It was long – that death train from Buchenwald to Dachau. A journey from hell. But, then again, I spent five years in hell on earth. From ghetto to work camps to death camps, one-third of my early life was spent with one mission in mind: survival.
So, when that train came to a halt on April 26, 70 years ago, I had no idea what was in store. Weak, dying, I exited that train, helping my cousin off (we had one piece of bread to share the entire duration of the journey and were walking skeletons as we emerged from the train) and headed into the next chapter of hell.
Only, this one lasted for three days and then Dachau was liberated.
That was 70 years ago.
In fact, this April 29 marks the 70-year anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
Liberation. The anniversary of the liberation.
To be honest, the liberation itself isn’t something I think about. I don’t wake up in the morning, counting the days until the milestone hits.
What I do think about is the fact that I made it through five years in hell. That I was one of the immensely lucky ones. I lived.
I was recently asked to narrate a film, “Night Will Fall,” a documentary released by the British government that actually has a film crew capturing the moments Dachau was liberated.
Before I could narrate it, of course I had to preview it. I watch as the Americans liberate the camp where I was. I see the train, which brought me to Dachau. It is seeing that train … that unexpected image … and in that moment, it felt like lightening hit me. This train that I walked out from … the Americans found. It turns out the train had 3,000 emaciated dead bodies inside.
My cousin and I were two of the lucky ones – although he died in my arms the night after we were liberated.
It made me wonder, though. How many others survived this death train? I was 16 at the time; most of the others packed into the train were older. They must have been in their mid 20s or 30s, so it is very possible I am the only survivor today. So, after viewing the film, I asked my daughter Gail to find out how many people survived that train ride seven decades ago and are still with us today. Her chilling response once she was able to track down the number: she thinks it was one.
Of the 3,000 souls aboard that train, 17 stepped foot into Dachau. Today, there is only one survivor from that train.
So, what do I do with that information? Me. I’m the remaining SURVIVOR.
Knowing I am the one puts a special burden on me. Well, maybe not a burden per se, but a responsibility. I am the only one from that train. I have to do something.
Anniversary or not, I have dedicated my entire life to being the voice for those six million who didn’t make it. To those who were silenced in the worst possible way. To those victims of hate. Of genocide.
I strive to share my story, to show people – young, old and everywhere in between – that if I can survive the Holocaust and use that experience to charge forward in life, so can they. It is about doing the best you can. The very best. And then, seeing those successes born from doing your best.
I have learned that life is all about choices. People cannot choose what happens to them and whether it is a crisis … or a calamity. They can choose to let it ruin their lives or learn from it and move forward. Do we let trauma and tragedy become reasons to stop living? No. We can live through these extreme circumstances and commit to lives with meaning and lives that matter.
It is imperative that the people of this country, the people around the world, do not get amnesia. It is my responsibility, and I take that job and embrace it with every fiber of my being.
After 70 years, it isn’t about honoring an anniversary that matters. It is about honoring ourselves. About celebrating that even in the most adverse situations, the most hellish moments in life, we can rise above them. We can hold our heads high and turn those tragedies, those struggles, into reasons to move forward. To work hard. To work the hardest. To overcome the challenges and stand at the top of that mountain and look down and know we did something.
For me, as a survivor, it has always been about doing something. About educating others. It’s why I started the ZACHOR Foundation in 2009 and why I wrote my book, Living A Life that Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream. People need to know. Walking around with our heads in the sand all day, every day does nothing good for us as individuals and certainly nothing good for us as citizens of the world.
Every place I speak, every person I meet, I hand him or her a special ZACHOR pin, a tiny thing for them to hold in their hands and to remember. In Hebrew, ZACHOR translates to “Remember” and this pin that is given to everyone is his or her own, personal reminder to never forget. To pass the pin down to their children and their children’s children for our stories to never be forgotten.
Sadly, today, more than seven decades after the Holocaust, such hate and evil still exist. We see it in the news all of the time. It isn’t just anti-Semitic attacks, but hatred that spans the globe.
What can the people listening to me to do help reverse this trend of hatred and evil? Unfortunately, there isn’t much. But, our voices are our power. It’s why I started “I- SHOUT-OUT,” a movement powered by ZACHOR Foundation to go viral.
The site gives users a list of things they want to speak out against. It’s about standing up to bullying, to hatred, to prejudice, to pledging to never forget. One person can SHOUT-OUT and it doesn’t do much … but imagine! If millions of our voices could replace the six million whose were silenced! If we can SHOUT-OUT for peace, for tolerance, perhaps it can make a small dent in this world. Maybe it will go global and the press will pick it up and SHOUT-OUT along with us!
On this upcoming 70th anniversary, I want people to practice more respect and tolerance. It is scary how close we have come to repeating history and even scarier to see the world has yet to learn its lesson. I want people to help SHOUT-OUT from every corner of the world.
I’m obligated to speak. You are not, but your support can help change the future. On this day, the anniversary, and every day thereafter, let’s work together to stop the hate and SHOUT-OUT for the rights of people around the world.
Please visit www.i-shout-out.org and SHOUT-OUT for what you believe in today.
To learn more about Ben Lesser, please visit www.zachorfoundation.org
Article interviewed & ghostwritten by Diana Edelman. To learn more about Diana please visit her Web site.