Gratitude.

Gratitude – the opposite of taking things for granted. 

Be grateful for you family, 

loved ones 

and all things you do have

rather than feeling sad for the things you don’t. 

Being grateful will solidify your craving for happiness. 

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Some call it luck. Some call them miracles. Whatever it may be, I am grateful to have survived and lived through the good and the bad as it made me cherish, value and appreciate all that I have. I am grateful. Here are 23 things that I am grateful for:

  1. I am grateful and thankful for my parents for keeping our family of 7 together and alive for as long as they could. 
  2. Hiding in between 2 buildings in a Bochnia Ghetto during a Nazi raid at age 13 with the sounds of machine guns shooting, screams of horror and dogs ripping families apart. I survived. I am grateful. 
  3. Arranged by my parents who did not survive the mission, I am grateful to have survived the escaping from Bochnia Ghetto to our final destination of Budapest where we hid under the chassis of a double decker coal truck with my little brother Tuli and 8 others packed like sardines. All while Nazi’s soldiers hitchhiked sitting on top of us not knowing we were there. I am grateful.
  4. Crossing several boarders to the next without being caught. I am grateful.
  5. Outsmarted Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death at age 15. I survived Auschwitz. I am grateful.
  6. Dornhau, Gross-Rosen labor camp beating with 25 brutal lashes. I survived. I am grateful.
  7. I survived the Death march. I am grateful.
  8. I survived Buchenwald Concentration Camp. I am grateful.
  9. I survived the notorious 3-week death train from Buchenwald to Dachau without food or water. Of the 3,000 inmates that walked onto that train, only 18 walked off. Today, I am the only survivor. I am grateful. 
  10. I survived the death that surrounded me. I am grateful.
  11. I survived Dachau Liberation to only pass-out in a priests’ arms falling into a 2-month coma. I was then transferred to St. Ottilien Monastery in Bavaria where they nursed be back to health. I am grateful. 
  12. Reunited with my sister Lola. She and I were the only survivors from a family of 7. I am grateful.
  13. Traveled to America to start a new chapter of my life. I am grateful. 
  14. 70 years ago, I married the love of my life, Jean. I am grateful.
  15. For the strength and dedication to do my best and be the best at all that I have done in my career. I am grateful. 
  16. My two daughters who gave me 4 beautiful grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. I am grateful. 
  17. For the historians and educators who work tirelessly to teach our children the lessons we learned from the past in order to never repeat. I am grateful. 
  18. For the scientists, doctors and first responders who dedicated their lives to keep us healthy. I am grateful.

And let’s not forget to mention that I am grateful to G-d for:

  1. My awakening and courage in 1995 to speak up about the Holocaust. 
  2. Guidance in making the ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundations mission known around the word. ZACHOR – Remember
  3. And for the past 30 years giving me the strength to tell my story and leave a lasting footprint in history through my words, books, video’s, music, educational websites and through my children so the world would not acquire amnesia.
  4. I am grateful to have lived a life that matters. 
  5. I am grateful to be an American. 

For more information about me, please visit: zachorfoundation.org


Did you know …

that I recently launched the first-ever Holocaust curriculum website taught by a Survivor – me? ZACHOR Holocaust Curriculum (ZHC) is an interactive teaching tool with turn-key lesson plans along with videos, photographs, personal anecdotes, an interactive timeline, student activities and dialogue prompts. The curriculum is designed to be easy to use for teachers and provide lasting impact on participants.

Join this FREE online resource today.

Ben’s Ten Commandments

Most will agree that my childhood was deprived. I have seen and experienced the unimaginable and came to America with nothing. No skills, no education, no money and I did not speak the language. 

Life is about choices. I did not use my past experience as an excuse but as strength to be the best at what I can be. I rose above the negative and created a something positive. 

These are, I feel, the most important commandments that helped guide me and live a life that matters. I hope you find them helpful to share and guide you on a path to a successful future.  

1. “ZACHOR” – ZACHOR means Remember.  We must remember the souls of our dear departed ones, all six million of them who cry out to the world with this single word. To me, ZACHOR is a commandment. It is my obligation. I survived so we could keep the world from acquiring amnesia.

As we remember we must educate others so that the lessons of the Holocaust will not be forgotten. We must teach future generations to recognize and extinguish the hatred that breeds genocide.  

2. Choices – It is essential to understand the consequences of personal choices. While you can’t always choose what happens to us in a crisis or calamity, you can choose to learn from it. 

It is possible to let tragedy or trauma become a reason to stop living. It is also possible to live through extreme circumstances and commit to a life that has meaning and a life that matters.

3. Love Overpowers Hate – They are both contagious so choose love.

4. Be Tolerant – Whether it’s the Nazi Holocaust in the 30’s and 40’s or any other Holocaust in the world we live in today, it all goes back to hatred. We must each choose to take responsibility to actively work against hatred.

Hateful words, schoolyard bullying, hostile political campaigns, even reckless driving, all these things contribute to an environment of hatred. Education is the pathway to living a tolerant peaceful world.  Remember, hate is toxic and will ultimately consume the hater. 

5.  Taking Responsibility – Take responsibility for your actions. Excuses will only set you back.  You and only you are accountable for your behavior. You have the power to shape your future and influence others by modeling responsibility. 

6. Be The Best Version Of You – In order to be successful strive to be best at all you do  as a worker, spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend, or citizen.  Your actions will not be unnoticed. Everyone is watching and if you set your mind to do the best – you will be the best. 

7. Famous Golden Rule – Treat others the way you want to be treated. Showing respect and kindness defines your interaction within relationships or workplace. We must be able to treat others with respect. Conduct our lives with a smile across our face. When you do so, surprisingly, smiles will be returned. 

8. Gratitude – Gratitude is the opposite of taking things for granted. Be grateful for your family, loved ones, and all things you do have rather than feeling sad for the things you don’t. Being grateful will solidify your craving for happiness. 

9. Honor Our Shared Humanity – Do not despise our differences.

10. Do Not Be A Bystander – During World War II, there were three kinds of people; perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. Do not be a bystander. When you see injustice, let your voice be heard. 

That is why we created i-shout-out.org, a place where you can take a stand online against bigotry, injustice, bullying, or any type of hatred. This record of shout-outs will live online forever so future generations could know that you were not a bystander when you saw injustice in your world.

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

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

www.zachorfoundation.org

www.i-shout-out.org

Perspective: What It Means To Be A Survivor’s Daughter

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*Personally written by Ben’s Daughter: Gail Lesser-Gerber.

I recently returned from a 12 day visit to Auschwitz, Poland with my dad, Ben Lesser. We made the trip to attend the 75thanniversary of the of the liberation of the concentration and death camp. The fact that this would likely be the last Holocaust anniversary event – given that my father and the other survivors are now in their 90’s – made the experience even more poignant, and brought us even closer together. I knew as soon as we returned home, I had to share a few thoughts with you – our friends, family and supporters.

Many of my friends would never have taken their 91-year old father on such a long and strenuous journey. In fact, many survivors did not make the trip for just that reason. On the airplane over, my dad even joked with me and said, “Gail, God forbid anything happens to me on this trip, don’t let me die in Auschwitz.” But, there was no way I was going to keep my dad from going to Poland for this important milestone. He wanted to visit the place where he was born and where his family is buried – one last time. His drive and passion to bond with other Survivors, and to share his experience – outweighed any concerns we had about his health.

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Family mass burial site in Bochnia

We last visited Poland twelve years ago. We visited the house where my dad grew up in Krakow. We were so happy to find Jewish life thriving in this beautiful city. There’s now even a Jewish Community Center. My father spent time at his family’s gravesite – where he spoke to his parents. I overheard him telling them how proud they would be of his family.

Even though I’ve traveled with my dad to his homeland before, it’s always hard to see someone you love relive such horrific memories. He still has nightmares almost every night. He still has scars on his back from the beatings – the ones I remember first seeing as a young child. But I knew we made the right decision to come on the very first day we arrived. Because every new person he met, every event he attended, every time he told his story – it filled him with excitement and joy – and gave him renewed energy. Being here, and speaking his truth, was the force that drove my dad to continue. At the end of each day, his passion for his purpose was reignited.

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Ben keeping warm wearing Eva Mozes Kor’s scarf. Given by friend Beth.

But it wasn’t just about watching my dad reunite with his people. He received love from more than just the Survivors and their families. Visitors to the community reached to out to us with love as well. For example, one morning we were outside walking to an event. The weather had turned very cold and windy. A woman in her 50’s came up to us and said, “My name is Beth, let me give this to you.” She took a fur scarf from her head and put it on my father – who wasn’t wearing a hat. She said, “I want you to wear this to keep you warm. The last person to wear this was my best friend Eva Kor. Now I want you to have it.” Eva Kor was a well-known Romanian born Holocaust survivor who passed away last July. She and her twin sister Miriam were subjected to human experimentation under the direction of SS Doctor Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. This was such an emotional moment for all of us. Not only did this stranger show such kindness and love – but she was able to connect us with another survivor.

This trip didn’t just embolden my dad’s mission and legacy to proliferate Holocaust education.

It also clarified my own objectives. As a Survivor’s daughter I have the responsibility to keep my father’s story alive. I want to encourage the other children of Holocaust survivors to do the same. Our parents survived for a reason- so they could bear witness to a history that cannot repeat itself. The only way that will happen is to continue documenting and sharing their stories, even after they are no longer here to tell them. By doing that we can carry on their legacy and make certain the dying words of 6 million Jews – “ZACHOR” – matters.

 

A special dedication to the following who made our trip memorable:

  • Thank you J Roots for making our trip so much more spiritual, reflective and heartwarming. www.jroots.org 
  • The dedicated and generous staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum along with the heartwarming support of Mr. Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and for making this trip possible. http://auschwitz.org/en 
  • Thank you JCC Krakow for the survivors welcome event for the creating the rebirth of Jewish life in the beautiful city of Krakow. http://www.jcckrakow.org 

Auschwitz-Birkenau Liberation – 75 Years Later.

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Dear Friends,

IMG_16301Last week, my daughter Gail and I traveled to Auschwitz, Poland to attend the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration and death camp. It was an incredibly moving and inspirational experience. Gail and I have made many new friends, for which we are very grateful. I took notes during our visit – so that I could share my impressions and insights from our journey with you all.

On Monday, January 27, 2020, it was a blustery cold day, when Gail and I joined the other Holocaust survivors and their families at the Auschwitz anniversary event. 15 years ago, 1500 survivors attended. This year, only about 200 survivors made the trip. With the majority of us all in our 90’s, this was likely our last gathering. Knowing this fact, made the event even more remarkable.

On this day back in 1945, we were all so young- just kids. But the memories we share, standing together today, side by side, in this place where it all happened, doesn’t really feel all that long ago. It was so special being able to bond and express our love and admiration for one another. We also shared a profound feeling of satisfaction and victory. Because Hitler did not win. He could not eliminate us. We are still here – and will always be here. Our strength and perseverance resulted in several generations of Jews, who will forever hold our legacy in their hearts.

Being at Auschwitz, naturally brought back all of the feelings, and horrific images of the many atrocities I witnessed. My heart was heavy with thoughts of my parents, siblings and other family members who perished here. But my sadness was soon replaced with feelings of joy. Because I know, if they could see me and my daughter here today, they would be incredibly proud. I don’t know why I was chosen to be one of the survivors, but I do know that I always saw my life as a precious gift. I have been using every waking moment to try and make a difference, to give back to my people, and to give a voice to the 6 million Jews who can no longer speak.

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Set to launch Spring 2020. 

Our heritage, our history, and the lessons of the Holocaust live on through our people – and through the lessons we teach ALL of our children. That is why this Spring, I am launching the ZACHOR Holocaust Curriculum (ZHC). ZHC will be an interactive online program to support educators as they teach their students about the Holocaust. It will be an extension of the work we have been doing at the ZACHOR Remembrance Foundation, which I started back in 2009.

 

Making Holocaust education easier to navigate and implement into curriculum has never been more essential. Research shows that it’s a challenge getting young people to relate to the Holocaust experience. There’s also a growing number of young people who don’t even know about the Holocaust – partly due to the widespread propaganda from deniers, as well as the fact that teaching about the Holocaust isn’t mandatory in some school districts. With fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors left to personally speak about their experiences, I want to be sure there is an everlasting resource for future generations to learn about this important part of our history.

Screen Shot 2020-01-31 at 11.34.56 AMWorld Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder delivers keynote at the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Many dignitaries attended the anniversary event, representing almost every country across the globe. There were powerful speakers, whose words resonated with me deeply. World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder’s speech was spot on – and ended with a well-deserved standing ovation. His speech is worth hearing and sharing – you can watch his full speech here.

 

“The attacks on Jews, the killings, the vicious slanders have only grown worse… words are not enough. Political speeches are not enough. Laws must be passed. Severe, tough, real laws, that will put these hatemongers away in prison for a long, long time. Children must be educated to know where the hatred of Jews leads.” – Ronald S. Lauder, World Jewish Congress President

I want to talk a bit about Poland – as there are conflicting views about the role of the people and the government during the War. Many people are quick to condemn the Polish population for aiding, abetting, and siding with the Nazis. I will agree that in some individual cases that may be true. But I certainly would not condemn an entire nation. We don’t know how other nations would have reacted if the Death Camps were all stationed among their countries, the way they were in Poland. Poland was the only WWII country, in which helping Jews was punished by the death penalty. Despite that fact, Polish citizens constitute the world’s largest group of individuals who have been honored by Yad Vashem of Jerusalem with the Righteous Among the Nations medal – for saving Jews from extermination by the Nazis for selfless reasons. Many Jews took refuge in Polish houses, thereby endangering the lives of their Polish friends and neighbors. Conversely, there were other Poles who would turn their neighbors in. We must remember – there is good and bad in all of us.

My hope is that we have learned a vital lesson from the past- that we can and must stop the hatred. It all starts with education – and we must work together so that no one – not our political representatives, our educators, or our neighbors – will ever forget the lessons we learned 75 years ago. We are all God’s creation, so why can’t we live side by side, and appreciate our differences, rather than hate them. Remember that “love and hate are both contagious, so choose love.”

~Ben

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What does America and France have in common?

Answer. Me and my book. 

In June 2019, my daughter, Gail, and I journeyed to Paris for something very special and important to me — the launch of the French edition of my book: Le Sens d’une vie. Screen Shot 2019-06-17 at 10.01.06 AM

I didn’t expect to be in Paris. The publishing company, Notes de Nuit editions approached me regarding the French edition of the book and there was no way I could have declined. The launch of the French edition of my story serves to educate and inspire for generations to come, especially to educate people in other parts of the world who may never have the chance to meet a survivor and hear a first-hand account of the atrocities and hatred that were endured at the hands of Nazis. I hope the people who read my book will feel different about how they treat others and work towards peace.

IMG_1555During our trip, we traveled around the city speaking to audiences with Rainer Höß
(author of L’Heritage du commandant, published at the same time), about our opposite pasts and joined present. We had large crowds where we spoke, including at the Museum of the Shoah. The best part was that attendees weren’t all Jewish; they were people with different religions and backgrounds, to learn about our stories, ask questions, and take away a message of tolerance.

Today’s political climate can feel divisive, but we must remember to accept others, to be kind, and to exercise tolerance. I think it is incredibly important to keep the world from acquiring amnesia about atrocities like the Holocaust. I hope to make this a better world by teaching these lessons and spreading the word of hope and peace in my books.We can all inspire each other … it’s just a matter of changing our attitudes, and I hope my book does that.

To get your copy of my book in French, Please click here.

To get your copy in English, Please click here.

Book & DVD

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

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Available in paperback.

My experience with PBS’-We’ll Meet Again.

screen shot 2019-01-11 at 2.50.25 pmFilm is more powerful than just words and photos. It is hard to reflect further on my thoughts when I felt the one-hour special with Ann Curry was so powerful. It is an inclusive experience that plays on all our senses. We can imagine ourselves immersed in what we are seeing. For our episode of We’ll Meet Again we traveled the globe to Germany, Los Angeles, Israel, and back to my home of Las Vegas. Hours of footage were condensed into 30 minutes that were so impactful for our viewers.

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Ann Curry and crew.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to share my story in this way. I am thankful for the professionalism of the crew. They were so great to travel with. At first I thought they were just chronicling my life. I had no idea when we began that I would have the chance to meet the family of someone I had loved so much. I am thankful to be interviewed by Ann Curry. She is a kind, intelligent, fascinating woman. It was a true honor to meet her and share my story.

img_1531As I discussed with Ann Curry my first taste of Nazi barbarism was the Nazi soldier killing the baby with a smirk on his face. This was the first taste of the horrors to come. It was inconceivable to imagine these things were possible. It was the 20th century.

All I knew during my time in the holocaust was that, until the end, my cousin Isaac was with me. Being his strength gave me the will to survive. I knew I couldn’t leave him. We survived the camps. We survived the 250-mile death march in the snow. We survived the trains by rationing out a single loaf of bread. By the time the train arrived at Dachau I weighed 65 lbs. I was 16 years old. Most others had died. When we heard cries of liberation, my cousin Isaac died in my arms. I was free, but I was alone.

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Ben & Moshe, shortly after liberation.

At St. Ottilien Archabbey in Germany I was reborn. It was there I met my brother, Moshe Opatowski, who I shared a hospital bed with. As you saw in the film, we found the exact bed Moshe and I shared. Even more amazing, the crew was able to find a photo of Moshe and I in that very bed. What a rare gift. He was a Polish Jew, a Holocaust survivor, who I felt was the only person in the world who had shared my experiences with me. He also shared my passion of wanting to establish our own country, a Jewish nation where we would be strong and we would be safe. Moshe and I were selected to travel to Palestine for that purpose. The night before we were to leave I found out my beautiful sister, Lola, was alive, but that she was dying. I had to make the impossible choice between my brother and my sister. I chose my sister who I believed to be dying. I never heard from Moshe again.

I ran to my sister Lola. She was pregnant! She had tricked me so that there was no chance I would not come. With her, her husband, and her new baby we moved to the United States. I began a life there. I married Jean. I had two daughters. I had grandchildren and great grandchildren. I still thought often of Moshe.

To share my experiences, and to prevent these atrocities from ever occurring again, I started ZACHOR, a Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. I spoke at schools. I encouraged people to SHOUT-OUT. I give testimony to my experience in hopes that we will never repeat this part of history.

When Ann Curry told me we may be able to find Moshe, I was elated. A chance to see my brother again? I would be so happy. Jordanna Gessler, the Director of Education at The Los Angeles Museum of The Holocaust, helped me to locate my brother and a video of his testimony, which was stored at University of Southern California Shoah Foundation. Dr. Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation, was able to locate Moshe’s testimony. I was able to watch his film and hear him say my name.

He called me his brother. He said he missed me. He said he hoped one day I would watch his video.

I was touched. At the time I watched his testimony I did not know whether Moshe was still alive. I was informed after that Moshe passed away in 2012.

I never had a chance to put my arms around him and tell him how I felt.

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Ben meeting Moshe’s children.

I did, however, have a chance to meet his children. We met high up on the hill of the ruins of the Fortress and walked in the area that Moshe slept every night after the hard but rewarding labor of building the Kibbutz with his bare hands. They were always shot upon by the Palestinians, the ruins of the fortress protected what they called home. My brother had fulfilled his dream of starting a life in Israel. Moshe was one of the original founders of the Kibbutz at Yehi’Am Fortress, located the Western Upper Galilee, 14 miles south-east of the border with Lebanon. His children, Osnet and Zohar, grew up there. The fortress was their playground when they were children. Being able to meet them, in the country Moshe was so proud of, and tell them how much I loved their father, was a moment I will never forget. I felt Moshe was there with us, watching us. I felt he was just as happy as I was to create this memory. Meeting his children gave me peace. It was a miracle that made me feel young again. It was closure, but it was also a new beginning to be able to know them and keep in touch with them.

As Ann Curry said,

“the overcoming the horrors of the past give us the strength to build a better future. Love always triumphs hate.”

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Osnet, Ben & Zohar, June 2019



For behind the scenes footage, please click here

 

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Book & DVD

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

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

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

www.zachorfoundation.org

www.i-shout-out.org

My heart and my soul hurt for Pittsburgh.

As a Holocaust Survivor, my heart and my soul hurt when I learned about the shooting in Pittsburgh.

I just returned from a community wide vigil at Temple Beth Shalom in Las Vegas Nevada; I believe they had the largest attendance that the temple has ever seen. There was an outpouring of love expressed by both political leaders in our community as well as from many clergy from different faiths.

I heard beautiful speeches; many of us held hands while we sang inspirational songs together. It was a wonderful, heartwarming show of solidarity; together we all mourned the loss of those innocent lives.

For those few hours I believe we were all one faith with one common goal. Everyone wanted to find some healing and hope and all in attendance wanted to mourn the lost lives. Death doesn’t have a religion.

Whether the innocent congregants were worshipping at the Tree of Life Synagogue or they were praying at Emanuel AME in South Carolina where nine innocent people were killed, death is still death. Unnecessary deaths that were provoked by hatred.

On my way home from this beautiful service of solidarity, I was overcome with anger. What happens next? What happens the day after the vigil or the weeks following? Do we go back to our normal lives?

What is normal life when the very place we go to pray for peace is no longer safe? Do we just sit and wait, God forbid, for the next senseless murder of innocent? Do we anticipate the next healing vigil where people hold hands and sing together again?

We must do something now BEFORE the next time happens. It was both a problem, and a shame, that during the Holocaust 80 years ago, while the Jewish people of Europe were being slaughtered, the rest of the world was silent.

Silence is consent. We, the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, have provided people a place where they can do something. We are providing a place where you can have a voice and share it with the world.

You will be heard. You can speak UP and you can speak OUT about what you believe and how you feel. I feel, and I hear, the outcry from the souls of our departed ones, all six million of them crying out to the world a single word, “Zachor.”

“Zachor” means remember. But simply remembering is not enough. We must also educate others so that the lessons of the Holocaust will never be forgotten; so that the lessons from the Holocaust teach and inspire future generations so that they can help extinguish the hatred that breeds genocide.

Please join us and take a stand today. Add your name and SHOUT-OUT against INTOLERANCE ; hold up your hand and help us put a stop to HATRED, a stop to ANTI-SEMITISM. Help us take a stand against RACISM, against DISCRIMINATION , against BULLYING. Help us never forget that we must continue working for FREEDOM and EQUALITY; we must try to stop the prejudice that continues to harm so many people.

“ I -SHOUT -OUT” is an interactive anti-hate campaign that will remain on our website for generations to come. If you wish, feel free to send a photograph; so many pictures and memories were lost during the Holocaust.

Imagine what it would be like for your future great grandchildren to be able to enter your name and find your photo and see what you shouted out about. Let the future generations see what you stood for; let them know what you stand for and why you took that stand. Maybe you feel strongly about both Anti-Semitism and bullying.

You can take a stand for more than one of the issues currently plaguing our country. Use your voice and share your position by shouting out so everyone knows how you feel and how you wish the world could improve and heal itself.

One voice CAN be heard but many voices together cannot be ignored; many voices will echo beyond borders and into the corners of the world.

My hope is that when we have a symphony of SHOUT-OUTS, when a million voices hear us we become a voice for the victims who can no longer speak for themselves.

This, my friends and fellow mourners, is the very least we can do to memorialize all the victims in Pittsburgh and South Carolina and all of the other places where hate took so many.


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

www.zachorfoundation.org

www.i-shout-out.org

 

“M’shana Mokaum, M’shana Mazel” –Part 3

Shul

“M’shana Mokaum, M’shana Mazel

“Change your place, you change your luck”

 

As quick review from Part 2 –

Ben and Jack found the temple in Boyle Heights: Congregation Talmud Torah of Los Angeles. Jack was so exhilarated to find himself in a Jewish Temple in the middle of an American Jewish Community that he dared to ask he Rabbi if he could lead the Congregation in the holy prayer and songs.

(Continuation from Part 2)

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the beauty and power of Jack’s singing induced the essence of KAVANAH.

When he’d sung his last note, the sanctuary was filled with a totally stunned silence. Then as if on cue, the crown suddenly reached to hug him and lifted him up from the podium. They just couldn’t believe that such power and beauty had come from this 20 year old refugee. They knew they might never again have such an experience. The overjoyed Rabbi asked us to stay for the ONEG SHABBAT the special after services celebration meal. Needless to say, we took grateful advantage of the delicious and plentiful food and then we both sang many joyous songs welcoming the Sabbath.

Later the Temple board members congratulated him again and asked if it would be possible for us to come back in the morning to lead them in the Saturday Services. When they heard about our miserable living arrangements, they were appalled. They immediately went over to a Mrs. Greenberg, who just happened to have a spare room with to two beds and close access to a real bathroom! Then and there arrangements were made for us to stay overnight at the house she shared with her husband. We were delighted to accept this offer. Later that night before we could go to sleep, Jack and I went over some prayers and hymns together for the morning’s service since I would also be participating. Then on very full stomachs in comfortable clean beds and in a warm safe home we had our first good night’s sleep in a very long time.

Maybe our luck was changing after all.

The next morning Mrs. Greenberg served a wonderful breakfast and once again, we ate as if we were bottomless pits!

The lively mealtime conversation included Yiddish, English and smatterings of Polish, Hungarian and German with many sentences containing more than one language! After this body and soul nourishing meal we walked to the temple for services, anticipating another joyous event. As we rounded the corner however we almost choked when we saw a crowd of waving people rushing in our direction. Unlike our recent experiences in Europe where a crowd rushing toward us usually meant we were about to be beaten or worse – this time it was a smiling crowd coming to wrap us in warm hugs. Apparently word had spread throughout the Jewish community that an extraordinary young man would be conducting Saturday Services, so the synagogue was packed. They would not be disappointed once again when Jack began to pray and sing the congregants were mesmerized by his extraordinary talent and charisma again it was indeed KAVANAH.

Later that night after Havdala, the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat is when an unbelievable “miracle” happened, which turned both of us into believers again.

Sorry readers if you wish to know the rest of our story, please order our book.  You will be glad you did.

–Ben


 

Book & DVD

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

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 ZACHOR or our youth campaign to stop intolerance please visit:

www.zachorfoundation.org

www.i-shout-out.org

 

“M’shana Mokaum, M’shana Mazel” –Part 2

images-3.jpeg“M’shana Mokaum, M’shana Mazel

“Change your place, you change your luck”

(Continuation from Part 1)

On Friday afternoon when I was feeling particularly melancholy I turned to Jack and said that it would soon be Shabbat, and there we were completely detached from Jewish life. Despite my family’s assurances I had a hard time believing, that there were no Jewish people living in the City and that there were no Synagogues. We were in this desperate financial predicament, Jack felt the same way.

So we both started to inquire about the whereabouts of a Jewish community and that is when we found out the Jewish Community on the East side of Los Angeles known as Boyle Heights, this neighborhood was densely populate with Jews from Eastern Europe. In fact, by 1930’s there were almost 70,000 living there, making it the largest Jewish community in the Western Part of the United States. This is just what we were looking for! So we hopped on a street car that we hoped was going in the right direction. The fare was 20 cents each and we only had .30 cents between us. The kind streetcar conductor allowed us to continue, he only took .20 cents from us realizing our predicament.

We watched all the amazing sights of Los Angeles from our window but felt our optimism fade when we did not see what we were looking for, Some evidence of a Jewish Community.

Just when were about to lose all hope, we saw a bearded man and two small boys walking up the street. He was wearing the traditional black coat and hats of Orthodox Jews. The man even carried a familiar looking velvet pouch that we knew would contain a Tallith “a prayer shawl”.

We rushed to the conductor and demanded in our broken English and vigorous had gestures that he let us out immediately. Fortunately, he somehow understood us and he stopped the streetcar, letting us out on Webash Avenue. We scrambled down the steps excitedly dashed up to the very surprised man on the sidewalk and asked him in Yiddish if he was going to the synagogue, then in our beloved Yiddish, he told us that he was going to Rabbi Tarshes Temple (Congregation Talmud Torah of Los Angeles) down the street. In spite of our ragged appearance he kindly invited us to accompany him. When we saw the Temple, we breathed a sigh of relief.

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How indescribably comforting it was to find ourselves in a familiar environment, as we tried to straighten our hair and clothes so we’ look more presentable before solemnly entering the temple. To our great relief, the rabbi greeted us warmly as if we two shabby strangers were just what the congregation needed! As it turned out that we were. With so many young people leaving the community for more affluent neighborhoods, most of the remaining parishioners were senior citizens, so young and eager faces were rare and very welcome.

Jack was so exhilarated to find himself in a Jewish Temple in the middle of an American Jewish Community that he dared to ask he Rabbi if he could lead the Congregation in the holy prayer and songs. For some reason the Rabbi had been instantly impressed by Jack and without knowing whether he had any talent at all, motioned him enthusiastically to the podium. Then right before our eyes, as he walked to the podium it seemed as if Jack was entering another spiritual dimension. He seemed to change physically, gaining more assurance in his posture. Holding his head higher, looking older and dignified, this was something I had never seen, so I was transfixed as everyone else.

When he reached the podium he paused, breathed deeply and then slowly and deliberately looked around the Sanctuary, seeming to gaze into each pair of expectant eyes, making a personal connection with each of us. It was as if instead of Jack being a newcomer, a greenhorn, he really belonged right there at the podium as if the congregants were all his guests. Then he began to pray and sing.

It was as though the words and music were coming through him from some otherworldly source and the mesmerized congregation went right along with him. In Hebrew the word KAVANAH means that it is not enough to merely read, listen or repeat the sacred prayers and songs by Rote. We must be totally absorbed, by the meaning of the sacred words because they are meant to convey our hearts, souls and spirits into the presence of God.

We try to make ourselves worthy of this honor by entering a state of such profound concentration that all other thoughts are blocked out.

Some people find it helpful to rock back and forth while praying in order to focus more fully. The more effective the cantor is in establishing this mood the more powerfully the congregation is filled with KAVANAH.

Stay tune for the rest of the story in our next column.

 


Book & DVD

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

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

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

www.zachorfoundation.org

www.i-shout-out.org

“M’shana Mokaum, M’shana Mazel”–Part 1

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“M’shana Mokaum, M’shana Mazel”

“Change your place, you change your luck”

I will share with you an episode of a time in my life when my good friend Jack and I both shared an apartment in Brooklyn Williamsburg even though both of our backgrounds were Chassidic ultra-orthodox religions. After living through the Holocaust we both felt that this kind of lifestyle was too restrictive for us. My friend Jacks background was even more orthodox than mine. Since he lived in Hungary his Holocaust began in March of 1944. I on the other hand lived in Krakow Poland where our Holocaust began in September of 1939. That is when my education stopped at the age of 10 and a half which means that even though we were about the same ages he had 4 ½ years more of education and at the age of 15 ½ Jack was given “SMICHUT” which means that he was ordained as a Rabbi.

Jacks profession was an upholsterer. I on the other hand had no profession. It was the summer of 1949 when young free and eager for adventure we decided to use our little bit of money and I emphasize “little” we decided to go west to Golden California and start a new chapter in our lives. Even though we didn’t know anyone in – or anything about California we were convinced that moving there would change our luck.

Our friends and family however, had all tried to dissuade us from going to Los Angeles. They told us that there were no Jewish people there and that we would be completely isolated and removed from “Jewish Life”. At that time, although neither one of us wanted to abandon our Jewish Life, we strongly felt that we could no longer stay under the strict yoke of Orthodoxy. The constraints it imposed seemed to have a strangle hold on our lives and spirits. We didn’t want to leave our families but we had to leave their restrictive life style. So we packed our still meager belongings, said tearful goodbyes to our friends and family, purchased our greyhound bus tickets and we were off!

During our four-day trip across the country, we tried to absorb as much as we could of the amazing landscape and practice our primitive English. We were filled with gratitude to be able to live in this beautiful country AMERICA.

Speaking of places where we lived any illusions we might have had about comfortable accommodations in LA quickly evaporated when we arrived at the bus station in Los Angeles.

We got off the bus and walked around the corner to Main Street and sadly realized that we were actually on Skid Row, a very squalid, dangerous section of town inhabited by drunks and derelicts, however it did have a shabby hotel and since we had little money, the one dollar cost per night for a room was the right price, and as bad as it was I’d survived in far worse conditions so I wasn’t worried. We decided to stay there for just a few days until we found employment. To the degree that we could understand the English language, Jack and I immediately started checking out the help-wanted ads in Newspapers. We were willing to take anything that came our way, but even though we changed our locations from East to the West coast, our luck didn’t seem to be changing. We ended up staying I that dingy hotel for a month, each day more hungry and less hopeful than the day before.

Despite all our efforts, neither one of us could find any work, as we ran out of money and we had no choice but to start hocking (trading possessions for money at the pawn shop) our few personal belongings.

We were not surprised to find that pawn shops were the most successful businesses on Main Street. All too soon we had pawned all of our personal possessions including wristwatches and coats. We ran out of money to even pay the one dollar a night for the hotel room however the manager was nice enough to extend us credit, telling us that he had faith that we would eventually repay him.

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We were most appreciative of his kindness especially since by this time we had also run out of money. So Jack and I rotated scavenging for food. One day, he would get to Cliftons, which was a cafeteria and next day I would go. We would take our trays down the serving counter, make sure to fill our pockets with food for each other and then buy only a cup a coffee at the other end. Clearly we had hit rock bottom.

Stay tune for the rest of the story in our next column.