Holocaust Survivor Asks Utah for Help in Stopping Prejudice
May 05, 2016 03:42PM
By Tori La Rue
By Tori La Rue | [email protected]
South Valley - A Holocaust survivor visited two Riverton schools to share his story of “five years in hell on Earth” and encourage students and community members to “shout out” in love for the six million voices silenced in the genocide he witnessed firsthand.
“I dedicated my life to doing just that — to make sure that the world understands what was happening, to keep the world from acquiring amnesia,” Ben Lesser said. “They would love to forget. The world would just love to forget, but, as long as I am alive, I won’t let them forget it.”
Five out of the seven members of Lesser’s family were slaughtered in the Holocaust, but he survived through the ghettos, work camps and death camps, living to tell the story.
“I strive to share my story, to show people — young, old and everywhere in between — that if I can survive the Holocaust and use that experience to charge forward in life, so can they,” Lesser said. “It brings back memories that give me sleepless nights before and after I speak, but someone has to do that, no matter how hard.”
Lesser shared his experiences on March 15 at Oquirrh Hills Middle School during an assembly for eighth graders and again later that night at Riverton High School, where students, parents and community members filled every chair in the 1,200-seat auditorium.
After listening to the audio of Lesser’s book, “Living a Life that Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream,” Erin Curtis, English teacher at Oquirrh Hills Middle School, said she contacted Lesser’s ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation to find out if Lesser could come speak in Utah. The eighth-grade English teachers at Oquirrh Hills teach a unit on Anne Frank, and Curtis thought hearing from a Holocaust survivor would help her students.
“It really worked,” Curtis said. “We give them an overview of the Holocaust, but we don’t always go into a lot of the gritty details he got into. I think it really hit the students of how terrible the Holocaust was, and it gave them an understanding of the atrocities that go along with genocide.”
Kimberlen Madsen, 14, said she realized how horrible the Holocaust was when Lesser told the story of seeing a Nazi officer kill an infant five days after the Nazis took Poland.
“It’s important to never forget, never forget that these things happened, so they don’t happen again, and history doesn’t repeat itself,” Kimberlen said.
At one point, Lesser explained that at a concentration camp he took 25 lashes with a whip so that his uncle didn’t have to. His uncle, much older than the teenage Lesser, would have likely died from the lashings because the Nazis killed anyone who passed out from the blows or who couldn’t count their whippings out loud.
Some parts of the assembly were depressing, according to Hailey Burt, 14, but she said it didn’t end that way.
“He told us that sometimes you just have to have hope, like he had hope through the whole thing that people could change and be better,” Hailey said. “His example makes me want to be better, and not focus on myself. I don’t want to look around me and have bias because those feelings can lead to bigger things — crueler things.”
Curtis said the students in her class are now reading about Anne Frank and studying the Holocaust with new eyes, more informed eyes.
“It’s more of a reality now, where before it was just stories,” Brock Proulx, 14, said. “It’s just crazy how different it is when you get more background knowledge. I never want something like that [to] happen again.”
Lesser started an online campaign called “I-Shout-Out” to rally people together who want to speak out against discrimination, and hopefully prevent future catastrophes that come from prejudices. The campaign can be found at www.i-shout-out.org.
Participants “shout out” by posting what they stand up for on a virtual wall. Lesser’s goal is to get six million people to post on the wall to compensate for those whose voices were silenced when they were killed in the Holocaust. Lesser asked Utah residents for their assistance in his cause.
“The people in Salt Lake are the friendliest people I have ever met,” Lesser said. “Imagine if every resident shouted out. Salt Lake could be the first place in the world to have every person shout out, and that would be so beautiful.”