I didn’t want to go to Auschwitz. In fact, I had been dreading the trip to the concentration camp since I knew I was going to be in Europe. Maybe “didn’t want to go” is not accurate. I wanted to go … but knew it would be an experience that would be achingly painful.
As a child being raised Jewish, I was fortunate enough to meet many survivors of the Holocaust. And, as former actress, I was fortunate enough to have a part in a play “Who Will Carry the Word?” that dealt with 20 women attempting to survive in Auschwitz. Between being Jewish and being in a play about the Holocaust, I had learned a lot.
I knew going in to Auschwitz how bad it was there. I knew what to expect. And yet, after I watched the short film they show at the beginning of the tour of the camp, when the doors to the camp were opened and I saw the “Arbeit Macht Frei” metal sign above the entrance, my eyes and nose stung with salty tears.
Man, this tour was going to get me.
“Are you OK?” Stephan, a Scottish guy I had met the night before at Tutti Frutti, asked me, placing his hand on my arm after we exited the gas chamber in Auschwitz.
“Yeah,” I said. It was only then, when the “yeah” came out choked and strained that I realized I was far from OK.
“Thanks,” I said, resisting tears and fighting to keep my composure.
I had expected to feel something in the gas chambers.
It was earlier, when I stood in one of the blocks looking at photos of children who were brought to the camp, that I lost it and was thankful I had my big sunglasses on to cover half my face. I didn’t want people to see me, having a moment, as I looked at one little Polish girl, fear rampant on her face and tears clearly pooled in her eyes, as she took her mug shot.
Auschwitz is an ironic place. It’s original use was not as a death camp, so its large red brick buildings, grass lining the streets and weeping willows sprouting from the ground stand as a complete juxtaposition to what happened there. Birkenau, well, that camp just looked like field of death.
I could take the time here and talk more about my experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I could write about the tons of hair the Nazis stockpiled which was on display in a room, the piles of shoes, the twisted metal glasses, the pots and pans. I could tell you about our tour guide (it costs a little to have one, but it is well worth it to learn information beyond the signs) being from Oswecim, where the camps are located, and how the town is pretty, not what one would expect considering the deaths that took place. I could even tell you about the words she said as we toured Birkenau and saw the long slab of concrete with 50 or so holes which served as toilets: “Auschwitz was hell. Birkenau was worse.”
I could tell you how odd and numbing it is to stand in the midst of a place where innocent lives were lost, where people were killed brutally … and to watch other people treat this place, this living, breathing reminder of pain, as a fun tourist attraction.
But, I believe it is more important in this space to tell the story of one soft-spoken man I know, Ben Lesser. A kind and loving grandfather in Las Vegas. A Holocaust survivor. Because, at the end of the day, the truest way to gain insight into what happened in Auschwitz is by hearing stories of those who witnessed it’s sheer and utter force, death and destruction.
And, this is his (abbreviated) story:
Born in 1928 in Krakow, Ben lived in Poland pre-World War II. When the Germans began to occupy Poland, he and his younger brother were snuck out of the country via the bottom of of a coal truck to meet their uncle in Hungary. However, less than a year later, Ben was taken by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau by train. Only a teenager, Ben was then transferred to Durnhau Labor Camp.
For months, he toiled and survived there. Then, in February 1945, he was a part of the Death March … a two-week march that moved prisoners from the war front to camps in Germany’s interior. The march took Ben through dire conditions, eventually landing him at Buchenwald for one night before being placed in a cattle car and moved aimlessly for approximately a month as the Germans tried to evade the American and British troops and destroy the evidence of the crimes they committed against humanity.
Finally, after more than six weeks of ghastly living, Ben arrived in Dachau. Three days later, on April 29, 1945, Dachau was liberated.
On May 8, the war ended.
However, while Ben survived the Holocaust, the scars from the experience ran deep. He lost his entire family, minus his sister, Lola.
Today, Ben speaks to youth across America, telling his story. He also runs an organization, the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust in both Jewish and world history … to ensure future generations ALWAYS REMEMBER what happened to millions of people.
My telling of his story does it no justice. For HIS words, which far exceed any horror I could ever possibly convey in this, please click here.
Needless to say, when I returned to Krakow that night and boarded my train to Prague, my mind could hardly process the experience.