At the age of 15, Ben Lesser had to make snap life and death decisions.
The first test came when Nazi guards screamed that women and children should go to the right and men should go to the left. Holding on to his younger sister and brother, Lesser, now 92, said he figured he’d be fed better if he went with the men. He had no idea that at this place called Auschwitz, mass murder was a daily occurrence.
“My sister and my little brother were taken to the gas chambers,” he said he would later learn.
Lesser’s ordeal would only begin with that obscene choice: He would survive multiple concentration camps, a seven-week death march and the notorious “death train” from Buchenwald to Dachau.
It’s a story he’s told in a memoir, in countless schools and in a Holocaust curriculum for students derived from his first-hand experiences, which he said is used in some New York City public schools.
Now he has found a new way to tell his story: on a four-song EP called “Choose Love,” done in collaboration with the music giant BMG. The Global Classroom, a collaboration with the United Nations World Health Organization in partnership with BMG, introduced Lesser to 14 songwriters in 2018 as part of a program called Music Against Anti-Semitism and Hatred. He introduces the songs on the EP, pop ballads that draw on his experiences to offer messages of resilience and healing.
On March 2 at 7:00 p.m., Lesser will appear in a Zoom event with BMG exec Marian Wolf and two of the songwriters, Toby Gad and Emily Vaughn. The event is sponsored by UJA-Federations’s Third Generation Holocaust Survivors & Supporters group and UJA’s Entertainment, Tech & Lifestyle division.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Lesser said that in a way he survived two Holocausts. Beginning when he was 11, he would hide with his family in the streets of his native Poland. His family made its way to Hungary in 1943, thinking Germany wouldn’t waste troops needed to fight at the front on occupying an allied country. Instead, the Nazis’ roundup of Hungarian Jews was late and thorough.
Of the family of seven, only he and a sibling survived. His cousin died in his arms shortly after American troops liberated them at Dachau in 1945.
After the macabre selection at Auschwitz, Lesser said a second test came when he was face to face with who believes to be Josef Mengele, the camp physician who with a flick of his finger was sending people to work or to their deaths.
Lesser said he saw Mengele ask the man in front of him if he could run five kilometers or would prefer to go by truck. A young man with a bad knee, the Jew made the wrong choice. Lesser said he instinctively stood in front of his uncle, saluted Mengele and said that he was 18 and ready to run and work. His uncle and cousin followed suit.
“There was a presence about my grandfather when he was young that his uncle and cousin listened to him,” said his granddaughter Robyn.
On one seven-week death march, he wore wooden shoes that broke after four weeks.
“If you slowed down they would shoot you,” he said.
On the death train, there were 80 Jews to a cattle car. Loaves of bread were thrown in, but those closest to the opening hoarded the loaves.
“I was against the wall with my cousin so we had nothing,” he said. “We had no idea where we were going or for how long. I had to get a bread. So I climbed over to see if I could wrestle one away from a guy that had several. One guy had a pocket knife and he stabbed me in my throat. I feel my mouth is filling up with blood. But I have to get the bread. Finally, I pulled one loaf of bread away from a man and he punches me in the face. I got to my cousin. I put my finger in my throat and it went right through my tongue.”
He rationed the bread with his cousin and it lasted two weeks. There was no water.
“Everyone around us was dying,” he said.
Thousands died during the three-week ordeal, captured in graphic photographs; Lesser is believed to be the only person alive of those who survived.
How was the teen able to survive?
“I’ve asked myself the same question you just asked me many times” he said. “The answer I came up with is that God needed a witness to talk about it. Many survivors can’t but I’ve devoted my life to doing it on the last 25 years.”
The author of “Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream,” Lesser founded the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation after retiring from a successful career in real estate.
Lesser said that even when Holocaust education is mandatory, teachers often only teach it peripherally. In America, some teachers may gloss over the genocide or only spend part of a lesson on it. Lesser, who has gone back to Germany to speak about his experiences, said the current rise of anti-Semitism is extremely troubling.
“I think it’s easy on the Internet to spread lies,” Lesser said. “There are Nazis that were let into America after World War II. Those Nazis were silenced for many years but now they can use the Internet to pervert youngsters by telling them if didn’t happen. Hate mongers are able to spew their hatred and some kids listen to it.”
The “Choose Love” project, in fact, was inspired by a notorious incident in 2018, when two rappers in Germany won a major music prize for an album whose lyrics boasted that their bodies were “more defined than those of Auschwitz inmates.”
Lesser said he has devoted 25 years of his life to combat lies, hate and anti-Semitism.
Said Lesser: “It’s something I’m always fighting against,” in words, actions — and now song.