Gratitude – the opposite of taking things for granted.
Be grateful for you family,
and all things you do have
rather than feeling sad for the things you don’t.
Being grateful will solidify your craving for happiness.
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:
I am grateful and thankful for my parents for keeping our family of 7 together and alive for as long as they could.
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.
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.
Crossing several boarders to the next without being caught. I am grateful.
Outsmarted Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death at age 15. I survived Auschwitz. I am grateful.
Dornhau, Gross-Rosen labor camp beating with 25 brutal lashes. I survived. I am grateful.
I survived the Death march. I am grateful.
I survived Buchenwald Concentration Camp. I am grateful.
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.
I survived the death that surrounded me. I am grateful.
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.
Reunited with my sister Lola. She and I were the only survivors from a family of 7. I am grateful.
Traveled to America to start a new chapter of my life. I am grateful.
70 years ago, I married the love of my life, Jean. I am grateful.
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.
My two daughters who gave me 4 beautiful grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. I am grateful.
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.
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:
My awakening and courage in 1995 to speak up about the Holocaust.
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.
I am grateful to have lived a life that matters.
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.
My grandfather, the great-grandfather of my two kids, is a Holocaust Survivor. Ben Lesser has made it his life’s mission to educate people – especially our youth – about the massacre of 6 million+ Jews during World War II – so that it will never happen again. Sometimes it feels like we are making progress. For example, when my grandfather is asked to tell his story in front of thousands of people. Or when we get amazing feedback on ZHC, his virtual Holocaust education program. Then there are days I can’t help but wonder if it’s all for naught.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), antisemitic incidents – including assault, harassment and vandalism – reached an all-time high in the United States last year. It’s the highest number of reports on record since the ADL began tracking them in 1979. More than seven incidents are reported each day.
On October 8th, Ye – the rapper, record producer, and fashion designer formerly known as Kanye West – declared on Twitter that he’s going “death con 3 on Jewish people.” He also posted to his 30 million followers on Twitter, and 18.5 million followers on Instagram about age-old Jewish conspiracy theories. In response, many celebrities, including his ex-wife Kim Kardashian and her family, have spoken out in support of the Jewish community. There was a viral petition demanding that Adidas and the Gap drop Ye’s sneaker and clothing lines. Both companies stepped up to do just that. Even Peleton has now removed Ye’s music from its rotation.
But, it doesn’t end there. Ye’s antisemitic rants woke up Neo Nazi activists. Extremist groups including The Nation of Islam have defended and embraced Ye’s comments. In Los Angeles, there were banners draped across the 405 freeway overpass, supporting Ye’s statements and promoting antisemitic propaganda and websites. Then last week, in several affluent LA neighborhoods, antisemitic flyers were stuffed in plastic bags and dropped on front lawns. There were even reports of swastikas being etched into parked cars. The ADL’s Los Angeles office said that the number of hate incidents in the city is expected to exceed last year’s record high.
Who knows when or if this latest surge of hate will die down. Hate crimes against Jewish people have been happening since long before most of us were born. Perhaps out of self-preservation, many of us prefer to avoid the intense fear, anger, and stress of thinking about the vitriol that surrounds us on a daily basis. But when those cases make worldwide headlines, or when they happen in our own backyard – that’s when we have no choice but to react. Whether that’s just being more aware, talking to our friends, family, and kids, posting on social media, protesting, or joining a movement.
This time feels different. Maybe it’s because we just got out of a two-year pandemic lockdown. Maybe it’s because of the state of our conflicted nation.
Silence is complicity. But lately I find myself – Quiet. All that is happening. It’s so hard to comprehend. I am also crushed by the weight of questions like – Do we try to shield this pain from our younger kids? How do we tell them that everything is going to be OK when we don’t know that it ever will be?
Why do we need to constantly justify, teach, and reteach what happened 75 years ago? Slaughtered. My family, my flesh and blood. Other families, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, babies…murdered. All because of hate. It’s so disappointing. I was under the impression that we have evolved, not revolved. So, what do we do with all of our pent-up emotions from this latest round of antisemitism?
Problem is – this is bigger than Ye. He is just a small piece of a very large (political) problem. In these trying times, I can only lean on what I know, what my grandfather has taught me. I find comfort in his unwavering message – knowing he has been through worse – and can be a beacon to guide us all.
My 94-year-old grandfather doesn’t know who Ye is, but what Ye said is not anything that my grandfather hasn’t heard many times before. It’s vile language that has been and will continue to be levied against the Jewish people. Here’s how my grandfather puts in all in perspective:
“Because of the internet, antisemitism is growing like wild fire. We have to stop that.
You don’t teach younger generation about antisemitism they should automatically know that it’s wrong. Antisemitism is the beginning of another Holocaust, that is what it is going to lead to. The Nazi’s and Hitler did not start with killing. It all started with hate, propaganda, hateful speech – this is how it began. So, the hatred has to stop. The Germans were ordinary human beings like you and I – and look what hatred and antisemitism did to them, they became monsters.
It saddens me that many under the age of 30 today don’t even know what the Holocaust means or have no idea how many died from it. But I know that teaching the Holocaust is the best way to defeat increasing racism, discrimination and bullying. When we educate people about this subject, we in turn, promote tolerance, respect and diversity.
A person can choose to hate. A person can choose not 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.” – Ben Lesser
These are the words that get me up and keep me going. Never has there been a greater demand in our lifetime than today to listen and act on my grandfather’s words of hope, help, and healing.
I have to teach my kids to face this head on. We must not be Bystanders. We must be Upstanders. We all have to stand up, speak out, and be proud of who we are and find beauty in our differences.It’s our goal to recognize what is happening in and around us, and what we as a community can do. To start, let’s talk about it. We need to keep this conversation going, even after the media cycle moves on to the next news item.
It is important to remember, that antisemitism may start with Jews but it never ends with them. It’s even more important to teach the origins of hatred, and the differences of labeling and stereotyping to prevent the growth of the seeding hatred from within.
Words DO Matter. Actions MATTER. History is FACT. There is NO place for ANTISEMITISM.
To learn more and understand the impact of antisemitism please visit ADL, https://www.adl.org. To learn more and support our efforts to educate our youth about antisemitism and the Holocaust, please visit The ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation: www.zachorfoundation.org
Guest blog written by a good friend, Michael Botermans.
Michael Botermans is a retired educator following 27 years in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Each year for 22 years, he has gone to Kenya in East Africa to reach out and support homeless street children and poor families. Today those same children are young adults, some finishing their high school education, others seeking a better life to become self-sustaining and independent.
Michael met Ben in 2011 where he was asked to lecture at various schools in Canada’s Western Arctic. It has been an admired love affair ever since. Their friendship and mentorship have blossomed over the years with extreme admiration for each other.
Channeling Ben’s thoughts and feelings: below is a mini-write up how Michael feels about him and life today.
The Holocaust was, without a doubt, one of the worst, most hideous and repulsive genocides since the creation of human beings, an act of explicit hate in the truest sense. To have survived it, would make him or her extra-extraordinary.
During the darkest pages of human history of the twentieth century, Ben Lesser lived through what most of us have only glanced at in a war film or history book. Vivid scenes of disbelief and graphic photos in black-and-white horrify viewers, but Ben is a firsthand eyewitness—at first, a frightened and confused spectator but, soon after, a defenseless victim of Hitler’s warped Nazi ideology. Ben’s losses amounted quickly without notice. He would lose his name for a number, his youth to the viciousness of the tyrants and tormentors of his time, and practically his whole family to the Final Solution. Nevertheless, Ben Lesser would not succumb to his captors and lose the fervor to survive. He was determined to live. He chose survival over death, dignity over shame and, much later, a life that mattered over a past that tore his world apart.
Pushing 94 years old. It is no secret, especially to Ben, that his days and years are numbered. He realizes his time on this planet is limited. Time is a stark reminder that the end is faster approaching, that he must make use of his time to prepare, guide, teach, enlighten and edify future generations. The timepiece is running low. But all the while, Ben’s passion grows stronger to reach out to more people, to teach more passionately, to speak more frequently, to share his witness of the Holocaust with those who still do not know and, dare I say, still do not believe.
Seventy-seven years since Ben was liberated in Dachau concentration camp by American forces on April 29, 1945, he lived through the darkest scenes of the last century and at the forefront of Nazi brutality. At such a young age, he faced hatred at the bloodied hands of Hitler’s henchmen. He watched helplessly and endured chillingly the world as he knew it evaporate before his eyes, while his people became desensitized, paralyzed, frozen in time. Still, Ben Lesser would not give up or give in. Instead, he sought survival. Decades later, he chose to advocate for peace and tolerance and love, while educating “anyone who would listen,” as he often told me. “Everyone has a choice: to either hate one or love another.” For life is all about choices.
His love affair with life is contagious. Indeed, one who hears Ben’s message leaves with a craving hunger to strive for a better world and a parching thirst for peace that binds the world together. The one who listens attentively with an open-minded, unprejudiced heart never forgets the invaluable lessons from the Holocaust and always remembers its victims.
Nightmares are unwelcomed guests that barge unannounced at nighttime. He often questions why. “Why did I survive while untold multitudes were exterminated?” “Why me and not my family?” “What is my purpose in life having escaped death?” Ben has never stopped asking himself such questions, some of which are unresolvable. He concludes the answer lies in his survival—to have survived persecution, torture, starvation and slave labor in the concentration camps, to have survived a death march to Buchenwald and the death train to Dachau, to have survived maltreatment and torture, to have survived deportation in overcrowded cattle cars, and the ongoing trauma of having lost family and loved ones under the extreme cruelty of their Nazi persecutors—this is not the end.
Never has there been a greater demand in our lifetime than today to listen and act on his words of hope, help, and healing. Ben’s message is simply profound. As they say in England, “Spot on!” Ben relays the message we need desperately to hear:”Choose love!” and “Hatred has to stop!” and “ZACHOR—Remember!”
Yet if we’re not careful and caring people, Ben explicitly warns us that we will not only witness “other” atrocities as outsiders, bystanders and spectators, but far worse, find ourselves on the receiving end of unthinkable and incomparable consequences. The world is a ticking time bomb as long as we haven’t learned the stark lessons from past wars and massacres that attempted to annihilate ethnic, religious, national and racial groups.
Looking out from the world stage today, it’s easy to get lost in the wide array of global crises. There are many world leaders, extremists and fanatics, and armed groups seeking commanding powers through persecution, violence, segregation, racism and tyranny. The human calamity in all parts of the world is severe and insufferable on so many innocent people, like what is happening today in Ukraine, the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; Uighur Muslims in China; and other minorities in North Korea, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Egypt, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to name a few. What we see through social media and headline news, we’re not alarmed as we used to be when tragedy emerges. Perhaps we’ve become insensitive or oblivious or careless. Hearing one human calamity after another, we become numb to the disturbing events that bombard us on our screens—a shooting rampage at a school; a bomb detonated in an open market; a drive-by killing at a busy intersection; desperate migrants halted at borders or concealed in truck trailers or left at sea, where many find their demise; and other senseless assaults due to race, color, creed or difference. It’s easy to feel helpless, hopeless and, if we’re not careful, even heartless. Ben Lesser reminds us of that. His book, “Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream,”retells the revulsions of war and hate from his own practical standpoint. But today, Ben Lesser tells us straightforwardly and heartily to beware, be careful, and be kind.
God created us with the capacity, the talents, the senses and the heart not only to fight hatred, but to defeat hatred, with the most powerful weapon—love.
Ben practices what he preaches, by his unwavering message of love and efforts of remembrance. He wants the six million plus victims of the Holocaust to be remembered and honored by the way we choose to live out our lives, not just to tolerate others, but to embrace others despite their differences, to see goodness in all peoples, and to be mindful and open-minded of their uniqueness. Through his foundation, his book, his story, his dynamic curriculum through education, and his determined outlook on life, Ben Lesser promotes a life worth living, a life that matters, a life that makes a positive and powerful difference. He has sacrificed his life a second time (the first time was in the concentration camps) “to make sure that the world understands what was happening” and “to keep the world from acquiring amnesia.” He is persistent in his mission to tell and retell his story to “anyone who will listen.”
By reminding the world of what happened in the Holocaust, Ben is on a non-stop crusade to spare future generations of another holocaust, an even worse cataclysm, and the world of further upheaval, carnage and crimes. He often says that “the world needs to know about the Holocaust before it totally obliterates it from its mind and memory.” If we want to eradicate racism and hostility in our streets, workplace, schools, society, we have to live a life that matters. Or else, Nazism will return in the guise of antagonism and antipathy we see all too often today.
Though the world seems upside down, Ben’s relentless quest to bring hope, help, and healing to our broken world is, in itself, an answer to prayer. He is like one crying out in the wilderness. Even as the number of Holocaust survivors decline at an alarming rate, He remains adamant to teach the value of tolerance to today’s global audience.
ZACHOR is all about remembering. Let’s remember those who have gone before us and help build a better global community for those yet to come, by living a life that matters. Let this be a collective effort.
– Written by 3G Holocaust Survivor – Sophie Kleinhandler
“What does it mean to live a life that matters? As the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, it is something I ponder often… I started sharing my Grandfather’s story from my third-generation perspective a few years ago and have not looked back since. I am no stranger to the fact that the number of survivors is dwindling and that is why, now more than ever, we must share the stories of the Shoah. My Grandpa is a child survivor from Paris, France who was saved, along with his mother and brother, by the French Resistance. His father perished in Auschwitz, along with countless other family members. My Grandpa is the one who has shown me what it means to live a life that matters, and is my inspiration in doing so.
I am part of the last generation that will have the privilege of meeting Holocaust survivors, this is both incredible and terrifying. It’s incredible to have heard their stories of bravery and resilience, but terrifying to bear witness to the atrocities committed against them. The Holocaust is part of the Jewish peoples’ history, but it is part of my identity. The value of ZACHOR (remembrance) has been ingrained in me from a very young age. I have had the privilege of bearing witness to my Grandpa’s story, but many people are not afforded with a living legacy and constant reminder of what the Jewish people went through. I have devoted myself to educating others on not only the Holocaust, but on hatred and how it affects us all today. I recently got involved with The ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation and their mission for Holocaust education and human rights.
As soon as I heard about ZACHOR, I knew I needed to be part of their community. One of their endeavors is distributing the ZACHOR pin; founder, Ben Lesser was once gifted a gold pin with the Hebrew letters of ZACHOR. He was so touched by this gift and began wearing it to his speaking engagements and all over. Ben decided that he needed to use this pin as a way to engage people all over the world in learning about the Holocaust and hatred. Ben says: “As long as there is a need for Holocaust education, there will be a need for these ZACHOR pins and The ZACHOR Foundation.” I couldn’t agree more! The ZACHOR pin is a constant reminder of all that we have endured and all that we shall never forget. For anyone reading this, I urge you to claim your complimentary (for a limited time only) ZACHOR pin and wear it with pride! Wearing this pin allows others to seek you out and ask questions about the meaning behind it. I will wear my pin loud and proud and to anyone who asks, I will tell them that I am wearing the ZACHOR pin to give a voice to those who were silenced, to honor the strength in those who survived, and support family and friends who inherit this legacy. Why will you wear your ZACHOR pin?
Every day, I thank my lucky stars to have my grandfather in my life; I truly don’t know where I would be without him. I have never met anyone with so much love in their heart or kindness in their bones. He chooses to live each and every day as a blessing and he chooses love.”
Thank You Mr. Lesser for letting me use your blog to tell my story.
This message is for the children of survivors and their family.
This spring, Jews around the world looked forward to celebrating the 73rd anniversary of the May 14, 1948, establishment of the state of Israel, followed by the joyous festival of Shavuoton May 16-18. Instead, we find ourselves horrified by the antisemitic violence that is erupting in our Holy Land—and around the world. For Holocaust survivors, our current feelings of fear, rage, and helplessness bring up memories of another time in history when Jews were under attack.
As I watch the news in shock and disbelief, my heart breaks for all victims of mindless hatred. My heart also breaks as it becomes clear that much of the world has either forgotten, revised, or never learned, that six million Jews perished as a result of the hatred that gave rise to Hitler’s “Final Solution.” That doesn’t even include the five million others that died under his regime because they were different from him.
As we few remaining survivors reach the end of our days, we see all too clearly that our uniquely painful and heroic history (and the important lessons learned from it) is in grave danger of being extinguished. Who will tell our truth after we are gone? It is up to you, the second, third, and fourth generations, who have heard family members speak about survival. You are the last link to the greatest evil of modern history. Today, with the fires raging in Israel as a tragic reminder, our hope is that your generation will accept the loving responsibility of carrying on the legacy of our ancestors.
Children of all ages have played an important part in the creation and continuation of ZACHOR Foundation and keeping the memory and lessons learned from the Holocaust alive. In 1995, my grandson requested that I speak to his 6th grade class. It was then I broke my silence about my past. If I hadn’t made my presentation, they might never have learned the truth. Each student that day shook my hand and thanked me—and each became a new link in our history’s chain. I knew at that moment that I would continue to speak about the Holocaust whenever and wherever I was invited to do so.
And then came the pin. I was given a tiny lapel pin from a Holocaust survivor group with the Hebrew letters of the word ZACHOR…Remember. I was so touched by this memento that I wore it everywhere, sparking conversations with everyone – adults, children, and fellow survivors. Not only were they intrigued by the meaning of the pin, but they wanted one too, as a keepsake to remember. I understood it had the power to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust would continue to be learned after we survivors are gone. It was then in 2009, that the ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation was born and we now produce and distribute these pins to anyone who hears a survivor speak. This small and mighty pin symbolizes much more than just Hebrew letters. It symbolizes a responsibility. A responsibility to work against hate. A promise to our ancestors to continue telling our truth.
Now, at the age of 92, as my heart breaks for Israel and Jews all over the world who are experiencing antisemitism, I am even more convinced that the only way to counter the violence that hatred creates is to provide education. And the key to that education is learning the lessons that our history teaches. During whatever years that will be granted to me, I will continue to provide this education along with the ZACHOR pins that are tangible evidence of the six million souls of our dearly departed that still call out to us to remember, never forget. To date, we have distributed nearly one million ZACHOR pins. It is my fervent hope that while I am still alive, another five million will be worn. If this happens, I will feel that I truly have lived a life that matters.
But I need your help to carry on this legacy.
Today, I am asking you, the loving descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors, to please take on my commitment as your own. Please wear the pin to honor them, and to show the world that the Jewish people are still here. I hope you will distribute the pins as part of a Holocaust education event or program so that everyone who wears a pin will also be able to explain what ZACHOR means, and why the world, now more than ever, still needs to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. Please help me make sure that the six million who perished will be remembered by six million who will keep their memories alive.
As Purim fast approaches and I am preparing the dough to make hamantaschen’s for my five great-grandchildren, I am reminded of the time where I was residing at the St. Ottilien Monastery months after liberation where they nursed me back to health. Have I ever told that story? Let me tell you…
Excerpt from book “Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream”
Even though it was summer and months past the Purim that had taken place in February of 1945, the Rabbi who had come to help the patients felt very close to all of us and wanted to make a Purim Seuda, a Purim feast to celebrate our escape from death. He wanted to make up for all the Purims we had missed during the Holocaust and figured that since we had all just been delivered from horror and annihilation, that God would understand and approve of this Purim in July.
This was a very ambitious undertaking because there a couple hundred of us to feed. And although St. Ottilien cooks had volunteered to assist with the meal, the rabbi really needed more helpers to bake the traditional challahs and, of course, the hamantaschen. So, he asked all the young women to help, but for some reason, none of them would volunteer. Maybe they were shy or didn’t think that they had the baking skills that were needed. As I sensed his disappointment, I suddenly had my first conscious flashback of my father in Niepolomice – the loving warmth of that memory just enveloped me. I knew that baking challah for this Purim was something my father would have wanted me to do. So, despite my fear that I wouldn’t be up to the task, I volunteered.
The grateful rabbi took me into the monastery’s huge bakery which the monks had generously given up to us for the occasion. They said, “Go ahead. Here are all the ingredients – the flour, the sugar, the cocoa. Take whatever you need.” Then they showed me a room with large vats where the dough would be kneaded. When I saw all this massive equipment, I began to wonder if I should have volunteered! It had been years since I had done any baking, and it certainly hadn’t been in this kind of set-up! I was used to doing small batches at a time, using a bowl, a schissel, for mixing things together.
But at that point everyone was depending upon me, and I couldn’t let them down. I knew that if I wanted to accomplish something, I had to find out what needed to be done, and then just go ahead and do it. And now, for some reason, the girls were eager to volunteer. It turns out that despite our circumstances as Survivors, we still possessed the usual teenage interests – like flirting with the opposite sex! So, in order to properly celebrate the many miraculous escapes of the Jewish people, I decided to make one big-beautiful challah. Since we had recently heard the horrifying rumors of the Holocaust’s Jewish death toll, I decided that this would be a memorial challah. It would be six feet long in order to commemorate the six-million who had been lost.
Just as my father had taught me, except for the much larger proportions, I began by sprinkling the yeast over the warm water, and then beat in the oil, eggs and salt. I added the flour, one big bowl full at a time, heating after each addition – I began to sense when the dough had reached the right consistency. I then covered it with warm cloths and waited until it doubled in size. Next, I punched the great dough down, placed it onto the greased baking sheet, divided it and carefully rolled it into four strands for braids. And although I wasn’t sure that my father would have approved, I realized that to braid a challah this big, something very unusual would have to be done. So, I told the girls my plan – hoping that they would agree to it.
Would you believe that these previously shy, quiet girls took their shoes off and got right up on the top of table? I assigned each one her own numbers, one through four, and each was in charge of her own yeasty strand of the braid. Once they settled down, I said “#1, move over to number #3!” And then, “#4, cross over to #2” As I directed them, they carefully changed places with each other until enough of the bread had been braided for me to reach it and finish the loaf. Somehow, in the midst of much giggling and shrieks, as feet missed the table and the girls barely missed falling on the floor, the loaf had been transformed into a beautiful braid. I was like choreography! We weren’t just creating bread – we had created a dance of joy! L’Chaim! A dance to life.
Next, we let it rise again for about an hour, and finished it up by brushing the top with beaten egg yolk and sprinkling it generously with poppy seeds. Finally, all together, we carefully carried the heavy baking sheet with its precious cargo to the oven. Suddenly the giggles stopped, and we looked at each other solemnly, each thinking the same thing. Our hearts, minds and souls had suddenly been flooded with images of the other, deadly ovens.
As the bread was baked, we set ourselves up like an assembly-line to make other traditional pastries – none more meaningful than the hamantaschen! While we were occupied in the bakery, the monastery’s chefs were busy in the kitchen, cooking the food for the banquet. And they even made sure it was all Kosher. When everything was ready, the tables beautifully decorated, and several hundred residents and staff-members were all seated, the girls and I carefully carried the challah into the dining room. With me at the front and two girls on each side, we looked and felt like pallbearers. We also knew, however, that this procession carrying the challah represented life – we were alive!
Upon uncovering the challah, I explained to the rabbi the significance of the challah’s length of six-feet. The room was silent as was the rabbi and all started to cry with emotion. And then, we celebrated the ancient holiday of freedom from oppression – something none of us thought we’d ever do again. As you can imagine, our 1945 Purim in July, at the Benedictine St. Ottilien Monastery in Germany, was the most unforgettable Purim celebration of our lives. From beginning to end, it was full of miracles.
And today, at 92 years old, 76 years after liberation, I think about my children, my children’s-children and the miracles of my five beautiful great-grandchildren and smile.
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.
*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.
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.
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
Last 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.
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.
World 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.”
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.
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.
During 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.