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 and future. 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

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“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.

 

 

Uranium Rush

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I am certain that most of you have heard of the California Gold Rush in the mid 1800’s.

But probably not too many of you have heard about the 1950’s Uranium Rush. Or have you?

Screen Shot 2018-05-11 at 11.01.14 AMThe nuclear industry was just beginning to emerge in the 1950’s and everyone thought that nuclear energy would be bigger than electricity. Uranium, a white lustrous, radioactive, metallic element used to fuel nuclear reactors was essential to nuclear power.  The international race to find uranium was on. It was all very exciting. There were fortunes to be made!

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And so there began a mad frenzy all over the Western United States. People seemed to go crazy just like during the California Gold Rush in the mid 1800’s!

Imagine going prospecting in the 1950’s!

Today, no one who hadn’t seen it would believe it. And of all the places that this race was particularly popular was around a little town called Rosemont near Lancaster, California. Only 2 hour drive from Los Angeles.

Well, at that time I had two buddies who loved hunting for just about anything. And they often invited me to go along. I’d always declined because I couldn’t stand violence. But this time, they weren’t hunting with guns, so I accepted their invitation.

This would be a real American adventure!

To read more of my adventure, click here:

https://www.zachorfoundation.org/excerpt-living-life-matters/ 


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