Hello reddit. I am Ben Lesser.
I am the founder of the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.
I was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1928. With the exception of my older sister Lola and myself, the rest of my family was killed by the Nazis.
Over the 5 years of the war, I was fortunate to survive several ghettos, as well as the notorious camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and finally be liberated in Dachau.
After the war, in 1947 I immigrated to the United States where a few years later, in 1950, I met and married my wife Jean. Over the years, I became a successful realtor in Los Angeles and after retiring in 1995, I have devoted my time to being a volunteer to speak in colleges and schools about the Holocaust.
I wrote a book about my experiences, entitled Living a Life that Matters.
I am looking forward to answering your questions today. Victoria from reddit will be helping me via phone. Anything I can do to further the cause of tolerance – I am always ready, willing and able to do. Anyway, you go ahead and ask any questions.
Edit: Well, there are several things I would like to say.
One of them is: read my book. It’s very important. Not just because I want to sell a book. It’s important that I made sure, on eBook, you can buy it for $3, so no child can say they cannot afford this book.
And besides my book, I lately started an audiobook, which any person who doesn’t have the time or can’t read it for whatever reason, they can listen to me, they can listen to my voice, and my story. And it’s very inspiring. Because I show them how things can… be done! And I tell them in my audiobook, what you can do, to succeed in life. What it means, living a life that matters.
But besides the fact that I wrote a book, besides the fact that I am speaking, I started the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation for one thing and one thing only – to keep this world from acquiring amnesia, forgetting.
Zachor means remember. And I want to get across this to all the listeners and readers. I want you to remember.
Because when I am gone, who will be left to continue to teach about the Holocaust? Who will be left, to counteract the Holocaust deniers?
So it is so important that the Zachor Foundation will live on forever.
But more importantly, I wanted to find a way that can make YOU, the listeners, the readers, the visitors, I want to enable YOU to do something to keep this world – to make it a better world.
What can YOU do to change things?
And that’s when I started a new website, called http://www.i-shout-out.org
This is something we can do. Let our voices be heard. You and I shouting out, our voices may not be heard, but if MILLIONS shout out, we can be heard.
This is a worthy cause, this is a worthy idea. If millions shout out against bullying, against hatred, against Anti-Semitism – Victoria, those shout-outs will be on our website forever.
It’s a wall. With shout-outs.
Can you imagine your great-great-grandchildren punching in your name, and your shout-out will come up? Your name, your date, your age, and what your shout-out was? How important is that?
That’s something everyone can do. We are hoping to get 6 million shout-outs to compensate for the 6 million silenced voices. I feel obligated, as a survivor, to do that. To speak for my family who were killed, slaughtered. But there is something you can do too, to help. Shout-out in this world.
Let everyone know what you believe in.
And it doesn’t have to stop at 6 million. We could go global, eventually. Imagine what the impression that this would have on the world, if millions of us shout-out. And by the way, the kids in school love the idea. Because they take this shoutout, and they see it themselves on the website, standing for what they believe in, against bullying or racism, and then they go home, and tell their parents, and now the parents feel ashamed and of course they do it too…
So it’s important to keep this world from acquiring amnesia, and to — you know, Victoria, I feel so strong about this, that there is so much hatred in this world, and nobody is turning the other course.
Who is going to reverse the hatred? Who is going to stop it from happening?
So we started this foundation, http://www.i-shout-out.org, for a purpose. To reverse the trend of hatred into tolerance.
Instead of hating.
This is something I want to urge every listener, every reader. Please. Do that.
We are willing to take care of it, whatever needs to be done, but I want to see the shout-outs.
And remember one thing: these kids, who shout-out, we never know who they will grow up to be. Some of these kids may be people of importance, even a President.
So remember – this will always be there to remind them – you made a pledge, a shout-out, for tolerance, against racism, whatever you chose.
This is so important. I urge all of you to do it. Victoria, you can help, by doing exactly what you’re doing, recording it.
Who were your liberators and could you talk a little about when you first saw them and if you kept in touch with them over the years?
At first, you know, they looked like GODS to me.
I was liberated by the American soldiers. And every soldier that i saw looked like a God. I didn’t know how to thank them.
But I have met liberators – and until I started teaching about the Holocaust, and speaking, and lecturing – actually, it’s in my book, and it’s a long story to tell, but how in Tennessee, at the University of Tennessee, I happened to accidentally meet the liberators of Dachau, 2 gentlemen who liberated me.
And they were telling their stories about what they found in Dachau, these atrocities, and I was a speaker immediately following them.
And sitting there, I couldn’t believe – I was on pins & needles – these people rescued my life! These people liberated me!
And then when it was my turn to speak, i walk over to them with shaking knees, and I embrace them, and I say: “You two gentlemen gave me my life. You liberated me. I wouldn’t be here without you.”
OF ALL PLACES. And they happened to be the soldiers who liberated Dachau! And I was liberated there! How strange and coincidental that were in the same stage, talking about the same thing. And when they talked about liberating Dachau, and all these atrocities – I couldn’t believe what I heard…
Yes, yes. Those are the only two gentlemen I met those many years later, and we keep in touch quite often.
You’ve obviously had an amazingly long life and experienced a lot of extreme things. What is the single moment in your life that stands out in your memory the strongest?
In my memories?
Well… the worst thing stands out in my life is memory, the memory when we arrived into Auschwitz, and they said “Women and children to the right, and men to the left” and I was holding onto my little brother Tully, my older sister Goldie, and we were just… pulled apart.
Never to see each other again.
And when I found out where they went… and what happened to them, that was one of the worst nightmares of my life.
I couldn’t believe when I was told that they were actually those ashes that we see, those flames shooting out… those are our parents, our mothers, our fathers, our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters… ashes.
This was a terrifying moment in my life.
When I realized my sister, my little bother, were just burned to death.
Just… I couldn’t get over it, for a long time.
And of course… other memories, there are many others.
Having my first daughter, my second daughter, my marriage to my lovely wife of 64 years…
There are a lot of wonderful, wonderful moments in my life. Besides the atrocities at the beginning.
How frustrating is it that some people refuse to believe the Holocaust occurred?
Well, Victoria, I don’t believe that they don’t know better.
They know better.
They just believe that if a lie is told long enough, that some people will start believing in that lie.
Because nothing in history was ever as documented as the Holocaust itself.
So… you know, how could they deny it?
Eisenhower, when he came across these camps, instructed his soldiers, the fighting men to take pictures – all the pictures they could, from all they saw, these atrocities, “because someday there will be people denying that it ever happened.”
That it ever happened.
So he was smart enough.
And millions, and millions of pictures. It was documented in pictures, and films. So what’s the use of denying it?
They are preying on youngsters who don’t know better, or uneducated people. This is why education is important. Because people who are in countries who don’t have the chance to know the truth – they hope that these people will believe it.
Those are anti-Semites. People who hate Jewish people.
As a surviour, do you think you could ever forgive those who caused the Jewish race persecution? If so, what makes you forgive them, if not what would have to be done for it to be forgiven?
Okay, that’s a very good question.
No, the answer is: I can’t forgive those people who were directly involved, the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Obviously, I can never forgive them. And perhaps I feel that it’s not really up to me. It’s up to the victims. They have to forgive them.
But I can’t forget.
But the other answer is: I do not blame the son for his father’s sins.
Which means I have nothing against the people of Germany today.
They are not at fault for what happened. And to me, we are all part of the human race. So whether you’re German, or French, or American… whether you’re one religion, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant – it doesn’t matter. We are all part of the human race.
And I respect every person. As long as they prove themselves to not be racist or hateful people. As long as they don’t repeat the atrocities from the past – I respect them. And I tolerate them. I think it is beautiful that we are different.
So I hope this gave you the answer.
What was your initial experience of America when you first arrived in 1947?
Well, when I was arrived, I was very, very overcome. I was impressed. It was just overwhelming to me.
First, I arrived in New York harbor, and of course, the skyscrapers, the lifestyle… I made a sort of promise to myself then: This is going to be the first day of your life. From this day on, there is only ONE place to go: SUCCEED. I will build a family, I will do whatever I can in my power to succeed in this United States of America.
And this was my first impression. I liked what I seen. I met people who I thought were industrious, with businesses and families and love…there’s respect. I loved what I saw in America. I became American in my heart immediately. So I adopted America, and I am glad America adopted me, and allowed me to be part of it, and become a citizen.
How did people in your adopted home react when you told them what you had been through?
Well… most of them were sympathetic. But the reaction, I think, to a lot of people was complete shock. Unbelief. They couldn’t believe what really happened. They thought we might be exaggerating. How was this possible?
But I didn’t talk much about it in that time.
I kept to myself. And did what I had to do. Find jobs, learn English (I didn’t know a word of English at the time) – we didn’t mingle so much amongst Americans who spoke English because we couldn’t converse with them. So we were mostly amongst our own, and we mostly worked hard.
But mostly, people didn’t believe it, thought we were exaggerating. Until later on, when all the photographs and pictures and articles in the newspapers were verifying what we were telling them, people had a hard time believing it.
And it is hard to believe, the stories we were telling them.
Stories that you just… never heard of!
What do you think about the status of Jews in Europe today?
About the status of Jews in the world today? It’s very grim.
I read about it all the time. It seems like Anti-Semitism is taking over, all over again.
It’s not so… visible, openly.
But what bothers me the most is in Germany itself, it’s become fashionable among the elites in Germany to make jokes, and to sort’ve blame things on the Jewish people. This is… what actually started the whole thing.
Hitler, and the Nazis, did not begin by killing.
This is not how it started.
It all started with hate. Propaganda. And… this is happening again. Not to such an extent, as before, obviously. But I can see in my personal opinion that I have, if I am allowed to say this – I personally feel that there is only one race in the world, and that is the HUMAN race.
And we are all human.
So apparently, there is a little amount of evil that is lurking in each one of us.
We have to be very careful not to allow it to surface. Because we are all the same people.
I guess that the Nazis were not born monsters. They had lovely families. There were educated people. So… people can be subverted in such an easy way. Simply by words from the mouth.
Hitler was a good orator.
And he lashed out.
And that’s how it started.
It’s beginning again. Little jokes, here and there about Jews. Little jokes about problems all the fault of a Jew… in anice way. You know?
And this is happening all over again in parts of the world. And it’s fashionable to make jokes about Jews. That bothers me. It bothers me a lot. And it’s happening.
Of course, it is fueled by religion, and other sources… but WHY?
Why can’t we tolerate and respect each others’ religion?
Why can’t we live side-by-side?
No matter what your religion is.
See the beauty in that part. And why do we have to try and convert others to be like them, or like us?
The beauty in this world is that we are different – we think different, we have different beliefs, we look different… can you imagine if we all looked the same, and if we all believed the same? Like Hitler wanted the Nazis to be?
It would be a dull, dull world. It would be like a bunch of ants following a leader.
So yes, I am very disturbed at what is happening.
And this is why I am doing MORE than I can do. Day and night, I have sleepless nights, I think of what I can do…to get the message out. To get to more people.
And this is why it’s so important to go to schools, why education is so important.
Because hatred exists ONLY where people are ignorant.
So each one of us has to choose responsibility. To live lives that work against hatred.
Obviously – hatred is out there, even with bullying. Or political campaigns. Reckless driving. All of these things contribute to an environment of hatred.
And hatred can only exist where people are ignorant.
So we must constantly provide anti-hatred education.
And in doing so, we can contribute to the healing of others.
To respect. To heal the world. It has to be through education.
And it has to be through educators who are… known that they believe in tolerance, and respect.
So we have to be also very careful who these educators are.
What sort of life advice would you give to a young person like me who is knowledgeable, but so tangibly ignorant of what it means to experience real tragedy?
Very good question.
I have said it many times before. To… live a life that matters means doing something for mankind and this world, something worthwhile.
One thing: try to be successful, yourself. By doing the right things, and having success – financial success is important for you to be able to help others, so you can make this a better world.
The advice I can give you is to do the best you can, to study hard and work hard, to achieve whatever it is that you wish.
In the United States, in this wonderful country of ours, any profession that you wish to achieve, who’s stopping you?
Who is stopping you? No one is holding a gun against your head, saying you can’t do it.
It’s all a matter of YOU. Choices.
So my advice to you is choose to live a life that matters.
Choose to succeed in life, so you can make OTHERS succeed in life.
Being successful is nothing to be ashamed of. Because I was successful, I was able to devote my last 25 years to teach and lecture and do nothing but good.
So that’s the only advice I can give you – be grateful that you live in a country where you can do it. So you can achieve anything you wish in this country. Don’t use an excuse that you had a deprived childhood. My childhood was deprived. But that doesn’t stop me from being a success, or working hard and achieving my goals, studying hard. All these things are excuses when you want to use them. If you really want it, and you work hard, you will achieve if.
If you will it. Not just talking about it, but DOING it. Everything you can.
If you read my book, you will find out that I have worked many, many jobs. I was a truck driver for 25 years for UPS, and I was the highest paid driver of what I did (and you can learn from my book how to do it – and it can be with any company) – 25 years in Los Angeles, and never had an accident. Worked very hard, and learned everything I could so I could help others in the company. I knew how to drive the semi, I knew how to route packages, I knew how to deliver – all of this was done because I wanted to. I wanted to become successful. And I wanted to know how I could help this company succeed.
All these things are so important.
I am BEGGING all of you – if you really want to succeed in life, just do it.
Hard study, hard work never hurt anyone. Don’t find excuses, that you were late. I was never late at work. I always had 2-3 jobs, even when I was working for UPS 25 years. I always had other things to do. I would do roofing, plumbing, anything that came to me.
I never knew the word “I can’t.”
That word doesn’t exist in my vocabulary. EVERYTHING that came my way I found things to do to earn extra money, and then took that money and invested it. And have a future.
And this is what i am telling you. Most of the people who want to achieve something in life – be a hard worker, do the best you can, and study hard.
Know EVERYTHING about your job, so you will be appreciated and needed.
I hope that answers your question.
What was the purpose for moving people from camp to camp?
Well, there was no real purpose, except when we arrived to Auschwitz, we were slated to go to a labor camp. And the labor camp that happened to be open at that time, that they needed workers, was called “Durnhau.” That was a place where we worked in a rock quarry. They needed people to produce gravel. But to move from camp to camp, the only reason why from Durnhau we started to move is because the front kept closing in. We could hear the cannon fire at night, the front was closing in, and one day getting up, going to work, the loudspeaker was saying “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO WORK TODAY, THE CAMP IS BEING EVACUATED.” They lined us up, in groups of five, and marched us out of there.
That was called The Death March.
The reason they called it that was because if you could not keep pace with them, they simply shot you.
All day you could hear pop, pop, pop shooting.
This is how we marched to the next camp, which was Buchenwald.
And from Buchenwald, they shuttled us out by death-trains to Dachau. Near the end, they just didn’t know what to do with us, or where to put us, so they put us in “death-trains” (we called them that because by the time we got to our destination, most people died from starvation or disease).
By the time we arrived to Dachau – and this was shocking to ME, because I just found out, in a film that I saw, called “Night Will Fall” – it was made by the troops who liberated throughout Germany, and they came to those camps, they had photographers behind the battle line, taking pictures of everything – as they came into these different camps, they saw these atrocities and took photos. That film was… not allowed for anyone to see, written by British soldiers.
They kept that film hidden in a vault for 70 years.
Those atrocities are unbelievable. It’s a documentary. “Night Will Fall.”
In it, they show a deathtrain from when the Americans liberated Dachau – a train with 3,000 emaciated bodies. Only 17 of those walked out alive going into the camp.
3 days before liberation.
When I heard that, and I saw that film… it was like lightning.
I just got struck by lightning.
Because I was one of those 17.
And my cousin, who was with me, was one of the 17. My cousin died in my arms, the night of liberation.
That meant that there were only 16 of us left. I was only 16 years old at the time.
Most of those other survivors were in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. So suddenly… I realized then that I may be the only survivor.
Anyway, we are checking this out, and my daughter was able to email to one of the officials in Germany – you know, the Germans kept very good records of everything.
To find out out of these 17 walking out of that death train, how many are still alive today.
The answer came back: one person.
So how shocking is this?
When I heard that… I realized then that you have to do WHATEVER You can, because survival trusts upon me a mission.
To speak, to lecture.
Whatever i can about the Holocaust.
I feel I have this duty. Because I was fortunate enough to survive.
But then I was telling myself “I’m doing this anyways Ben – you wrote a book. The last 20 years you’ve devoted yourself to speaking and lecturing… you set up a Remembrance Foundation, you founded it, and you are teaching SO much, you are doing whatever you can.”
I am praying to God I can continue doing this for many more years.
I’m sorry, I get carried away.
If you had the chance to go back in time and see your young self, what would you do and what would you tell him?
I would tell myself “Ben, you have to respect and love all people in this world. Do not discriminate. Do whatever best you can in your life to help others. In general, just be a person of love, instead of hate. We have so much in this world, and I guess.. after going through all this hatred, and atrocities, I would absolutely tell myself that Ben, you cannot discriminate. We are all part of the human race. And this is something that I feel starts – hatred begins in schools. I would tell myself that.”
It starts early as bullying.
When you bully someone, you make an enemy for life.
So why bully? Why hate?
This is something I have learned from living this life of mine, and going through hell on earth… that we have to find a way to prevent this from ever happening again.
So it has to start with me. I have to be the one. I have to be a loving person, instead of a hateful person.
And whatever you do – don’t ever be a bystander. If you see someone else being hurt, or something being wrongfully done – don’t be a bystander, the way the world was during World War II.
Let your voice be heard.
Shout out. Let the world know. And this is what I am hoping I can accomplish in my life. To get this world to shout out… for peaceful purposes.
Shout out for love, for tolerance, against anti-Semitism, against racism… we only get it through education, so if I had my chance of reliving my life, this is what I would try to do. And this is what I am trying to do, in the last 25-30 years of my life.
And later on, if you get on my website, you will find out I found a way to get this world to become a better place to live.
I will try to close with that.
I’ve read several books on the Holocaust and have seen many documentaries. I have found very little on the experience in the train carts, rightfully so given the short time span in comparison with that spent at a concentration camp.What do you remember of the transport inside the carts?
Okay, to answer your question about the cattle cars… they pushed us in cattle cars. That was on the way to Auschwitz. And then with the death-camp going to Dachau, the second time for me.
To give you an idea – 80 people in a cattle car would be possible, if not for the fact that most people were told to bring along their valuables, because they were being told that they were being relocated in Germany, and these able-bodied people will be working, and the children will go to school, and the older parents will be taken care of… so they brought along all their valuables, all they could carry.
So NOW, with all the bundles and valises they brought, if a person had to sit down, another person had to stand up. The sanitary conditions – all they had were 2 buckets in the corner. They were full of water when we went in, and once the water was gone, there was nothing else left. So all we had were those 2 buckets for sanitary facilities.
So you can imagine 80 people using those 2 buckets.
Once these buckets got filled up – they kept spilling over on the floor in the cattle car. If you can picture this, one day, two days, three days… with all of that waste on the floor… at this point, we were happy that we had bundles so we could sit on top of the bundles instead of all the human waste on the floor.
The conditions were unbelievable. We had babies there. Pregnant mothers. We had older people. Sick people. And they are screaming and yelling. It just went on… the conditions were unbelievable. Some people were dying, they just could not take it anymore, they gave up.
Day one, day two, day three – we finally arrived into Auschwitz, it was called “Ausfhwenchiem” in Polish (it’s very hard to pronounce, I know that).
Anyway, I don’t want to get into details, but to answer your questions – the conditions were unbearable. After 3 days, they opened up the gates, let some fresh air, and we came out.
But to answer your question – yes, it was inhumane. It was impossible to – I guess at the end of another day, half the people would’ve died. People were throwing up from the smell. Just unbelievable.
It was completely inhumane.
But they didn’t care.
They took us to be killed anyway.
My question is how did manage to keep going?
Well, the answer to that question is simply that it’s human nature to overcome most of the atrocities and difficulties that are thrown at them.
But I didn’t think that I was any different than any other person. At least at that time, I didn’t give it any thought. I just wanted to survive – to get by every day, to stay out of the way, not to be as visible, because these – I don’t know what to call them – these monsters…just look for any kind of reason to pull someone out to kill them, to set an example.
So you had to keep timid. And try to do everything that they ordered you to do. And not to be outstanding, or visible, in such a way. So… if you’re insignificant, they don’t look to pull you out, and show an example.
This may be one of the reasons that I survived.
And I was always very… don’t know how to say it? I was always very enthusiastic about life itself.
I hadn’t had a life, until that point, and whatever I did have, at this point, was sort’ve blocked out of my mind. I didn’t remember the good years any more. So to me, life was very important, and I had to do everything humanly possible to survive, not to give them a reason or a cause to pull me out, and kill me.
Well… I am thankful to God for the strength that I am healthy enough to share my story. And I hope for many years that I can continue doing this. Because it is something that needs to be done.
I started it over 20 years ago, approximately 25 years ago. It all started with my grand-son, who invited me to speak in one of the schools. Before I was silent, I kept it bottled up in me. I thought Why subject our children, our grandchildren, to all these tragedies? I wanted them to grow up as normal American kids. Not to feel some kind of guilt-trip or something. So I didn’t talk much about it. But my grand-son asked me to come to school to talk about it.
And from that date on, I came to Los Vegas Nevada, and I joined the Holocaust Survivor’s Group, and the speaker’s bureau, asked for volunteers. So I volunteered. And I haven’t stopped speaking since. I felt I had to reach out. I had to do much more than just speaking, exposing colleges. It has to be more wider-scale. So I started Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, hoping it would reach millions of people worldwide. We have to keep this world from acquiring amnesia. But there are many other ways to reach out. And as time went on, I kept adding those ways.
Since I retired – actually, when I retired to Las Vegas, I felt I’ll take it easy for a while, I always felt that I was a very hard worker, but it turns out I’ve never worked so hard in my life as retirement!
So yes, I am grateful for this. I will do everything possible – because the world has to know. We have to do everything possible to keep the world from forgetting.
What was one of the most uplifting things you witnessed during your imprisonment?
There were a lot of incidents like this, but few and far between. Because missing one bit of food meant certain death. I remember one inmate gave away his ration of food for a cigarette butt, and the guy died that night.
The Nazis had figured out exactly what a person needed to live until the following day, so very little of it went on where people were generous by giving away their food – they couldn’t afford do, it meant certain death.
But I did come across very generous and very good people in my life, who had saved Jewish people, and I called them “Righteous Gentiles.” I even had a head of the Gestapo who saved my sister, Lola, the one who survived – and saving her, she saved me and dozens of others people from a ghetto. And that enabled us to escape the ghetto and run away to Hungary, which was still a free country. Now this head of Gestapo knew what he was doing was wrong, according to their laws, and eventually, he was executed by the Germans. But he saved many Jewish people, including myself and some others that i know survived the war thanks to him.
So not everyone was bad.
But of ALL people – we couldn’t believe the Head of Gestapo would do what that man did. It’s all in my book, the story.
During the earlier years, when did you realize that the Nazi regime was going to be a very, very big problem?
Well, in 1939, when the war broke out, I was only about 10 and a half years old. I didn’t know much about politics. But in 1938, there was Kristallnacht in Germany, and… actually, we all know what happened with that, where Jewish people were not allowed to do this or that, all the Jewish shops in Germany and Austria were broken into, the breaking of the glass, the shopkeepers were pulled out, and many were beaten to death or sent to Dachau (at that time, it was just a prison)… and many Jewish homes were ransacked and they were burning Jewish temples, places of worship, many many Jewish temples in Austria were actually burned.
And it was not done by a bunch of gangs, wild…you know, hooligans. It was government-owned. Government orders. And they actually ordered to start fires in all these temples and places of worship. And firefighters stood by, guarding the houses that are NEXT to these temples, so they shouldn’t catch on fire, but the temples were burning.
So those things were happening when I was 9 and a half. And i had no idea of these things. If my parents knew something, they wouldn’t tell us.
I came from a wonderful loving home, a family of 7. And out of that family, only my older sister Lola and I survived. Lola was 5 years older than I was, and unfortunately she passed away a few months ago. She was a wonderful artist, lived in New York, and still her art is in many museums all over the world, including in Jerusalem… but anyway, to answer your question: did I know what was going on?
We had a pretty normal life. Until all hell broke loose, in September of 1939.
And the world broke out. And it didn’t take long. Right within days, we knew exactly what Nazi barbarism was.
What was the first thing you ate after being freed from the camp?
Good question. The first thing I ate, I remember, 2 GIs, American soldiers walked up to us, and they opened up a can of Spam. And they handed it to me and my cousin.
Well, it smelled so good that we made a mistake and we ate some of it.
And unfortunately, both of us came down with dysentery, I guess it sped up, he would’ve probably died anyway, and my cousin died in my arms the night after liberation. I got very sick too, and when they took him away from me, I tried to follow.
I only weighed 65 pounds. I was a skeleton. Skin and bones.
So what can I tell you? The first food we ate was Spam.
I never ate that in my life before. I guess the Americans found it in the German magazines, and they handed it out to the starving people. They meant well, but our stomachs were not used to it.
A Jesuit priest picked me up, and took me to a field hospital in Dachau, where I passed out, and I was out in a coma for over 2 months. So what I ate afterwards, I have no idea. But it was good food, because I came to myself, and surprising when I woke up after coma, I couldn’t believe seeing myself – I looked pretty good! I had flesh on me.
I looked like a human being again.
I hope that answers your question.
Have you or any other survivors you’ve met had to deal with PTSD or other mental health issues after the war ended? How were you able to go through it?
Post-traumatic stress, is that what you’re saying?
I didn’t have very much of that.
I knew… there were no surprises. I knew exactly what was happening in the camps. I went through it every day.
So after liberation, I really did not have that much stress, because after going through hell, everything is paradise.
I knew I had to work hard in order to achieve my dream, to be successful in this world, but to have post-traumatic stress… I didn’t. I dunno. Maybe because i was too young, I didn’t realize. But to me, every day was a gift from heaven.
So after going through what I went through – everything was easy.
It was simple.
To some people – things may look hard, like hard work, or digging ditches, or who knows what you’re doing that’s hard. To me, it was a pleasure, work. I’m doing this as a free man, a free person!
I never try to stay away from hard work. I knew that in order to succeed, you have to work hard. And I did many things in this wonderful America, in this country of ours, that wasn’t easy. But I don’t remember post-traumatic stress. I really don’t have an answer for that.
What did you eat in the camps?
Okay… we ate very little. Whatever we can. Whatever they fed us. And believe me, whatever they fed us was not fit for human beings. But daily, usually, we had a few slices – like maybe 3-4 slices of bread. And they gave us a little margarine. The bread was made from half-sawdust… not real wheat, or anything like that. It was half sawdust, but it was food we could digest. And a little margarine, they always… had a little liverwurst – I mean very little. They gave you JUST ENOUGH to keep you alive, because they needed your work. And if you got sick, and you died – well, that’s what they planned anyway! But as long as you could work, they kept you alive.
It’s strange, because a few years ago, when you had slaves in this world, you fed them well – you wanted them to be fairly healthy and work hard. But the Nazis barely fed us enough to keep a bird alive. And as long as you lived, they used every ounce of strength from you to work.
And if you died – well, it’s perfectly alright! Or they shot you, or beat you to death, who knows what they did.
So the food wasn’t very much. They gave us a little bit of what they called coffee – it was made out of grain. But it was hot liquid. They fed us once a day some soup, and you wouldn’t dare to find out what’s in the soup, because if you found out, it would make you sick to your stomach.
It was mostly liquid, but if the person dealing out the soup was a friend of yours, or knew you, they went down with the ladle a little deeper to pick up something of substance.
It could sometimes be a rat, or a mouse. You would be surprised. They threw everything in there.
Anyways, it wasn’t enough, and we were constantly, constantly, in hunger. Starving. So I hope that answers your questions.
How violent were the camps?
Well, the camps were not violent. The leaders of the camps were… they were very violent. In Auschwitz, for instance, they would make us stand at attention for an hour in the freezing cold in the morning, and an hour at night, and count you and count you and count you…
Actually, there was no purpose in that.
The only purpose they had was to weed out the strong from the weak. And by making you stand at attention for an hour or two -so if you started to lean a little bit, or your knee would buckle a little bit – they would pull you out and either shoot you or send you to the hospital where they sent you to the gas chambers or whatnot to get rid of you…
They only wanted people to stay there to work.
To be able to work, you have to be healthy and fed. But they didn’t care.
They would always get new people, fresh people. It was very hard.
They had all kinds of torture methods.
For instance, in the camps in Auschwitz – I’ll go through it when I can, tell you about my camp experience – in Auschwitz they would make us stand in line in the freezing cold, and they had a little game – where they said “Take off your cap! in German. So you had to stand at attention, take off your cap, and you had to hit your arm against your leg with the cap.
All they wanted was to hear one sound. If somebody was a second late, they wanted to know who they were. And then they would pull them out, and beat them to death, or give them lashes… and sometimes they would pull people out just to make a point.
And then put the hats back on. Up and down, up and down… it was a game. These capos, these people inside the camp who were guards, and guarding us… they could do with us whatever they wished.
There was no accounting. If they had some kind of fetish or crazy idea, they played it out with people.
What did they care? Kill you, not kill you?
If I have the time – do I have the time Victoria? Okay.
We would work very hard in the rock quarry, as these boulders were being dynamited from the mountain, it was our job with sledgehammers to break them down into manageable pieces. Then throw those pieces into cars, to run them to a grinding machine to make gravel… very hard work. One day we came home from work, and usually they tell us to line up 5 in a row, and they count us, and after the counting, they dismiss us, we can go get our ration and go to our barrack. But that day, they kept counting and counting, they wouldn’t dismiss us.
And after a while, the commandant comes down with his Fraulein, his girlfriend.
And he said “I’m going to show these pig-dogs a lesson they will never forget.”
Apparently 3 of the inmates escaped. And for this, he orders his henchmen to pull out every 10th person in line to receive 25 lashes. And my uncle was in front of me, in front of the lines, and I can see as they are pulling him out that he would be number 10.
So I switch places with him. I see that he is an older man, that he wouldn’t survive that.
I took his place. And sure enough, I was picked as one of the number 10’s.
And all of us were taken into the middle of the yard.
And he orders his henchmen to bring down a sawhorse – you know what a sawhorse is?
And bundles of hardwood, one-by-one-by-two-and-a-half feet long.
And this is what he orders us to do.
You know what a sawhorse looks like? Right?
He orders us to tiptoe – put our knees inside the sawhorse, bend over the top two-by-four, okay, and then… they have one man pulling your trousers like a drum, while the other was doing the hitting. And you had to count it out-loud. To 25 lashes. Out loud.
And if you miscounted, they would start from one again.
If your heels touched the ground, they would start from one again.
If your stomach touched the two-by-four, you would start from one.
I was number 4. The first man went up – and obviously the first time they hit him on the trousers with those hard wooden stakes – you can see within seconds a line of blood coming right through it, they were hitting him so hard, it was so sharp. And finally… anyways, long story short, he miscounted, and the commandant yelled AGAIN! AGAIN!
Finally, he collapsed. The commandant goes over and kicks him in the face with his shiny black boots, and says GET UP!
Obviously, he couldn’t.
So the commandant pulls out his revolver, and shoots him in the head, killing him.
His fraulein, his girlfriend, walks over to him, and gives him a hug, and kisses him, as if he has just performed a heroic act.
I was number 4.
The second and the third person were all shot. Because they couldn’t continue, they had to start all over again, they were all shot. And I came up number 4. I was probably the youngest person in camp, I was 15 and a half at the time.
And I walk up to that sawhorse… and I think to myself Ben, this is it. There is no mistakes, if you want to live thorough it, you have to do EXACTLY what you’re told.
I don’t know. I guess I must’ve gone into a trance. I must’ve conditioned my body to do exactly what they told me. I tip-toed, put my knees into the opening… and then this once man starts to pull my trousers tight, and the other one starts hitting, and I start yelling out loud
Twenty-five… I made it.
Well, the person holding my trousers, it got so quiet, no one could believe that anyone survived this. They expected another person to be killed. And when I survived it, he said to me in Yiddish “Walk over, and salute him.”
So I stand up, blood is running down my trousers, and I walk over, and salute him, I say “Danke schoen, Herr Commandant.”
And he puts his bloody hand on my shoulder, on my… sleeve, and sort’ve turns me around, facing those people who are still to be beaten, and I was figuring to myself What did I do now? what is he going to do, punish me for surviving?
No, he made an example of me.
He yells “YOU SEE? THIS IS HOW IT CAN BE DONE. IF you do this like this young one, you have nothing to worry about.”
You have nothing to worry about.
Anyways, what happened is…
Meanwhile, the 3 inmates who escaped, they were caught, brought down through the gate, all bloodied, and when he saw that, he lost interest in us, number 10’s, and he told us to all go back in line where we were before. Orders his henchmen to bring down a portable gallows, and he hung them one by one.
And we all had to stand there and watch.
That’s the kind of torture we were getting. I could go on and on, but I want to keep these answers a little shorter.
What was the most horrifying thing you personally witnessed?
The most horrifying thing I personally witnessed was the hanging of those 3 inmates that escaped and they caught them.
They put the noose on them, one at a time.
The last one that they hung was a young man, and he screamed out the prayers, the Jewish prayer before dying.
It’s only 5 or 6 letters.
But when they heard that, they kicked the stool out from under him, not even allowing him to finish 2 words of that prayer.
That was horrifying to me.
And the other thing that was even worse was when they first occupied Poland, Krakow, within 5 days there was a truck pulling up to our building, and Nazi soldiers jumped out of it, and all they wanted to know was where the Jewish people lived. They asked the Super where the Jewish people lived.
And he was quick to oblige.
They came in, pistol-whipping us. They had sacks for us to throw in all our valuables. They were beating up my father to open up the safe, they cleaned everything out.
While this was going on, we heard horrible screams next door from the other Jewish family. So my sister Lola, the one who survived, and I ran out through the back door to go into our neighbor’s through their back door to see what happened.
There was a young couple living there with 2 daughters, about my age. We used to play in the yard, after school. And the mother gave birth to an infant boy, about I guess 1 month earlier? or 3 weeks earlier? And we came in, we saw this monster holding the baby by its legs, and swinging it.
And screaming to the parents MAKE HIM SHUT UP!
And of course the parents and daughters were screaming Our baby, our baby, don’t hurt our baby!
And when we came in, we couldn’t believe what we saw. This monster had this smirk on his face, like he was enjoyingwhat he was doing.
And he smashed the baby’s head right into the doorpost, head first, killing it instantly.
That memory I will never forget.
Seeing that baby scream, and then the sudden silence.
And the head opened up, and everything on the floor.
We all jumped on this monster, and started to beat him, and scream – of course, we were all pistol-whipped by his buddies.
Anyways, it’s a long story, but all I can tell you is the mother died within 2 weeks in the hospital, I don’t know if because of heartbreak, or being beaten.
This was our first taste of Nazi brutality.
As a man who survived the greatest atrocity of the 20th Century, what current conflict, regime, dictator, or leader concerns you the most?
The answer to that is obviously countries with leaders like Iran who… profess that the Holocaust never happened.
Obviously, he knows better than that. But most people in those countries don’t really have the chance to find out the truth.
So they believe this person. And this is what scares me the most. Ignorance. Those people are ignorant enough tobelieve this madman, that the Holocaust never happened. And these types of leaders would love to do this type of thing again, wipe out the Jewish people.
So that type of thing is what scares me the most. ISIS scares me. A lot of these rogue countries would profess that the Holocaust never happened, and they would gladly do it again to the Jewish people who survived.
Recently a 90+ old secretary/bookkeeper of a camp was brought to trial for “helping the holocaust happen”. How do you feel about that? How do you about the “nazi hunting” in general? They are all very old and it happened a long time ago.
How do I feel about that?
Obviously, I feel that whatever they get, whatever kind of punishment… is dealt out to them… is never enough for the atrocities they have done.
What they have done – such inhumane things that it’s hard to believe it was the 20th Century – this is what is possible.. To educated, civilized human beings, Germans.
How is that possible? That these civilized human beings turned to become such monsters?
But we can learn something from all of this.
What we learn is that there is a certain amount of hatred that’s lurking in each one of us.
And that has to be contained. We have to be sure not to allow it to surface.
That is what we learned. Because these are educated people that were no different originally than us.
Yet they were able to commit such crimes.
So they’re part of the human race. That is a black mark on mankind. So we all have to be aware of this. We all have toknow that we are capable of such atrocities.
The saying goes “better later than never.” Obviously, they were fortunate enough to live a life to REACH that age. A peaceful life. Which was a shame that this happened. But certainly they should not be forgiven, and we should not look the other way. The atrocities they committed have to be punished.
Some people have to realize you can’t get away with this.
And unfortunately, many of them did.
What are some of the best books about the Holocaust you would recommend?
Well, to be honest, I haven’t read too many Holocaust books, so I can’t really be an advisor to tell you what is the best. But there are very good books written – like “NIGHT” for instance – written by Elie Wiesel, and he is a wonderfulwriter. But “NIGHT” Was one of them. And there may be many more I am not aware of. Because unfortunately, I don’t have the time to devote to reading books, especially books that remind me of the past. Life has to go on, and I can’t be reminded of it too often – but unfortunately, that is my life. It’s constantly with me. But I don’t have to add by reading MORE books. Every night I have nightmares.
My wife will attest to that.
So I try to stay away from Holocaust books.
Enough that I have to teach. I am doing this gladly, hoping that some people will walk away with some knowledge, knowing what the past did for us, what was happening in the past, to prevent this from happening again.
So i am the wrong person to ask that question, because i don’t read all the Holocaust books. In fact, I have read very few.
My question is what would you like every young person to know? What advice could you give them on how to live well?
The advice I can give every person… to live better…is “No matter – I want each person to know that life is a matter of choices.”
An individual can always CHOOSE what happens to them.
Whether it’s a crisis, or a calamity, people can choose to either ruin their lives, or to learn from it, and move forward.
It’s essential to understand the consequences of personal choices.
It’s possible to let tragedy or trauma become a reason to stop living.
But it’s also possible to live through extreme circumstances like I did and commit to a life that has meaning. A life that matters.
If you strive – whatever profession you’re in – to be the BEST in that profession – and if you work for a company, try to find out how you can, or what you can do, to help this company succeed – then you will be successful.
Don’t be a clock-watcher.
Just…see what you can do to possibly improve that company, so they can make money, hire more people… if you have this outlook, be the BEST in whatever you do… you have nothing to worry about in life. You will have a wonderful life.
This is what I feel I succeeded in. Because i never thought about myself personally. I thought if my boss is going to be successful, I will be, automatically, awarded. That’s the best advice I can give you.