A Life of Meaning

0415bookreviewBen Lesser is a survivor of the Holocaust, one of the darkest periods of our world’s history. His story is one of millions, each being unique, each needing to be told, heard and remembered. Ben knows this and today dedicates his life to telling his story so that it will always be remembered.

Lesser first felt compelled to write about his life as a way to document man’s inhumanity to man from an individual’s point of view. He felt it was important to provide a real-life view of history that was more intimate than the dry facts found in text books. “As the numbers of Holocaust Survivors becomes fewer and fewer,” he says, “it is our responsibility to make sure that others understand its lessons. Here are just a few of those lessons.

Choose a Life of Meaning “Individuals can’t always choose what happens to them. But whether it’s a crisis or calamity, people can choose to either let it ruin their lives or to learn from it and move forward. It is essential to understand the consequences of personal choices. It is possible to let tragedy or trauma become a reason to stop living. But it is also possible to live through extreme circumstances and commit to a life that has meaning. A life that matters.”

Work Against Hatred “We must each choose to take responsibility for living lives that work against hatred. And hatred can only exist where people are ignorant, so we must constantly provide anti-hatred education. In doing so we contribute to the healing of others.”

The Power of Love “More than anything else, I understand the power of love to eliminate hate. The love of my parents, who were massacred by the Nazis, gave me the foundation that my life has been built on. My love for them and my brutally murdered sister and brothers fills my heart to this day. And in the horror of Hitler’s concentration camps, there was no way to even imagine that one day I would live to find my soul mate, my best friend and the love of my life, my wife of 65 years, Jean. For us to have been blessed with our two beautiful daughters, four amazing grandchildren and one great grandchild is proof that love is stronger than hate.”

I recently had the honor of speaking with Mr. Lesser (he said I can call him Ben).

In your own experience how have you learned to live with the memories? Do you have tools that help you deal every day and night? It’s still very emotional for me, but I feel compelled to talk to people about my experience. I dedicated my life to keeping this world from acquiring amnesia. I will do whatever is in my power, whether it’s teaching or giving lectures, to speak about the Holocaust to anyone that will listen. I feel obligated and so thankful that I survived.

Did you struggle with survivor’s guilt? So many people more worthy than I did not survive. I have to give something back–I have to speak out for the 6 million voices that were silenced. That’s why I started the Zachor Foundation-zachor means to remember, to keep the memory alive. We learn from the Holocaust… these Nazis were not born Nazis they were people like you and I with loving families. In that beautiful country of Germany with all its brilliant composers and scientists, Nazism was born. Apparently there is a little bit of evil in each of us… we just have to be very careful not to allow it to surface.

What are some simple things we can do to live a life that matters? I believe it is essential to understand the consequences of personal choices. I came here at the age of 18 with no education, no money, no family. I didn’t even know the language. Some of these kids who I speak to have a “deprived childhood”–I believe that it’s all in your mind. If you choose to succeed in this wonderful country who is going to stop you?! Any profession you choose, work hard, study hard and you can achieve anything. I am a symbol.

With this being the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and not a lot of survivors left to tell their own personal stories. Is this the best way to continue remembering and keeping the legacy of the survivors alive? I realized live testimony is crucially important. There are so few of us left. We cannot afford to keep quiet. The world has to know … (or) things could repeat themselves, you never know. The young people who hear us speak and read our stories are the last generation to have access to a Survivor. They are the last witnesses to truth. They will have to take on the responsibility of making sure our stories, and the lessons they teach, will live after we are gone.

Some people believe that the recent resurgence of antisemitism in Europe is very similar to what was happening before the Holocaust. What can we do to raise awareness and stop the hatred? 

I started the Zachor Foundation in order to give the kids a memento to remember the Holocaust. I’ve given out 150,000 pins free of charge to anyone that has listened to me speak or teaches about the Holocaust. Also, I started “I Shout Out” (www.i-shout-out.org) a call to action for anyone wanting to speak out against injustice or intolerance. Change will happen if enough people speak out. Let’s reverse the trend in antisemitism. It’s beautiful because we are different: we look and think differently. That’s what makes it interesting.

For more information about Ben Lesser’s foundation go to zachorfoundation.org Also for information about Holocaust Survivor Services here in Orange County please contact Cally Clein, LCSW  at (949) 435-3460, Ext. 359 / Cally@jffs.org.

Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel and currently works for the CEO and President of Jewish Federation & Family Services. 

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