I want to introduce you guys to an extraordinary man. His name is Ben Lesser and I ran across him on Reddit, my latest obsession.
Lesser is a Holocaust survivor and he did an AMA, which stands for Ask Me Anything on Reddit. Shortly after it began, the questions began pouring in and Lesser’s answers were unforgettable.
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day and I thought this would be a perfect time to share parts of his AMA for those who missed it.
Lesser was born in Krakow, Poland in 1928 and moved to Hungary the year before the Germans occupied Hungary. The Nazis took him and his family by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a harrowing ride that he described in his AMA. There were 80 people crammed with their most-prized belongings in a train car with only two buckets. It was inhumane.
Then he arrived in Auschwitz.
“They said ‘Women and children to the right, and men to the left’ and I was holding onto my little brother Tully, my older sister Goldie, and we were just… pulled apart. Never to see each other again,” Lesser wrote. “And when I found out where they went… and what happened to them, that was one of the worst nightmares of my life. I couldn’t believe when I was told that they were actually those ashes that we see, those flames shooting out… those are our parents, our mothers, our fathers, our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters… ashes. This was a terrifying moment.”
He recounted some of the torture he endured, including the time where a commandant was trying to show off for his girlfriend by making a prisoner balance on a sawhorse and the prisoner had to count to 25, one for each skin-splitting lash. If their heels dropped or the prisoner lost count, he had to start over. The first three men who tried to do the task were killed. Lesser stunned everyone by completing the task. The commandant lost interest in the then-15-year-old Lesser because the leader went to hang three men.
Lesser was then deported to Durnhau Labor Camp and was also in The Death March for two weeks.
“The reason they called it (The Death March) that was because if you could not keep pace with them, they simply shot you,” Lesser wrote. ”All day you could hear pop, pop, pop shooting.”
He was later shuttled around in cattle cars for nearly a month before he arrived in Dachau, three days before liberation.
Not only was his story remarkable to read, but so was his passion and concern for future generations. He spoke of the current backlash against Jews that have echos of pre-World War II attitudes that led to a genocide. We all hear about learning from history or we’re bound to repeat it, he reiterates this message, but with a poignant point.
“What we learn is that there is a certain amount of hatred that’s lurking in each one of us. And that has to be contained. We have to be sure not to allow it to surface. That is what we learned. Because these are educated people that were no different originally than us. Yet they were able to commit such crimes. So they’re part of the human race. That is a black mark on mankind. So we all have to be aware of this. We all have to know that we are capable of such atrocities.”
And he’s right. As foreign as it sounds, that you too could be capable of unspeakable cruelties, it’s true. Remember the Stanford Prison Experiment?
Lesser also spoke of the great parts of his life, reuniting with his sister, his wife of 64 years, his two daughters, his life here in America. Since coming to the U.S. he has worked numerous jobs and he’s now founder of the nonprofit ZACHOR Foundation, which educates people about the Holocaust.
He’s lived a full life, many times over and is happy to offer words of wisdom.
“My advice to you is choose to live a life that matters,” he told the redditors. “Choose to succeed in life, so you can make others succeed in life.”
Though he’s written a book and has been speaking about his Holocaust experience, he’s recently been inspired to keep educating people about the horrible atrocity that killed 6 million Jews.
Lesser was watching the documentary called “Night Will Fall” and there was a death train from when the Americans freed Dauchau. That train had 3,000 emaciated bodies, only 17 people walked off the train alive. Lesser was among the 17 and he recently found out that he’s now the only one of the 17 still alive.
“When I heard that… I realized then that you have to do whatever you can, because survival trusts upon me a mission. To teach. To talk. To speak, to lecture. Whatever I can about the Holocaust. I feel I have this duty. Because I was fortunate enough to survive.”
So on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I implore you to check out Ben Lesser and his AMA, read it, take the lessons to heart. And do your part to ensure that we can promise never again.