In his highly readable, educational and inspiring memoir, Holocaust Survivor Ben Lesser's warm, grandfatherly tone invites the reader to do more than just visit a time when the world went mad. He also shows how this madness came to be--and the lessons that the world still needs to learn. In this true story, the reader will see how an ordinary human being--an innocent child--not only survived the Nazi Nightmare, but achieved the American Dream.
Dearest Mammiko and Tattiko,
It's me, your middle son, Baynish. Can you imagine that your curly-haired boy is now 77 years old? Not once in the ten years since my wife, Jean, and I were last able to visit here with you, did I ever dream that I would stand in this God-forsaken place again. To tell the truth, that visit was so traumatic for us that we never wanted to come back to this Jewish-blood-soaked country. However, as you know, sometimes fate steps in and changes our plans. And so I am grateful to be here again with you today-blessed by the presence of family members who carry you in their hearts even though they've never met you. In the almost 70 years since that terrible night when little Tuli and I had to leave you behind in Bochnia, I have often held silent conversations with you in my heart and in my soul. Today, surrounded by your descendants, I am grateful to be able to give voice to my words. Standing here I am overwhelmed with joy to have survived the Nazis and to be blessed with such a family. At the same time, I am flooded with pain that your lives were so brutally extinguished-never to experience the life you had earned and so richly deserved. That you were never allowed to see your own beloved children grow up living lives that we hope would make you proud. Mammiko, I am stunned as I realize that my beautiful, strong, talented and loving daughters are just about the same age that you were when you and Tattiko were discovered and executed while trying to escape from Nazi Poland. As I look at your granddaughters, who now have grown children of their own, I am filled with gratitude that they all were able to grow up as free Americans, never having to face the horrors of the Nazis. Never having to feel like despised outsiders in the country of their birth. I know how pleased you would be to see that all of your grand- and great-grand-children have consciously made choices that would allow them to live meaningful lives. And they all are leading "lives that matter." I also know that this could never have happened without the selfless and careful choices you both made throughout your own too short lives. As you know Moishe, Goldie, and little Tulika were brutally murdered by the Nazis. Lola and I were the only two of your five cherished children to survive The Holocaust. In the short time that we were able to live as a family, we learned from you how to lead lives that matter. We have both striven to lead lives that would make you proud. Remember how Lola used her artistic talent to help forge the Hungarian citizenship documents that allowed many Jews to escape certain death in the Bochnia Ghetto? After the war ended, Lola became an accomplished and well-known fine artist. Remember the last time we were all together in 1941 at her brave little wedding to Mechel in our gray and barren backyard in Niepolomice? Today, while wandering through this spirit-filled cemetery, we stopped at the burial-site of five members of Mechel's family. With grief-filled hearts, we stood lost in our thoughts about that night over 66 years ago in Bochnia when these innocent, loving people were murdered in a vicious pogrom. We said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for them. And then your great-grand-daughter, Robyn, motioned for us all to look up to the sky. It was with great astonishment that we saw above us the five protective branches of a sheltering oak. And now, as we stand at your memorial, almost as if we were given a signal, we again all turn our eyes upward to the heavens. It is with profound awe that we see that you, and the nine others who perished with you, are protected by eleven branches of another ancient, majestic oak. As we looked at each other again, we knew that we were in the presence of not just one, but two miracles. Dearest Mammiko and Tattiko, this visit with you has been yet another miracle. You would be proud to know that two of your beautiful great-grand-children organized this whole trip! And because they have asked me to tell them about our family's history, together we will be transported to the past. We will visit places of infinite happiness and unspeakable horror. I will tell them the story of my life and that of the Leser/Lesser family. In this way, they will also learn about their own place in the on-going story of the Jewish People. They will learn about the choices that all people must make in order to live lives that matter. Now as we say our loving farewells, I want you to know that no matter where I am, I will continue to have conversations with you in my heart and in my soul. I will continue to write "letters" to you. And I will continue to live a life that matters. Maybe one day if God is willing, I will be able to visit you again, and once more speak my words aloud. ZACHOR! May you always rest in peace. Your loving son, Baynish
3. THE NIGHTMARE AND THE DREAM "You might leave the concentration camps, but the concentration camps will never leave you" Holocaust Survivor As I leave the Bochnia Jewish Cemetery with my family, I am flooded with so many mixed emotions about the present and the past that it's almost impossible to differentiate between them. Gazing at the shining faces of my daughters and their children-so eager to know about their family's past-I see reflections of my parents and siblings. And I wonder . . . where can I begin to tell the story of my life? There isn't a whimsical, "Once upon a time . . . " beginning, or a "Happily ever after . . ." ending to neatly sum it all up. It all just circles around again and again. And with each circle, with every new fact, insight and lesson, it gains more power, so that the remains of the past flow through the present and on into to the future. And so it is that on each and every day of the 66 years spanning the distance between my liberation from the Nazi Nightmare of the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1945, and the subsequent American Dream that I've been blessed to live in the United States, I thank God. At the same time, as a Holocaust Survivor, not a single day of those years has gone by without my soul being thrust back into that Nightmare. It may be something as obvious as 21st century nightly news broadcast showing an Iranian dictator denying the existence of The Holocaust. Sometimes it's as subtle as a faded number tattoo on the withered wrist of an elderly woman slowly pushing a grocery cart. For a Holocaust Survivor, there is no experience today that doesn't also have its own echo. Every current experience has a shadow. We Holocaust Survivors are the keepers of a history that is both heinous and heroic. We cannot, and will not, allow this history to be distorted, denied, or forgotten. This is a sacred promise we made to the ones who were lost. It is also a sacred promise we make to our children, their children, and those who will follow. Without this vigilance, once we are gone, there will be nothing to stop the coming of another Nightmare. It is essential, therefore, that we heed the wisdom of another wise old saying: "Those who do not learn from History are doomed to repeat it." George Santayana (1863-1952) Spanish-born Philosopher, Author, Scholar In order to avoid repeating our tragic history, it is necessary to learn the human choices from which these events developed. And above all, it is essential to understand the degree to which people can take responsibility for their own choices. Now, in memory of those who were doomed, and to ensure the freedom and safety of future generations, we must work diligently to bring people together in mutual understanding, respect and responsibility. To paraphrase the great ancient Jewish religious leader, Hillel the Elder (c.110 BCE-10 CE): "If not me . . . Who? If not now . . . When?"
A devoted son, brother, husband, father and grandfather, Ben Lesser is also a successful entrepreneur. Following his retirement from a career in real estate, he has devoted his life to providing Holocaust Education to schools as well as religious and community groups.
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