‘Holocaust education is going to continue for eternity,” vows Ben Lesser, a Polish-born survivor of four concentration camps.
Lesser, 87, has dedicated much of his life to ensuring this promise is kept, speaking tirelessly to schoolchildren and other audiences about his life story, and inking his memories in his recent book Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream.
“Initially, I felt compelled to speak and write about my life,” Lesser explains to the Magazine, in a telephone conversation from his Las Vegas home. “I wanted to provide the personal, real-life view of history.”
As he was writing his book, however, Lesser realized he couldn’t stop there.
“My testimony is not enough to understand the necessity to actively work against the hatred that contributed to genocide.”
The octogenarian speaks to whoever will listen, sometimes penetrating seemingly unlikely audiences.
“I once went to speak at a school in a not-so-good neighborhood,” he recounts.
There are many gangs in that neighborhood, and the teachers were concerned about how the children would respond to Lesser, so much so that they surrounded him on stage, for fear the students might throw things at him.
But Lesser says the students sat glued to their seats, mesmerized by his story, and when he finished they all lined up and shook his hand one by one. When he walked to his car later to go home, he was surprised to find 150 children surrounding his car. They had deliberately missed the school bus home in order to applaud him and shake his hand once again.
He later received hundreds of letters from thankful parents detailing how their children’s encounter with Lesser had changed them, made them better people and better students.
“I realized that life is all a matter of choices, and it’s essential to understand the consequences of personal choice. I know there are so few of us [Holocaust survivors] left, and fewer of us can talk about it because it hurts too much.”
Lesser assures that he will continue to do so for as long as he is able to.
Two years ago, Lesser launched an anti-bullying campaign called I-SHOUT-OUT, with the aim of building a more peaceful and tolerant world by confronting the root of intolerance. The campaign calls on people to “shout out” on a virtual wall, against evils such as racism, discrimination, hatred, intolerance, anti-Semitism and more. Lesser’s goal is to garner six million voices “to compensate for the six million that we lost.”
“If millions shout out, we can make a dent in this world – there is so much hatred,” he affirms.
The survivor’s mains focus is youngsters, in whom he invests much of his energy. He relates that during talks he has delivered to schools and colleges, he recognized in youth and children a willingness to do something.
“They’re listening and synthesizing,” he explains, adding that he is now offering them a way for their voices to be heard.
“You never know who the youngsters will grow up to be – they may be the president,” Lesser says. “If they make a commitment now against racism, against discrimination, it’s always going to be there as a reminder in the future; they’ll always be reminded that they need to shout out against these things and will think twice.”
Lesser hopes the campaign will have a ripple effect as it gains momentum and more people hear about it.
“We will not let the world suffer amnesia,” he stresses.
“The world has to remember. We learned from the Holocaust that the Nazis did not start with the killing – it all started with hate and propaganda.”
Lesser states that this begins with school bullying, that this is where the hatred starts and this is where it must be stopped.
The campaign has so far garnered several thousand voices, the fruits of a joint family effort, as Lesser is helped by granddaughters and a daughter.
The latter also manages the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, which Lesser founded with the stated aim of “keeping the world from acquiring amnesia.”
Wherever Lesser goes, he carries with him Zachor pins; Zachor is Hebrew for “remember,” and as he distributes the golden pins bearing the Hebrew letters of the word, he hopes that with them, the lessons of the Holocaust will be passed down through generations to come.
“When I go to a school, I make sure listeners have a Zachor pin, so they walk away with something tangible in their hands to remember,” he explains. “I’ve received thousands of letters, and many of these kids say they will cherish the pin for the rest of their lives.
And if they have children of their own, they pass the story on with the pin.”
Indeed, Lesser’s representatives made sure to mail his book before the Magazine’s conversation with him, and sure enough, inside the package were two small Zachor pins.
“I feel that survival put me on a mission to speak about the Holocaust and keep the world from forgetting,” Lesser asserts.