Las Vegas Holocaust survivor, 91, continues to spread awareness

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Wade Vandervort

Holocaust survivor Ben Lesser, 91, poses for a photo in his home, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.

Fri, Oct 9, 2020 (2 a.m.)

For much of his life, Ben Lesser avoided talking about surviving the Holocaust.

“I chose to live a normal life and kept quiet about it,” Lesser said.

But more than 20 years ago, when his grandson’s fifth-grade teacher in Las Vegas asked him to speak to the class about his experiences, he opened the door to his past.

Before his talk, he searched for the right way to tell the students about the horrors of being imprisoned at multiple concentration camps — Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Durnhau, Dachau — along with surviving two death marches and a death train.

“What am I going to tell them? I don’t want to give them nightmares . . . (But) I want them to know the whole story,” he said.

Lesser spoke for more than an hour, not leaving much out. He gave a first-hand account of what many students learn only from textbooks.

“These kids were glued to their chairs,” he said.

Since then, the 91-year-old Las Vegas resident has traveled internationally to schools, universities, libraries, synagogues, churches and prisons to share his story.

In 2009, Lesser founded the nonprofit ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation to spread awareness. “Education is the pathway to a tolerant, peaceful world,” Lesser said.

He also traveled to Germany to speak at a trial against a former Auschwitz guard who was sentenced to five years in prison at age 94 for complicity in the murder of millions.

“I was able to speak out and voice my thoughts on his guilt, despite the decades which had separated him from these heinous acts,” he said.

Lesser also wrote a memoir, “Living a Life that Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream,” and his story has more recently been told through music.

Last month, BMG music company released four songs inspired by his life on all major streaming platforms.

Born in Krakow, Poland, in 1928, Lesser was a teen when he lost his parents, two brothers and a sister during the Holocaust.

Upon being freed from the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany, he weighed 60 pounds. He spent two months in a hospital recovering from harsh labor, starvation and dehydration.

His physical strength returned, but the Nazis would haunt his memory forever.

“They looked like normal human beings but they were monsters,” he said.

The most excruciating pain, however, came from the realization that the world knew of the atrocities taking place and for five years failed to stop the killing of 6 million European Jews, he said.

After Lesser left the hospital, he moved to the United States in 1947.

“I came to America with nothing — no skills, no education, no money — and I did not speak the language,” he said.

Lesser, who eventually settled in Los Angeles, worked odd jobs before going into real estate, opening Ben Lesser and Associates.

Lesser, who married and has two daughters, moved to Las Vegas in 1994 and began volunteering as a public speaker at local schools after he retired.

As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, Lesser said, he hopes sharing his story will inspire people to stand up against injustice and hate.

“I have sleepless nights every time I speak, but someone has to do it,” he said. “Whether it hurts me or not, I have to do it. . . We can’t allow the world to forget.”

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