Transported Back to the Past: Part 4

This is the final installment of my four-part series of blog posts that detail my return to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I went at my family’s request, and ended up honoring those I lost and the miracle of those who I love today. 

Photo credit: János Balázs / / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: János Balázs / / CC BY-SA

As I revisited those exhibits, the anger started to engulf me. I started feeling that my whole body is being consumed with anger of how this master race has mastered to perfect the science of torture and mass murder and how they were able to industrialize and profit by creating numerous death factories.

The Nazis were proud of the fact that they have developed a method where they could gas to death up to 2000 people in each facility in 20 minutes time. What an achievement that must have been for these cultured people of the Third Reich.

I was engulfed with anger when I saw the mountains of human hair that were collected to ship to Germany to produce textile, the photos of the gold teeth which they extracted from the dead bodies, all the used clothing sent to be recycled, shoes, baby shoes, children shoes, women shoes and men’s shoes. Eyeglasses, valises and all of those items once belonged to a living human being. How were they able to keep doing this to millions of people and the world was silent?

In Birkenau I saw the platform where they chased us out of those cattle cars and pulled us apart from our loved ones, only to never see or hear from them again. WHERE WAS THE WORLD?—WHERE WAS G-D? WHERE WAS HUMANITY? So many questions, but no answers. They showed us the torture chambers, the experimental rooms, etc. etc.

Later on they showed us the marsh area where they dumped tons of ashes in the swampy waters, still visible 61 years later. Now frogs are living and surviving in those marshes among the ashes of our dear departed ones. They were showing us the fiery pits where so many bodies were dumped to be incinerated because the crematoriums could not process or burn the bodies fast enough. It hurts to know that humans are capable of such atrocities. This fact must always remain a Black Mark to Mankind.

However, there was one satisfying moment near the end of our Auschwitz and Birkenau tour. They have erected a new memorial monument near the ruins of the crematoriums and near the dump site where all the ashes are scattered.

There happened to be a brigade of Israeli soldiers, men and women in full dress uniform. They were holding some kind of memorial ceremony. It was done in Hebrew with a speaker in front of them. They were also reciting the Prayer for the Dead.

There was a huge Israeli flag displayed and just as we were departing they were playing and singing Israel’s National Anthem “HATIKVAH”. It made us all cry—to spite Hitler, what a perfect ending to a sad, sad day and what a perfect ending to a very meaningful memorable trip.

I thank G-D daily for sparing the lives of my sister Lola and me and as I look at our children and grandchildren I see some hope for the future!!




Transported Back to the Past: Part 3

This is the third installment of a multi-part series that details my return to Auschwitz and Birkenau with my family. After visiting my parent’s marked mass grave, we continued on our journey into the past…

Photo credit: To Uncertainty And Beyond / / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: To Uncertainty And Beyond / / CC BY-NC-ND

From the cemetery we continued to the Salt Mine in Wieliczka. We arranged for a private tour with an English speaking tour guide. We were taken down via elevator, which is usually not done. Most people climb down over 700 steps. The place is absolutely amazing. If you are ever around Krakow, it is a must see. On the way back, we past Plashov and stopped at the memorial. Plashov was the camp where Schindler had the factory, a notorious place for many atrocities have occurred there.

By this time it was late in the evening and we had a beautiful family dinner in a romantic outdoor café , complete with a 3 piece orchestra, wine, beer and fine dining. We topped the night off with assorted ice cream cones. We walked back around midnight to our hotel rooms, pretty exhausted but very satisfied of what we have seen, done and accomplished thus far.

The next day Andre’, our driver took us to Auschwitz and Birkenau. While on route there it stirred up feelings in me which I cannot describe in words, emotions which I did not know were still confined in me.

Suddenly I saw images of the past which were etched deep into my memory. Visions of black uniforms, swastikas , sirens, Gestapo, SS, shinny black boots, dogs, pistols, rifles, screams, shouts, whips, reflections of fire, smoke vivid memories of the ashes of Birkenau, selections, mountains of corpses all around me, children savagely torn from their mothers, furnaces, fire pits, frighten faces, hunger, starvation, gas chambers, barbwire, Kapo’s, shovels, picks, and sledge hammers, freezing cold, standing in appels, dying faces, bulging eyes, death march, cattle cars, bunkers, attics, beatings, lice, vermin, latrines.

My heart is pounding and I closed my eyes, trying to steer my thoughts away from the past back to the present, but without success. Now my head is spinning and I hear loud speakers yelling—JUDEN RAUS, ACHTUNG! LOS LOS, RAUS SCHNELL! The KAPOS yelling ZUM APPEL PLAC! DIE MUTZE ABNEHMEN! DER COMMANDANT YELLING DU VERFLUCHTE JUDEN? SCHWEINHUNT, etc. etc. If you don’t know the meaning of any those aforementioned words, consider yourselves lucky.

I see the gallows and I hear the cries of SHEMAH YISRAEL ADONAY ELOKENU ADANAY ECHOD, the last prayer before death (hear, O Israel; the eternal is our G-D, the eternal is one.) It seems like the closer we got, the more vivid those flashbacks became.

When we finally arrived and I saw those tracks which led 1.5 million man, woman and children to the slaughter houses of Birkenau. Even though I was in Birkenau during the war in 1943 and this is going to be my second visit to Auschwitz after liberation and I knew what to expect, my stomach was in knots..

Transported Back to the Past: Part 2

The following is part 2 of a multi-part series that details my return to Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was a difficult time, but it did give me some peace. Below is a translation of what I said to my parents as I visited their marked mass grave, where they were laid to rest.

Photo credit: Yam Amir / / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: Yam Amir / / CC BY-NC-ND

Translated from Yiddish:

“Dear Mom and Dad, I am your son Benjamin. I am here with my two daughters, Sherry, who is named Sarah in Hebrew after you and Gail, who is named after my sister Goldie. Both of my daughters are happily married and they each have two children. Not every member of our family could travel with me to visit with you, even though they all wished they could, due to circumstances, health reasons and timing. It was very difficult to get them all together at this time. Even my dear wife Jean, who encouraged us to make this trip, was unable to join us due to health reasons. However, here with me is Michael Gerber, Gail’s husband, two of my grandchildren; Robyn is Sherry’s daughter and Adam is Michael & Gail’s son, whose middle name is after you, Father, Loren for Lazar. Michael and Gail have a daughter, Jenica and Sherry another daughter, Cindy, as well as her husband, Larry Kramer. Sherry’s husband, Cindy and Jenica could not make the trip.

Mom and Dad, approximately ten years ago Jean and I, as well as your other daughter Lola (Lajcu) along with Lola’s son Heshie and his lovely wife Pessie, were here visiting with you. At that time Jean and I vowed that even though we will always mourn your loss—we would never set foot on this blood soaked soil again. However, when my own grandchildren and my daughters wanted to know where your resting place is, which made me very happy, I was very pleased that they cared enough and asked me to bring them here. How could I refuse? For let’s face facts I am getting on in age and who knows if I will ever be able to visit with you again. However, it feels good to know that your memory will live on through our children and grandchildren forever.

Dear Mom and Dad, I would like to update you about the rest of our immediate family. Although I am sure that you probably know and that you are probably all together somewhere in a better place watching over us. Unfortunately out of 7 of our immediate family, only Lola and I survived the war. Moishe, Goldie and Tuliko did not survive the Holocaust.

We would all welcome your blessings and your prayers for a long, happy, healthy life. Somehow while I am in front of you, I just know that you will be watching over us.

My dear parents, this is July, 2006. After we have lost approximately six million of our Jewish people, only a small remnant of European Jewry survived the Holocaust. None of us survivors wanted to remain here in these countries where they hate the Jewish people with such passion.

After the war many of the remaining survivors were trying to go to Palestine and hopefully create a Jewish state there, in the land from where we were originally disbursed. It was not an easy task, for every country tried to blockade us from reaching our promised land.

By 1948 – three years after the Holocaust a miracle occurred. They were debating in the United Nations whether Palestine should be allowed to become a Jewish state, and whether the land should be partitioned off, where a portion of it will become a Jewish state. It was as though they realized how the whole world stood by in silence while the Nazis were slaughtering six million of our men, women and children, they knew that if we had our own country to represent the Jewish people, this could have been prevented and instead no one cared, no one in this world shed a tear for us. On that day, the United Nations and the world gave us our homeland – Israel.

I must also tell you that for the last ten years I have dedicated my life to speaking and lecturing in schools, colleges, synagogues, temples, churches and to anyone who will listen about the indescribable atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and their willing accomplices, while the free world stood passively by in silence. I feel that I am running a race against time and that I must give my testimony to as many people who are willing to listen, not just for the present but also for the future. I feel that it is my moral obligation to tell and retell this tragic saga of the Holocaust in order to keep this world from contracting amnesia.

I am of the opinion that it was you, your neshumes, your spirits that were there that day in the United Nations fighting for us. I am of the strong belief that you instilled a guilt feeling into the delegates, or perhaps it was even remorse, but whatever you want to call it, I credit you for making the majority of delegates vote yes for the creation of a Jewish Homeland, so that out of the ashes, Israel was born.

Israel is now 56 years old and Jerusalem is its capital. Hebrew is Israel’s official language. We have a white flag with blue stripes and the Star of David in the middle. Israel is a true democratic country and they have declared the “right of return”, that every Jewish person, no mater where he lives in the world, is also automatically an Israeli citizen. He or she is always welcome. Israel is a very proud and strong country, very powerful for its small size and has excelled in every field, and are contributing tremendously to science, technology, electronics and medicine and the list goes on and on. So you see, it wasn’t all in vain. Yes, I know it was a very high price to pay, but who can understand G-Ds workings. Hopefully some day the true meaning of all this will reveal itself and we might better understand.

But for now, we must say goodbye and I know that some day we will all meet in a much better place. Even though we must depart now, you are in my thoughts. You are always close to my heart. As we say our goodbyes I remembered that.”

Transported Back to the Past: Part 1

This is the first of a multi-part series where I discuss my return to Birkenau and Auschwitz with my family. 


Photo credit: Timoluege / / CC BY-NC

Sunday, July 9, 2006

My name is Ben Lesser and I am a survivor of the Holocaust. This is the story of my return to Auschwitz and Birkenau with my children and grandchildren.

My wife, Jean and I had been to Krakow approximately 10 years ago and both of us decided never to return to this accursed land where the soil is soaked with innocent Jewish blood. It was a most traumatic experience, which I felt that I had to endure in order to have closure. Now my grandchildren were going to Krakow in order to find their roots and I could not possibly refuse that kind of request. That is when I decided to invite the whole family to join us on this rather impromptu trip to Poland: AKA PILGRIMAGE.

We started out in the Jewish section, Kaszimiecz in Krakow. First we went to the old Jewish Synagogue (ON UL SZEROKA) and from there we went to the RAMU SHUL and the CEMETARY, then around the corner to my grandfather’s apartment on POBRZEZIE #6. Across the street and on the corner of MIODOWA #24 was the beautiful, completely restored and refurbished PROGRESSIVE TEMPLE. I was pleased to see that there are some foundations that are restoring all of the synagogues, temples, monuments in order to preserve our rich Jewish Culture Heritage.

From there we drove down Dietla Street. This was the street I used to walk daily when I was a child, going to and from chayder (school). Our apartment was on Starovisla 23 around the corner from Dietla or in my days it was call Dietlowska. This is where we used to live when the war broke out. It used to be a beautiful French Normandy building, which is now completely neglected.

As we approached the apartment where I lived, the mailman just happened to be handing the mail to the present tenant. I apologized for the interruption and explained to him that I used to live there at the beginning of the war, asking if he would allow me and my family to view the apartment and he obliged us. I was surprised to see that they subdivided the apartment and made 2 singles and one bachelor out of it. It was so very tiny and very disappointing seeing it in this condition. It made me very sad, but at least we got to see some of it.

From there we continued on Starovisla. I was looking for my fathers business which was a Sklad Vino Vysoky Ovotcove, a manufacturer of Wine (kosher) and various fruit syrups. There was no recognizable sign of any of it still existing. We continued across the visla to Podgush, where we saw the Ghetto area. From there we continued to the cemetery in Bochnia.

Our driver had a hard time locating the cemetery. Truly, it was not easy to find. When we finally did arrive we met the caretaker who opened up the gate for us. On the way up to the cemetery we purchased flowers and the caretaker gave us yahrzeit candles, which we all lit. Each one of us placed flowers on the memorial,

My mother and father were buried in this mass grave with nine other people. They were all shot trying to escape from Bochnia in 1943. A prearranged coal truck, a double decker, could fit 10 people inside by laying on their backs between the coal and the chasse. This truck would then take them to the Polish, Czech and Hungarian borders, where the smugglers would be waiting for them and at night time, smuggle them across the border.

That was the way my sister, Lola with her husband, Michel first crossed the border with a group of 8 people. A few days later it was time for the second group, which included me, my younger brother and another eight people. We were successful in crossing the same way.

The third transport was meant for my parents and 8 additional people. As the truck pulled into the barn at night, the people would enter into the truck belly and in the morning the truck would drive to the border. Only this time a neighboring Polish farmer noticed something and he called the Gestapo.

They pulled everyone out of the truck, including the gentile driver and lined them up and shot them all; my parents, the eight other passengers and the driver. The Gestapo brought the Gheto Kapo with them whose job it was to bury the bodies. He buried all of them in this mass grave in the Bochnia Cemetery. After the war was over Lola and I put up a memorial headstone at the cemetery in Bochnia.

At the headstone after placing the flowers, we lit the candles and I made a Kail Moley Rachamim, naming both of my parents. Afterwards we all recited the Kadish. Then I asked the kids if they would mind if I talked to my parents in their native language (Yiddish), and of course, no one minded.

Why I Tell My Holocaust Story

Photo credit: mireia. / / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: mireia. / / CC BY-NC-ND

In 1996, at the request of my 10 year-old grandson, Adam, I broke my 50-year silence, to speak publicly about the Holocaust.  When Adam asked me to talk to his 6th grade class, I had no idea that in addition to providing a new experience for the students, it would open a new door to an unexpected purpose for my life. All I knew then was that I was frightened at the prospect of opening an old door to great pain.

The positive response of my grandson’s classmates and their teacher showed me that my experiences as a Holocaust Survivor were of intense interest to others. I could tell by their rapt attention and follow-up questions, that I was a source of important answers. No one would be more surprised than I was that the 2 hours that  I spent in that elementary classroom would cause me to embark—as a 70-year-old retiree–upon a “career” in providing Holocaust Education.

In the seventeen years following my first attempt at public-speaking about the Holocaust, I have traveled from Las Vegas to California, from the Pacific Northwest to Poland, from Tennessee to New York, speaking to hundreds of audiences.  And as a result of the questions from students, teachers, parents, religious groups, government officials and even other Survivors, I decided to write my memoir “LIVING A LIFE THAT MATTERS:  from Nazi Nightmare to American Dream.”  Unlike other Holocaust memoirs, however, the basis of mine would be more than my Holocaust experiences. It would be framed around the answers to all those questions asked by my audiences. I would tell my story in a way that would address what others have wanted to know. And it wouldn’t stop with Liberation. It would continue to the present day, thereby showing that a happy, loving, productive, meaningful life is possible after surviving unspeakable horror.

I hoped that by showing how I faced profound challenges, worked hard, attained the American Dream, and lived a “life that mattered,” that others would be inspired to do the same. By placing a deeply personal story within a broad historical context, this memoir allows the reader to see the step-by-step development of a human being in relation to world events. I hope that readers will be motivated to evaluate the obstacles, opportunities that life brings, and be inspired to live lives that matter.