This post is Part 2 in our series about St. Ottilien.
What’s it like to step back into the halls of a place where I came to life after the liberation of Dachau? Haunting. Heartwarming. A myriad of feelings which pulse through me.
I hadn’t planned on returning to St. Ottilien when I was in Germany last year with my two daughters. We were there to honor the 70th anniversary of the liberation and premiere the History Channel film I was in, “The Liberators: Why We Fought.”
Yet, there I was.
It all started when a man named Klaus reached out to my daughter Gail via The ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance website, inviting me and my family to return to St. Ottilien.
Did I want an opportunity to return to the place which healed me and made me come alive again? Absolutely!
It was early Friday morning where Klaus met us in the lobby of our hotel to escort us to the monastery. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This man, towering above us at around 6’6, wearing his monk robe walks up to me and wraps his arms around me with a warm embrace.
For some reason, I didn’t expect him to be a monk, but he was!
“I can’t just call you Klaus,” I protest to him as we walk to the car. “What do others call you?”
He smiles and lets me know if I want, I can call him “Father” Klaus. I do.
It took us less than an hour for the four of us to reach our destination from Munich.
Upon arrival I look around and my first thoughts were that nothing has changed. The gardens are well kept and trees are taller, but for the most part, the buildings and grounds remain unchanged.
It was like I was looking at myself through a time capsule … but no longer the young boy running through the gardens. This time, I am simply a man admiring them.
When I called this place my home, it took me a long time to regain my faith back. I was raised as an Orthodox Hassidic Jew, but the Holocaust stripped me of my faith, at least for a little bit. At St. Ottilien, I was surrounded by religion, with the church serving as the epicenter of the compound. However, I never stepped foot inside.
However, our host graciously asked us to attend mass before lunch. And we did. It’s breathtaking. The high ceilings, the intricate stained glass, the monks … it feels comforting. Rejuvenating. Peaceful. As we sat together and listened to the chanting’s, in my head feeling so close to my faith, I recited the Sh’ma and Shehecheyanu.
Then, it’s time for lunch. We head to a massive dining hall, taking a seat next to Father Klaus and the Archabbot Wolfgang Oxler. A bell rings, and the entire room stands up, reciting a prayer. Another rings, and everyone returns to their seats as the homemade food and beer is brought out.
I turn to Father Klaus and the Archabbot, while raising my stein of beer – “L’Chaim!” – Worlds and religions united as we toast each other in the refectory hall.
As we finish the lunch, Father Klaus pulls me and my daughters aside.
“In all of the years I have been here,” he explains, “I have never seen the monks dine with anyone else. They always dine in seclusion. Once a year, they allow blood relatives to lunch, but the rest of the year? No one. In case you didn’t know, they have bestowed the biggest honor on you three. This is unheard of.”
I stand there, looking at Father Klaus, feeling the ghosts of those who came before me, and am filled with gratitude. With love. With honor.
We continue our day, arriving to a conference room filled with more than 100 dignitaries from the Bavarian region, including monks from different religions. And, they all want to meet and interview me! To know my story.
One monk asks about the ZACHOR pin I am wearing and I explain it to him.
“It means “To Remember”, I say. “ZACHOR. To never forget the people who were silenced during the Holocaust.”
Impressed, he asks for a pin. Of course, we were prepared and had brought plenty with us. I hand him a pin and then pass them out to everyone in attendance: the monks, nuns, brothers, sisters, fathers and civilians. They all place the pins on their lapels.
This. This is the most gratifying, fulfilling moment. It makes the past 70 years of work, of speaking, of ensuring people never forget, come to life. Seeing all of these people from different religious background be so open, so warm, so tolerant; it’s what I have envisioned the world to be like.
A flutist takes the stage to perform. But, when she begins to play, I’m shocked. It’s old Yiddish songs. Songs which I can faintly recall my mother singing to me. I’m brought back into the past. To a life before hatred took over. To her soft voice. To her love. It’s happy. It’s sad. It’s touching that she is playing these songs to honor my visit.
She plays for 30 minutes, and then I am asked to visit the head table and recount my experience of my time healing here.
After the event everybody at the conference together walked in the rain through the gardens to an onsite memorial where they dedicated a monument at the Jewish cemetery at the monastery property. I was given the honor to recite the mourners Kaddish for those that perished at St. Ottilien. Tears rolled down my cheeks as the monks and nuns repeat every word. To hear them praying in Hebrew was surreal yet heartwarming.
Jewish custom is to leave a stone at the grave. I did so while all else follows.
Just when the long day was coming to a close, Father Klaus who drove us back to the city joined us for Shabbat services and dinner at the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich with our group of Survivors, Liberators and the History Channel crew. It was a magnificent evening filled with awe. Here this tall religious man in a hooded cloak prayed, ate, chanted and danced the Jewish folk dance the “Hora” was one of wonder and delight. It was a peaceful union that I never could have imagined 70 years earlier.
Hinei Mah Tov Umanayim, shevet achim gam yachad –
How beautiful it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity. – Psalm 133
To learn more about me and my history, please be sure to read my autobiography, “Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare To American Dream.”
To learn more about Ben Lesser, ZACHOR or our youth campaign to stop intolerance please visit: