Ben Lesser is the founder of the Zachor Foundation, which aims to preserve the memory and lessons of the Holocaust aren’t forgotten by modern audiences. He’s also put his own story as a Holocaust survivor down on paper in the book Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream. LA Fan Cultures Examiner spoke to Ben last week about his mission and what it’s been like to teach others with his own life experiences.
“Initially I felt compelled to write about my life in order to provide testimony documentation about the Holocaust from an individual point of view. My goal for the book was that it provide a personal, intimate, real life view of history – not dry facts in a textbook,” he explained in our e-mail interview. “As I continued writing, however I realized that my testimony wasn’t enough. I understood the necessity of actively working to end the hatred that contributes to genocide.
“We know that the Nazis did not start with killing. It all started with hate. Hateful words, schoolyard bullying, hostile political campaigns, even reckless driving, all of these things contribute to an environment of hatred. Hatred can only exist where people are ignorant. We must constantly provide anti-hatred education,” he said. “I continued writing with the hope that people, especially young people, would read it and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others. I hoped that it would inspire others to stop the hatred.”
Understandably, talking about the tragedies that he and his family endured was not easy for Ben to do. “My writing process was difficult,” he reflected. “It was very emotional, as I tried to recall my interactions with each member of my loving family, before they were brutally slaughtered. It became much easier after liberation. Regaining my health at age of 18, coming to this wonderful land America, penniless, uneducated, unable to speak English and achieving the American Dream.”
He has now taken those experiences and, through the Zachor Foundation and its initiatives, used them for something constructive. The Foundation recently had a successful event in Los Angeles at the end of August. “We were honored to have Dr. Michael Berenbaum as our moderator,” Ben told us. “It was a very unique presentation. Me as a survivor with Rainer Hoss – grandson of Rudolf Hoss, the commandant and most notorious mass killer of Auschwitz, one who also killed members of my family – along with two extraordinary attorneys from Germany: Khubaib Ali Mohammed, who happens to be Muslim, and Markus Goldbach. Both prosecuting attorneys against the remaining Nazis who escaped to avoid prosecution. When will people ever have the opportunity to hear from a group of people like that, all with the same goal in mind: never again.”
Ben will always make himself available to schools, colleges, and any other group willing to listen to his remarkable story, because it’s that education and raising awareness that is the at the core of what he’s striving to do. That includes the Foundation’s “I Shout Out” campaign, which started as representing the six million Holocaust victims and has evolved into standing up against all forms of intolerance.
“The Holocaust started from hatred – the very root of bullying,” Ben explained. “So I ask that everyone take a stand, unite and stop intolerance at its tracks. Can you imagine, millions of people together standing-up against bullying, racism, intolerance, for equality…There is so much that you can do, because if you don’t you become a bystander. For starters, stand up, shout out and spread the word by conveying a timeless message that your children’s children can see and feel for eternity. Your shout out does matter and will remain on a virtual wall on our website for generations to come.”
“My most favorite moments are lecturing in schools,” he reflected. “After I have told my story, the kids line up to shake my hand, ask for my autograph and take pictures with me all proudly wearing the Zachor Pins. These pins meaning ‘remember’ [are] a small token that the foundation provides to anyone that hears a survivor, not just me, speak.
“If someday they have kids of their own, and they find this pin in a jewelry box or drawer and ask mommy or daddy what is the meaning of this strange looking pin – that is when they will tell them the meaning and that this was given to them by a survivor of the Holocaust, then hopefully the answer will follow with an explanation of what the Holocaust was, and what hatred, bullying, and intolerance can lead to. It’s a reminder.
“We must accept and respect our differences,” he continued, ” for we are all part of humanity and as the number of Holocaust survivors becomes fewer and fewer, it is our responsibility to make sure that others understand its lessons. After we are gone, who will be left to counter the lies of Holocaust deniers? We are the last living proof of what happened. Our testimony provides undeniable documentation of man’s inhumanity to man.
“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 witness to truth. They will have to take on the responsibility of making sure our stories and the lessons taught will live long after we are gone. That is one of the reasons that I started the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.
“I know that we are making a difference. I know this because of thousands of letters I have received, particularly from young people and quite often from their parents telling us of the impact we have had on them. And that is what our foundation is all about…The Holocaust, the greatest tragedy of our modern world, must never be forgotten.”
For more on the Zachor Foundation, visit the official website.