Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream

Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream

by Ben Lesser

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Overview

Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream by Ben Lesser

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781458202727
Publisher: Abbott Press
Publication date: 04/13/2012
Pages: 370
Sales rank: 847,425
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

LIVING A LIFE THAT MATTERS

from Nazi Nightmare to American Dream
By Ben Lesser

abbott press

Copyright © 2012 Ben Lesser
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4582-0272-7


Chapter One

DEAR READER

My name is Ben Lesser, and I am a Holocaust Survivor. What this means is that for some reason, unlike more than six million other innocent Jewish people, I did not die during Hitler Germany's Third Reich. These lives were eliminated from the face of the earth as if they didn't have any value. As if they didn't matter.

It also means that throughout the over 66 years since I was liberated from the Dachau Concentration Camp, I have never stopped wondering why my life was spared. And I have never stopped grieving for those who were lost. The Hebrew word Zachor means remember, and we remaining Survivors are determined to make sure the world never forgets that every life matters.

While I was lucky enough to survive the camps, come to America, live in freedom, fall in love, marry and raise a beautiful family, work hard and achieve the "American Dream," my heart and soul have at the same time, inhabited a world shadowed by sorrow. And in my mind there are questions that have never been answered. You might be surprised to learn that my first unanswered question is not, Why did that insane Hitler try to destroy the Jewish People? Instead, my first unanswered question is, Why did the so-called sane world stand by and let this Genocide happen?

Having experienced the savagery of genocide first-hand as a child, while living in a supposedly modern, cultured, European country, I also have two additional questions: One: What are the circumstances and choices that led up to this and other genocides? And two: What must we do to prevent it from happening again? Anywhere. Because, sadly, as the old saying tells us,

This means that no matter how much progress the human race makes intellectually and technologically, human emotions never change. This is just as valid today as it has been throughout history. And if you look around, you will see that there are genocides taking place today—in Darfur, Sudan, the Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia, just to name a few. As we Holocaust Survivors enter our eighties and nineties, we are the last remaining people who can bring the authenticity of real life experience to these questions. We, therefore, have both the responsibility and the honor to share our experiences with others before our time runs out.

And because of this, for the last 16 years since retiring from my real estate business, I have dedicated myself to learning and teaching about how the Holocaust could have happened, and its impact on humanity. In this sometimes painful but always enlightening process, I have learned a great deal both about human nature, and about myself. I have come to understand that so much of what happens in life is the result of seemingly simple human choices. A person can choose not to hate. A person can choose not to use hateful speech. Hitler did not start with weapons. He started with hate. And then he proceeded to use hateful speech. A person can choose to not become a perpetrator or a bystander, an oppressor cannot succeed on his or her own. When someone is being victimized—whether by a school-yard bully or a maniacal national leader—those who are not victims make the choice to join the bully or to become the bystander who does nothing.

I am grateful that I have the opportunity to not only speak up about what happened, but also to inspire others to recognize the conditions—and choices—that might lead up to—or hopefully prevent—genocide. As a result of my many presentations to schools, religious organizations and community groups, I have seen that on a historical level, far too many people of all ages have no real idea about what happened to the Jewish people of Europe before, during, and after the Third Reich (1933-1945). And despite those who would deny the existence of the Holocaust, there are many people who are hungry to know the truth about this savage time. I realized that many people do not understand that they have the power to make choices that will determine the course of their lives. In response to their questions, heartfelt interest, and commitment to take action, I decided to put my experiences in writing so that after I am gone, my stories, my choices, and the lessons they teach, will continue.

We Survivors are often asked how accurate our Holocaust memories are. It's a good question, because in a unique way, our memories are quite different from what most people think of as memories. Since each event was permanently burned into our minds, bodies and souls, when we talk or even think about them, it's more like actually reliving the experience—rather than just remembering it. And although these details remain painfully clear, mere facts alone cannot tell the story. In order to truly learn the lessons of the Holocaust, it is also necessary to understand the human emotions that accompany the details and the facts. And just like the facts, these emotions are also just as real today as they were then.

Communicating the reality, both factual and emotional, can sometimes be a real challenge because there is no human language that can possibly convey the inhuman events of the Shoah. So we can sometimes be heard to say, "I have no words to describe...." And since an old saying or proverb can sometimes add to the understanding of the essence of an experience, I hope you will indulge my occasional use of well-known quotations throughout my story. My recollections have been aided by the many notes that I've made throughout the years. As I look them over, these notes almost seem to be "letters" to my parents—letting them know about my life—and letting them know that they will always remain a part of it.

These notes, along with the answers to questions I've been asked at my numerous presentations, have formed the basis of this book. While I never dreamed that I would be able to visit my parents' gravesite and speak to them directly, I have been privileged on three occasions, in 1995, 2006, and in 2010, to visit their memorial in the old Jewish Cemetery in Bochnia, Poland. On each of these occasions, in order to avoid being overcome by emotion, I read aloud from "letters" that I had prepared in advance. It is in my parents' honor, therefore, that I will begin my story—as I began my life—with them.

Sincerely,

Ben Lesser Las Vegas, NV 2012

Chapter Two

2006: DEAR MAMMIKO & TATTIKO

Old Jewish Cemetery of Bochnia, Poland July, 2006

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 and live 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-grandchildren 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? The courage and determination that Mechel displayed in saving our lives and the lives of so many others remained with him after the war, as he fought the cancer that would succeed where the Nazis had failed in taking his life.

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-granddaughter, 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-grandchildren 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 ongoing 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

Chapter Three

THE NIGHTMARE AND THE DREAM

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 a 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 learnt he human choices from which these events developed. 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?"

Clearly the answer to Hillel's question is that WE must do it. And we must do it now.

Chapter Four

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

You may have heard the question, "What's in a name?" Well, now as I look back in order to look forward, I am reminded of the many names—good and bad—by which I have been known throughout my long and eventful life. I can tell you that something as simple as a name can contain the history of a single person—and if you care to look further, the history of an entire people. How interesting it is that something as seemingly simple as a person's name can contain such a world of memories.

For example, today in America, I am known as Ben Lesser. To Jean, my beloved wife of over sixty years, I am known as Sweetheart. To my precious grown children I am still Daddy. To my adored grandchildren, I am Papa Ben. And depending upon my age, who was addressing me, and what country I was in at that time, I have also been known as Benyameen (Hebrew) Baynish (Yiddish), Benek (Polish), Benesz (Czech), Bundy (Hungarian), and Benku—(Little Ben), the affectionate nickname that my big sister, Lola, still calls me. While these names bring a sense of warmth, comfort and life, there are other "names," that represent cold, brutal dehumanization and death.

An honored name that I once shared reverently with all Jewish People now slices like a butcher knife through my own heart and soul. That name is: JUDE. And despite its innocent original meaning: a Jewish person—when it was screamed by the murderous Nazis, or smeared across the windows of a destroyed Jewish shop, this name came to symbolize an indescribably brutal time in history that changed our lives and the world forever. There was also yet another name, one that signified contempt rather than reverence, by which I personally was known from May, 1944 through the end of April, 1945. But, of course, it wasn't really a "name" at all. During that year, I was known only as a number. And that number: 1212—so innocent as long as its hideous meaning is not known—was forced upon me in exchange for my identity and dignity as a human being in the Nazi Concentration Camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from LIVING A LIFE THAT MATTERS by Ben Lesser Copyright © 2012 by Ben Lesser. Excerpted by permission of abbott press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I The Nazi Nightmare

1 Dear Reader 3

2 2006: Dear Mamiko and Tateko 9

3 The Nightmare and the Dream 13

4 What's in a Name 17

5 1928-1939: The Early Years 21

6 How Could The Holocaust Happen? 35

7 Summers in Munkács 45

8 1939: Autumn in Kraków 51

9 9/1/1939: The Germans Occupy Poland 57

10 1941: Escape from Kraków 67

11 1943: Escape from Niepolomice 75

12 A Modern-Day Queen Esther 87

13 1943: Escape from Bochnia 95

14 Happy Munkács Reunion 99

15 1944: The Nazis Invade Hungary 105

16 Auschwitz-Birkenau and Durnhau 111

17 The Death March 131

18 The Death Train to Dachau 135

19 April 29, 1945: Liberation! 139

Part II Survivor!

20 Holocaust Survivor 145

21 A Purim in July! 149

22 The Chalutzim 153

23 A Joyous Reunion! 163

24 Life in Post-War Germany 169

25 Leaving the Old World 177

Part III The American Dream

26 America! 183

27 True Love 199

28 Achieving the American Dream 205

29 A New Career 223

30 An American Citizen 229

31 American Adventures 235

32 Ben Lesser and Associates 249

Part IV Zachor!

33 Retirement and a New Challenge 263

34 2006: Transported to the Past 269

35 2009: ZACHOR! 281

36 2010: The March of the Living 291

37 2010: Dear Mamiko and Tateko 297

38 Dear Reader 299

Appendix

Dear Ben 305

Timeline 321

List of Major Concentration Camps 330

Reader's Guide & Selected Vocabulary 331

A Thank You to MOTL - 2010 339

About Lola 345

Resources 347

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LIVING A LIFE THAT MATTERS: from Nazi Nightmare to American Dream 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I cannot get over how this great young man experienced every horror that the Holocaust had put forth. It is so amazing how he survived at such a young age. It is amazing how he thought about others during his ordeal. It was heartbreaking to hear how all the other countries let this atrocity happen. Now we would not let such a thing happen. The fact that Ben then came to America and shined at everything he did. Ben was a Jew, human being, hero, father, husband, and an all-around great man. I gladly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ben Lesser’s novel not only describes the horrific details and reality that millions of people suffered during the Holocaust, but it also provides his warm and loving details of his personal family reunions thereafter and the successes that came from his hard work and perseverance.  The story is a personal journey through 70 years of Ben’s life, allowing the reader to review this era of modern history in a whole new light.  The book is a true and remarkable tale of Ben, his parents, his siblings, his children, and his grandchildren.  It will make you cherish your family and your friends.  It will encourage you to stick together and fight for what is right.  I appreciated that Ben was willing to share the personal details of his life, his love, and his journey from the Concentration Camps to the American Dream.  Reading this book will inspire you to make your life more meaningful by being thoughtful, kind, and courageous, even in the face of oppression.  It will encourage you to share this story with others, because as you learn about the injustices performed during the Holocaust, you will vow that they should never happen again.  I will always remember the story told by Ben, and as a result, I will strive to live a life that matters.
RobynW More than 1 year ago
Have a box of tissues nearby and be prepared to read it front to back in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. This book is not just about a boy’s journey through the most horrific historical atrocities of all time but it highlights how he overcame each obstacle with reason and heroism. I can’t recommend this book enough. This gripping memoir is educational, heartbreaking and triumphant. We all have something to learn from Mr. Ben Lesser. A truly inspirational book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing story and life what an inspiration 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is fantastic. Once I picked it up and started to read, I couldn't put it down. Ben Lesser's story of "Living A Life That Matters: from Nazi Nightmare to American Dream. Mr. Lesser takes you on an unbelievable journey from his childhood nightmare in Krakow Poland at the start of World War II to present day. This book is written in everyday language and weather you are a young student in Junior High, High School or College you will find this book a very interesting read once you start this book you won't be able to put it down. I highly recommend this book to all teachers who are teaching a course in Holocaust Studies. This book should be added to your curriculum as you would use "The Story of Ann Frank" or "Eli Wiesel's - Night." This book is written in a text book fashion that makes it a must as a teaching guide. If you are not an educator this is an excellent book which I highly recommend to everyone you would not be dissappointed in this book . .