March Of The Living

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Each year, they come. The young. The old. New generations. Survivors. Together, they march three kilometers from Auschwitz to Birkenau and then to other camps.

Held on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), people from all over the world travel first to Poland and then on to Israel for the International March of the Living. The goal: to serve as a silent tribute to all victims of the Holocaust while also helping to educate people on the history of the tragic events, and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate.

In 2010, I journeyed back to Auschwitz. Returning to the camp is never easy for me; it’s filled with memories I prefer not to resurface. But, returning is always important. This return visit was to participate in the March.

MOTL pic 2.jpgInitially, I struggled with sharing my story with the participants in the March. How much should I tell them? What was appropriate to share with them about my time there? I had mixed feelings, but in the end, as we walked through the remnants of gas chambers, through the crematoriums, I realized there were no secrets.

I knew as we walked through the former camp that everything had to be put out in the open. After all, that’s the goal with ZACHOR, and my own personal goal, too.

So, with a background of the horrific Auschwitz, I recounted my story of survival to more than the 200 who joined the March.

To say that walk was transformative is an understatement. It touched me. Profoundly. This diverse group sat safely together in a place which was home to so much death. Despite our age differences, our background, our own personal challenges, together we confronted this nightmare of hate. And, together we saw truth and love, working to understand how these killings happened, and ultimately, strengthening our determination to ensure history will not repeat itself.

Seeing these beautiful faces and their desire to take action and end hate warmed my heart.

Today, as another group of people take to Auschwitz, Birkenau and other camps, then later Israel, I send my love. My gratitude.

Participants in this year’s March are about to embark on an incredible and meaningful journey. They walk in honor of those six million lives who were taken. They provide a powerful symbol of unity, a symbol of the victims who were never able to leave those murderous grounds.

Honoring and remembering the past is the greatest method we have to prevent the tragedies of history from occurring again. It’s why I distribute ZACHOR pins. It’s why I started the online I-SHOUT-OUT campaign where people from all over the world speak UP and OUT for what they believe in and what they fight for.

If you’re not one of the people marching in Poland, please, take a moment to SHOUT-OUT today and be one of the six million SHOUT-OUTs we hope to garner to honor the six million voices silenced during the Holocaust.

And, if you are marching, I wish you safe travels.  Baruch Hashem V’Hashem, Yit Bareich.


To learn more about Ben LesserZACHOR or our youth campaign I-SHOUT-OUT to stop intolerance, visit:

www.zachorfoundation.org

www.i-shout-out.org

Want to book a speaking engagement? Please email: info@zachorfoundation.org 

Choices – An Excerpt From “Living A Life that Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream”

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In January, I was asked to speak at the Summerlin Library in Las Vegas. I always welcome opportunities to share my story and spread the message of remembrance. It’s the cornerstone of The ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation I founded, and helps to ensure that future generations never forget what happened during some of the darker days of our history.

Before I took the stage to speak to a full house, I was introduced to the audience and an excerpt of my book, “Living a Life that Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream” was read.

Today, I want to share that very excerpt.

Living a Life that Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream

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“…For the last 20 years, I have dedicated myself to learning and teaching about how the Holocaust could have happened and its impact on humanity. In this sometimes painful but always enlightening process, I have learned a great deal both about human nature, and about myself.

I have come to understand that so much of what happens in life is a result of seemingly simple human choices.

A person can choose to hate. A person can choose not to use hateful speech. Hitler did not start with weapons. He started with hate. And then he proceeded to use hateful speech. A person can choose to not become a perpetrator or a bystander, an oppressor cannot succeed on his or her own. When someone is being victimized – whether by a school-yard bully or a maniacal national leader – those who are not victims make the choice to join the bully or to become the bystander who does nothing.

I am grateful that I have the opportunity to not only speak up about what happened, but also to inspire others to recognize the conditions – and choices – that might lead up to – or hopefully – prevent – genocide.

As a result of my many presentations to schools, religious organizations and community groups, I have seen that on a historical level, far too many people of all ages have no real idea about what happened to the Jewish people of Europe before, during, and after the Third Reich (1933-1945). And despite those who would deny the existence of the Holocaust, there are many people who are hungry to know the truth about this savage time. I realize that many people do not understand that they have the power to make choices that will determine the course of their lives. In response to their questions, heartfelt interest, and commitment to take action, I decided to put my experiences in writing so that after I am gone, my stories, my choices, and the lessons they teach, will continue.”

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Learn More About My Story

In this engaging, inspiring, and educational Holocaust survivor memoir, I invite you to revisit a time in history when the world went mad.

It is my goal to not only serve as a teacher, but also to bear witness to the past, teaching students of all ages the important values of tolerance, democracy, respect for human dignity, and decency. Learn about the importance of overcoming hate, sorrow and tragedy and how my determination to achieve my dreams can help inspire readers of all ages.

Today, as the world is struggling with hate, we need messages of hope and inspiration. Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream does just that. Read it at home, or share it at school or in an organization to help educate more people and encourage them to fight hate.

Proceeds from my book go directly to ZACHOR and help continue our mission to never forget and overcome hatred.

Book & DVD

Available in paperback, 8-CD Set, Audiobook Download & E-book.

Order you copy today at shop ZACHOR

To learn more about Ben LesserZACHOR or our youth campaign I-SHOUT-OUT to stop intolerance, visit:

www.zachorfoundation.org

www.i-shout-out.org

Want to book a speaking engagement? Please email: info@zachorfoundation.org 

 

The Return To St. Ottilien – Part 2.

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This post is Part 2 in our series about St. Ottilien.

April 2015:

What’s it like to step back into the halls of a place where I came to life after the liberation of Dachau? Haunting. Heartwarming. A myriad of feelings which pulse through me.

I hadn’t planned on returning to St. Ottilien when I was in Germany last year with my two daughters. We were there to honor the 70th anniversary of the liberation and premiere the History Channel film I was in, “The Liberators: Why We Fought.”

Yet, there I was.

It all started when a man named Klaus reached out to my daughter Gail via The ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance website, inviting me and my family to return to St. Ottilien.img_0001

Did I want an opportunity to return to the place which healed me and made me come alive again? Absolutely!

It was early Friday morning where Klaus met us in the lobby of our hotel to escort us to the monastery. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This man, towering above us at around 6’6, wearing his monk robe walks up to me and wraps his arms around me with a warm embrace.

For some reason, I didn’t expect him to be a monk, but he was!

“I can’t just call you Klaus,” I protest to him as we walk to the car. “What do others call you?”

He smiles and lets me know if I want, I can call him “Father” Klaus. I do.

It took us less than an hour for the four of us to reach our destination from Munich.

Upon arrival I look around and my first thoughts were that nothing has changed. The gardens are well kept and trees are taller, but for the most part, the buildings and grounds remain unchanged.

It was like I was looking at myself through a time capsule … but no longer the young boy running through the gardens. This time, I am simply a man admiring them.

When I called this place my home, it took me a long time to regain my faith back. I was raised as an Orthodox Hassidic Jew, but the Holocaust stripped me of my faith, at least for a little bit. At St. Ottilien, I was surrounded by religion, with the church serving as the epicenter of the compound. However, I never stepped foot inside.img_0032

However, our host graciously asked us to attend mass before lunch. And we did. It’s breathtaking. The high ceilings, the intricate stained glass, the monks … it feels comforting. Rejuvenating. Peaceful. As we sat together and listened to the chanting’s, in my head feeling so close to my faith, I recited the Sh’ma and Shehecheyanu.

Then, it’s time for lunch. We head to a massive dining hall, taking a seat next to Father Klaus and the Archabbot Wolfgang Oxler. A bell rings, and the entire room stands up, reciting a prayer. Another rings, and everyone returns to their seats as the homemade food and beer is brought out.

img_0023I turn to Father Klaus and the Archabbot, while raising my stein of beer – “L’Chaim!” – Worlds and religions united as we toast each other in the refectory hall.

As we finish the lunch, Father Klaus pulls me and my daughters aside.

“In all of the years I have been here,” he explains, “I have never seen the monks dine with anyone else. They always dine in seclusion. Once a year, they allow blood relatives to lunch, but the rest of the year? No one. In case you didn’t know, they have bestowed the biggest honor on you three. This is unheard of.”

I stand there, looking at Father Klaus, feeling the ghosts of those who came before me, and am filled with gratitude. With love. With honor.

We continue our day, arriving to a conference room filled with more than 100 dignitaries from the Bavarian region, including monks from different religions. And, they all want to meet and interview me! To know my story.

One monk asks about the ZACHOR pin I am wearing and I explain it to him.

“It means “To Remember”, I say. “ZACHOR. To never forget the people who were silenced during the Holocaust.”

Impressed, he asks for a pin. Of course, we were prepared and had brought plenty with us. I hand him a pin and then pass them out to everyone in attendance: the monks, nuns, brothers, sisters, fathers and civilians. They all place the pins on their lapels.

This. This is the most gratifying, fulfilling moment. It makes the past 70 years of work, of speaking, of ensuring people never forget, come to life. Seeing all of these people from different religious background be so open, so warm, so tolerant; it’s what I have envisioned the world to be like.

A flutist takes the stage to perform. But, when she begins to play, I’m shocked. It’s old Yiddish songs. Songs which I can faintly recall my mother singing to me. I’m brought back into the past. To a life before hatred took over. To her soft voice. To her love. It’s happy. It’s sad. It’s touching that she is playing these songs to honor my visit.

She plays for 30 minutes, and then I am asked to visit the head table and recount my experience of my time healing here.

img_0025After the event everybody at the conference together walked in the rain through the gardens to an onsite memorial where they dedicated a monument at the Jewish cemetery at the monastery property. I was given the honor to recite the mourners Kaddish for those that perished at St. Ottilien. Tears rolled down my cheeks as the monks and nuns repeat every word. To hear them praying in Hebrew was surreal yet heartwarming.

Jewish custom is to leave a stone at the grave. I did so while all else follows.

img_0018Just when the long day was coming to a close, Father Klaus who drove us back to the city joined us for Shabbat services and dinner at the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich with our group of Survivors, Liberators and the History Channel crew. It was a magnificent evening filled with awe. Here this tall religious man in a hooded cloak prayed, ate, chanted and danced the Jewish folk dance the “Hora” was one of wonder and delight. It was a peaceful union that I never could have imagined 70 years earlier.

Hinei Mah Tov Umanayim, shevet achim gam yachad

How beautiful it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity. – Psalm 133

 


To learn more about me and my history, please be sure to read my autobiography, “Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare To American Dream.” 

To learn more about Ben Lesser, ZACHOR or our youth campaign to stop intolerance please visit:

www.zachorfoundation.org

www.i-shout-out.org

The Return To St. Ottilien – Part 1.

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April 2015:

My bones are just as frail as when I first walked down the hallway of the St. Ottilien Archabbey, a Benedictine monastery in Emming Germany. Except, today I am 86. It’s different though, because 70 years ago, when I first stepped foot (or, should say was carried) into the monastery following the liberation from Dachau, I hardly had any life in me.

Now, there is an air of familiarity that lingers through the halls and I am instantly flooded with memories. Emotions rush through me as my heartbeat quickens. I’ve returned to a moment in my past which pushes me back to my past.

April 1945:

I’m a shell of a boy, nearly a skeleton, when Dachau was liberated. It is here, at St. Ottilien Archabbey, where I begin my slow healing process – along with other survivors of the Holocaust.

The memories come in waves, sometimes in the form of actual moments I recall, others from stories I have been told. I piece them together, a puzzle taking shape.

Immediately after the liberation, a kind Polish-speaking Jesuit priest hoisted me over his shoulders as my 16-year-old body – tired, beaten and starved — collapsed in his arms. It was then he took me to an infirmary camp where the attendants and nurses placed me on a cot, covered me with a blanket, took my vitals and gave me nutrients through an I.V.

I fell asleep and did not wake for few months.

When I regained consciousness, I found myself tucked into a comfortable hospital bed in the beautiful Bavarian monastery.

I wasn’t alone.

The monks had dedicated one wing for the purpose of medical care and rehabilitation for Holocaust Survivors.

St. Ottilien is where I came back to life.

My time at St. Ottilien was therapeutic, both medically and emotionally. For the first time in years, instead of being starved, slaved and tortured, I was being taken care of. There were so many of us in the same situation,  it felt like we had become one big happy family. For many of us, this adopted family was our only remaining family. We took care of each other and became surrogate relatives. As time passed, we began to recover, grow stronger and feel human.

So instead of hoping to live for another hour, I began to think about living beyond that. Tomorrow. Next month. For the first time since I was first taken to a camp, I had a future. I had hope.

My time spent at the monastery, I learned to love, regain a small portion of my faith back, and was miraculously reunited with my long-lost sister, Lola. (To read our reunion, please click here)

What was it really like to return to St. Ottilien 70 years later?

Stay tuned for my next post.

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My Road to Recovery –

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Ben’s puppy “Bella” visiting in rehab.

It has been 2 months and I am going home.

As I celebrate my 88th Birthday on 10/18, I received the best gift from the doctors: a clean bill of health. I was given a new lease on life and excited to get back to my family and speaking engagements. Thank you for all your kind wishes and prayers for a speedy recovery.  

To learn more about me and my history, please be sure to read my autobiography, “Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare To American Dream.”

 

To learn more about Ben Lesser, ZACHOR or our youth campaign to stop intolerance please visit: www.zachorfoundation.org and www.i-shout-out.org

My Words. My Fight. My Message.

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Today, I want to share with you my personal health story. A few weeks ago I suffered a minor heart attack and other ailments which have kept me in the hospital to this day. My 88-year-old body isn’t matching with my (much) more youthful mind.

What’s on my mind these days?

Fear.

Laying in this sterile room with machines beeping, it isn’t ailing health I fear. It isn’t death. It’s being forgotten. I’m not simply referring to myself. I’m talking about the six million souls whose lives were lost in the Holocaust. About them being forgotten. About me being forgotten. About those words I have spoken for decades, the words of Elie Wiesel, the words of other Survivors … all of their words being forgotten, too.

I founded ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation to help ensure future generations would know our stories and honor our lives. So, we would remember and not develop amnesia regarding the atrocities, the suffering, the hate, which once ruled the world.

And, yet … today it seems we are on that terrifying path.

As I sit here, hooked up to monitors, my heart quickens with the fear that the younger generations, and those still to come, will not know my words, my fight, my message. It is ZACHOR’s goal to educate our children, and to provide the teachings and tools to schools and other outlets about the Holocaust. The classroom is the ideal setting for the impressionable young minds.

The Holocaust is not a mandatory subject/area of coverage in most states across the nation – at most they leave it up to individual teachers to determine if the Holocaust is a part of their curriculum. But, I question how will the youth know about what happened? How will we be able to share our stories and make sure they are passed on to others? How will we be able to prevent something like this from happening again?

I made a vow when I started ZACHOR that our dear departed ones, crying out to the world to remember, would actually be remembered. Sadly, school systems throughout the nation are not making this a priority. So long as I live and breathe, and other Survivors live and breathe, I would think school districts everywhere would want us to visit. To share our stories. To spread our messages.

We are here. We are willing. And nothing happens.

While we are here, let us speak. Let us tell the future generations about the time the world went mad, and what we can do to make sure it never happens again. It’s our history, and one which must be told. We cannot allow people to forget.

Why limit our speaking engagements to single classrooms? Why not open it up to entire districts and make it an evening about our history and meeting those who have survived?

It is our job as parents to make sure our children live long, happy, healthy lives. To provide them the opportunities we didn’t necessarily have. But, in order to provide those opportunities, it is my opinion that we need to teach our children values and good morals focusing on respect and tolerance for all.

There is a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, and every living child should know what happened — and why it happened.

I am a survivor of the Holocaust and my words have power. Influence. They can help steer children towards the lives we imagine for them.

I will be back up soon. In the meantime, please, help me as I recover. Talk to your school districts. Talk to your teachers. Invite them to help create a world where our past is known as we take steps towards a future that is hate-free.

My one wish in life is that we remember … ZACHOR.

Book & DVD

Please note: I will be taking a bit of a break while I recover.  In the coming weeks, be on the look out for excerpts of passages from my book as a part of my road to recovery. To learn more about me and my history, please be sure to read my autobiography, “Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare To American Dream.” 

To learn more about Ben Lesser, ZACHOR or our youth campaign to stop intolerance please visit:

www.zachorfoundation.org

www.i-shout-out.org

 

 

 

Remembering Elie Wiesel

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On July 2, while the nation was in the midst of celebrating a long weekend and the anniversary of our independence, one of the beacons for change and tolerance quietly left this world.

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor, author of the acclaimed “Night” and Nobel Prize Winner, passed away in New York City. For me, and the world, his passing is a great loss.

To quote Yad Vashem: “His passing not only saddens and fills us with a sense of loss, it also constitutes a painful milestone in the gradual transition to an era and world lacking live, personal Shoah testimony.”

I have had the pleasure of meeting Elie numerous times, most recently at an event in Las Vegas in February. I’ve always felt a connection to him, because we have lived very parallel lives; we were both born around the same time, and were taken from Hungary to Auschwitz about the same time in 1944, too. Above all else, we are survivors. The two of us survived the hell of Auschwitz, the marches and trains leading up to it, and eventually, the liberation. And, we both made the important decision to share our stories so the world would never forget.

Elie chose to spend his years post-Liberation educating millions about the Nazi concentration camps. He warned the world the opposite of love was not, in fact, hate, but indifference. It was his work that helped show us that we cannot simply be bystanders. We must act.

I look back on Elie’s life and see one lived with such passion, such purpose. Honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie did everything in his power to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. The Survivor paved the way for others who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, so they, too, could share their own stories. Because of him, so many others experiences were told. And retold. He helped empower the other Survivors, enabling them to hold their heads high, to speak up, and bear witness. He helped keep the world from (as I like to say) acquiring amnesia.

ZACHOR, may his memory and his teachings remain alive forever.

It’s why I-SHOUT-OUT is so very important. And why we need you to help. The goal of the campaign is to bring together six million voices in honor of the six million who were silenced by hate, bigotry, ignorance, intolerance and beyond. To show others the value of not being indifferent. Please, take a moment today and visit I-SHOUT-OUT and lend your voice. To honor those who were killed during the Holocaust. To honor Elie and his life’s work. To honor those who continue to tell their story. And, to show the world intolerance is not acceptable.

The Nazi War Crime Trial, Part 3 – The Verdict

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As most of you know, earlier this year I traveled to Germany to testify against former Nazi guard Reinhold Hanning. I was able to speak out and voice my thoughts on his guilt, despite the decades which had separated him from these heinous acts.

A couple of months later, my heart wept when another survivor, Joshua Kaufman, traveled from Los Angeles to Germany to testify about his time at Auschwitz removing corpses from gas chambers. As one of the only remaining eyewitnesses alive to tell the story and lead to a conviction, ultimately, he was denied sharing his story with the court. According to an NBC News Report, German law prohibited him from testifying because the court had “already heard evidence on how the victims” died and no additional evidence was needed.

The injustice of it all shook me.

However, this month, justice was finally served.

Hanning was found guilty on 170,000 counts of being an accessory to murder and helping kill more than 1.1 million Jews and others. Albeit a small sentence for the crimes, the former guard was sentenced to five years in jail. But, at 94, I am certain his remaining years will be void of life’s pleasuresScreen Shot 2016-06-29 at 6.43.01 PM

Fellow survivor Kaufman has a poignant response to the sentencing I feel everyone should take a moment and listen to.

As for me, no amount of years behind bars will ever take away the suffering and loss of six million people, nor will it make their absence less palpable to their families.

But, it is important in showing the world that hatred has no place in our story or history.