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'Never again'
Holocaust survivor warns Yellowknife students to not forget concentration camps

Galit Rodan
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 23, 2012

The polished black boots of Nazi soldiers pounded the pavement outside Ben Lesser's window as the rifle-toting men jumped from German military vehicles shuddering through the streets of Krakow.

NNSL photo/graphic

Ben Lesser, Holocaust survivor and founder of the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, was in Yellowknife Thursday to speak about his wartime experience to students from St. Patrick High School, Sir John Franklin High School and Weledeh Catholic School. One hundred students from Behchoko were also present. - Galit Rodan/NNSL photo

It was September 1939, just days after Germany invaded Poland. The Second World War had officially begun and Lesser was 10 years old.

The vibrations of his building stirred him awake as the German tanks and half-tracks occupied his city.

It also marked a different kind of awakening as Lesser would soon come to understand what it meant to be a Jew during the most vicious periods of anti-Semitism in human history.

It wasn't long before he and his family experienced Nazi brutality firsthand, Lesser told a crowd of about 1,500 gathered in the St. Patrick High School gymnasium Thursday.

April 19 marks Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day - the commemoration of the systematic murder of six million Jews by Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War.

At the behest of Behchoko teacher Michael Botermans, Lesser, now 83, travelled from Las Vegas to the Northwest Territories, marking his first Canadian speaking engagement.

"This presentation is going to be one of those things that you remember for the rest of your life," Todd Stewart, assistant principal of St. Pat's, told the students and faculty who had gathered from his own high school as well as Sir John Franklin.

"You are the last generation to be privileged enough to listen to a survivor," Lesser told the high school students.

"Therefore the privilege falls now upon you. You are the future. And believe me we don't

want the world to forget."

At 5 a.m. one morning, four to five days after the occupation of Poland, Nazi officers began banging on the gate of Lesser's apartment building demanding to know where the Jewish families lived.

Awoken from his sleep, the building's superintendent rushed outside, shirttails hanging loose. He obliged.

The Nazi soldiers ran into the family's apartment and began pistol-whipping Lesser and his sleeping relatives until they poured their valuables into burlap sacks the soldiers had brought with them.

Meanwhile, blood-curdling screams from the apartment of the Jewish family across the way penetrated the walls of the building. Lesser and his sister went to investigate.

The family had an infant son. Lesser and his sister arrived at the apartment to see a Nazi soldier swinging the crying baby by his legs, shouting at his parents to shut him up.

Then, "this monster, with a smirk and a smile, twisted the child's head into the doorpost, smashing it, instantly killing it," Lesser told the students toward the beginning of his lecture.

The grim scene set the tone for the remainder of the three hours. Though Lesser at times withheld details, his emotionally-recounted story was nonetheless nothing short of shocking and heart-wrenching.

In 1944, Lesser was transported by overcrowded cattle car to the infamous concentration/death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was separated from two of his siblings.

"One minute I was holding on tightly to my little brother and my sister Goldie. And then suddenly - the next minute - they were gone. We were just torn apart. Never to see each other again," he wrote in his autobiography, Living A Life That Matters.

They had arrived at what Lesser believed to be a labour camp, the scroll of iron letters above the infamous gates stating "Arbeit Macht Frei" - work brings freedom.

The tall smokestacks spewing ashes evoked in Lesser a belief that he would be put to work at a smelting factory. It was only later that the prisoner in charge of his barracks told him and his fellow inmates what the smokestacks really were.

"That is the smoke of your burning grandparents, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children."

"Could you imagine something like this existed," Lesser asked the audience. "We couldn't believe what we just heard. We were holding ourselves and crying."

Lesser went on to survive a stay in labour camp Durnhau, a two-week death march from Durnhau to concentration camp Buchenwald in February 1945; nearly a month of living in another cattle car and three days in concentration camp Dachau before liberation.

For months he had kept his weakened cousin, Isaac, alive by refusing to let him sit down during the death march when he had lost his will to live and by rationing a loaf of bread between the two during weeks of being shuttled around in the cattle car. Two American soldiers who helped liberate Dachau gave Lesser and his cousin a can of SPAM - a gesture of goodwill toward the emaciated teens.

"We were so hungry and it smelled so good that we ate it," said Lesser.

"It was a mistake."

That night, Isaac, who had survived the horrors of the end of the war alongside Lesser, died of dysentery in his cousin's arms.

Lesser, who fell into a kind of coma, was taken to a field hospital where he awoke five months later.

A student asked Lesser if he ever wanted to give up, to put an end to his own suffering.

"Giving up would have been easy," he said. "It would have been a cop-out."

Lesser said he clung to life at every step along the way, feeling that he was being spared for a reason.

He began telling his story to students in 1985 and founded the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation in 2009, zachor being the Hebrew command, "remember."

"Most of us survivors can't talk about it. It hurts too much. But someone has to do it," said Lesser.

He asked the audience to be kind to one another; to be vigilant about recognizing and overcoming feelings of hatred; to go home and hug their families.

Then he asked them to hold hands as he enjoined them to repeat after him, three times, in unison,

"Never again. Never again. Never again."

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