

After having lived a life of inexplicable pain, intellectual enlightenment, and steadfast pursuit of racial justice in his new homeland, Sandor Teszler died at the impressive age of 97 in the year 2000.

By consciously remembering and continuously reviving stories like his, we can ensure that the fearless iconoclasts who came before us can live on.

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This piece is a speech I wrote and delivered as a former member of Toastmasters, a non-profit that organizes clubs on public speaking. Other speeches I have published on Medium are “Stargirl” , “Why Do I Only Know 2 Prince Songs?”, and “Be Infinite”.

Memoirs of Sandor Teszler, archived by Wofford College’s Sandor Teszler Library: https://www.wofford.edu/academics/library/archives-special-collections/college-archives/digital-archives/memoirs-of-sandor-teszler

2007 Ted Talk by former President of Wofford College Dr. Benjamin Dunlap on Teszler’s life, titled “The Lifelong Learner” (my initial introduction to this story, whereby I have named my memoir after Dr. Dunlap’s speech): https://www.ted.com/talks/bernie_dunlap_the_life_long_learner/transcript?language=en

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