During the earlier years, when did you realize that the Nazi regime was going to be a very, very big problem?
Well, in 1939, when the war broke out, I was only about 10 and a half years old. I didn’t know much about politics. But in 1938, there was Kristallnacht in Germany, and… actually, we all know what happened with that, where Jewish people were not allowed to do this or that, all the Jewish shops in Germany and Austria were broken into, the breaking of the glass, the shopkeepers were pulled out, and many were beaten to death or sent to Dachau (at that time, it was just a prison)… and many Jewish homes were ransacked and they were burning Jewish temples, places of worship, many many Jewish temples in Austria were actually burned.
And it was not done by a bunch of gangs, wild…you know, hooligans. It was government-owned. Government orders. And they actually ordered to start fires in all these temples and places of worship. And firefighters stood by, guarding the houses that are NEXT to these temples, so they shouldn’t catch on fire, but the temples were burning.
So those things were happening when I was 9 and a half. And i had no idea of these things. If my parents knew something, they wouldn’t tell us.
I came from a wonderful loving home, a family of 7. And out of that family, only my older sister Lola and I survived. Lola was 5 years older than I was, and unfortunately she passed away a few months ago. She was a wonderful artist, lived in New York, and still her art is in many museums all over the world, including in Jerusalem… but anyway, to answer your question: did I know what was going on?
No. We had a pretty normal life. Until all hell broke loose, in September of 1939.
And the world broke out. And it didn’t take long. Right within days, we knew exactly what Nazi barbarism was.
What happened particularly in the train carts that transported you to the concentration camps? What do you remember of the transport inside the carts? Were you all crammed in with no food and water for days? How did people relieve their bowels? What of children or babies that there may have been present?
Okay, to answer your question about the cattle cars… they pushed us in cattle cars. That was on the way to Auschwitz. And then with the death-camp going to Dachau, the second time for me.
To give you an idea – 80 people in a cattle car would be possible, if not for the fact that most people were told to bring along their valuables, because they were being told that they were being relocated in Germany, and these able-bodied people will be working, and the children will go to school, and the older parents will be taken care of… so they brought along all their valuables, all they could carry.
So NOW, with all the bundles and valises they brought, if a person had to sit down, another person had to stand up. The sanitary conditions – all they had were 2 buckets in the corner. They were full of water when we went in, and once the water was gone, there was nothing else left. So all we had were those 2 buckets for sanitary facilities.
So you can imagine 80 people using those 2 buckets.
Once these buckets got filled up – they kept spilling over on the floor in the cattle car. If you can picture this, one day, two days, three days… with all of that waste on the floor… at this point, we were happy that we had bundles so we could sit on top of the bundles instead of all the human waste on the floor.
The conditions were unbelievable. We had babies there. Pregnant mothers. We had older people. Sick people. And they are screaming and yelling. It just went on… the conditions were unbelievable. Some people were dying, they just could not take it anymore, they gave up.
Day one, day two, day three – we finally arrived into Auschwitz, it was called “Ausfhwenchiem” in Polish (it’s very hard to pronounce, I know that).
Anyway, I don’t want to get into details, but to answer your questions – the conditions were unbearable. After 3 days, they opened up the gates, let some fresh air, and we came out.
But to answer your question – yes, it was inhumane. It was impossible to – I guess at the end of another day, half the people would’ve died. People were throwing up from the smell. Just unbelievable.
It was completely inhumane. But they didn’t care. They took us to be killed anyway.
How violent were the camps?
Well, the camps were not violent. The leaders of the camps were… they were very violent. In Auschwitz, for instance, they would make us stand at attention for an hour in the freezing cold in the morning, and an hour at night, and count you and count you and count you…
Actually, there was no purpose in that.
The only purpose they had was to weed out the strong from the weak. And by making you stand at attention for an hour or two -so if you started to lean a little bit, or your knee would buckle a little bit – they would pull you out and either shoot you or send you to the hospital where they sent you to the gas chambers or whatnot to get rid of you…
They only wanted people to stay there to work. To be able to work, you have to be healthy and fed. But they didn’t care. They would always get new people, fresh people. It was very hard. They had all kinds of torture methods.
For instance, in the camps in Auschwitz – I’ll go through it when I can, tell you about my camp experience – in Auschwitz they would make us stand in line in the freezing cold, and they had a little game – where they said “Take off your cap! in German. So you had to stand at attention, take off your cap, and you had to hit your arm against your leg with the cap.
All they wanted was to hear one sound. If somebody was a second late, they wanted to know who they were. And then they would pull them out, and beat them to death, or give them lashes… and sometimes they would pull people out just to make a point.
And then put the hats back on. Up and down, up and down… it was a game. These capos, these people inside the camp who were guards, and guarding us… they could do with us whatever they wished.
There was no accounting. If they had some kind of fetish or crazy idea, they played it out with people.
What did they care? Kill you, not kill you?
What did you eat in the camps?
Okay… we ate very little. Whatever we can. Whatever they fed us. And believe me, whatever they fed us was not fit for human beings. But daily, usually, we had a few slices – like maybe 3-4 slices of bread. And they gave us a little margarine. The bread was made from half-sawdust… not real wheat, or anything like that. It was half sawdust, but it was food we could digest. And a little margarine, they always… had a little liverwurst – I mean very little. They gave you JUST ENOUGH to keep you alive, because they needed your work. And if you got sick, and you died – well, that’s what they planned anyway! But as long as you could work, they kept you alive.
It’s strange, because a few years ago, when you had slaves in this world, you fed them well – you wanted them to be fairly healthy and work hard. But the Nazis barely fed us enough to keep a bird alive. And as long as you lived, they used every ounce of strength from you to work.
And if you died – well, it’s perfectly alright! Or they shot you, or beat you to death, who knows what they did.
So the food wasn’t very much. They gave us a little bit of what they called coffee – it was made out of grain. But it was hot liquid. They fed us once a day some soup, and you wouldn’t dare to find out what’s in the soup, because if you found out, it would make you sick to your stomach.
It was mostly liquid, but if the person dealing out the soup was a friend of yours, or knew you, they went down with the ladle a little deeper to pick up something of substance.
It could sometimes be a rat, or a mouse. You would be surprised. They threw everything in there.
Anyways, it wasn’t enough, and we were constantly, constantly, in hunger. Starving.
What was the most horrifying thing you personally witnessed?
The most horrifying thing I personally witnessed was the hanging of those 3 inmates that escaped and they caught them.
They put the noose on them, one at a time.
The last one that they hung was a young man, and he screamed out the prayers, the Jewish prayer before dying.
It’s only 5 or 6 letters.
But when they heard that, they kicked the stool out from under him, not even allowing him to finish 2 words of that prayer.
That was horrifying to me.
And the other thing that was even worse was when they first occupied Poland, Krakow, within 5 days there was a truck pulling up to our building, and Nazi soldiers jumped out of it, and all they wanted to know was where the Jewish people lived. They asked the Super where the Jewish people lived.
And he was quick to oblige.
They came in, pistol-whipping us. They had sacks for us to throw in all our valuables. They were beating up my father to open up the safe, they cleaned everything out.
While this was going on, we heard horrible screams next door from the other Jewish family. So my sister Lola, the one who survived, and I ran out through the back door to go into our neighbor’s through their back door to see what happened.
There was a young couple living there with 2 daughters, about my age. We used to play in the yard, after school. And the mother gave birth to an infant boy, about I guess 1 month earlier? or 3 weeks earlier? And we came in, we saw this monster holding the baby by its legs, and swinging it.
And screaming to the parents MAKE HIM SHUT UP! And of course the parents and daughters were screaming Our baby, our baby, don’t hurt our baby!
And when we came in, we couldn’t believe what we saw. This monster had this smirk on his face, like he was enjoyingwhat he was doing. And he smashed the baby’s head right into the doorpost, head first, killing it instantly.
That…That memory I will never forget. Seeing that baby scream, and then the sudden silence. And the head opened up, and everything on the floor. We all jumped on this monster, and started to beat him, and scream – of course, we were all pistol-whipped by his buddies.
Anyways, it’s a long story, but all I can tell you is the mother died within 2 weeks in the hospital, I don’t know if because of heartbreak, or being beaten.
This was our first taste of Nazi brutality.
In those dark days how did you find the strength to survive? Did you ever want to give up so the suffering would end?
Well, the answer to that question is simply that it’s human nature to overcome most of the atrocities and difficulties that are thrown at them.
But I didn’t think that I was any different than any other person. At least at that time, I didn’t give it any thought. I just wanted to survive – to get by every day, to stay out of the way, not to be as visible, because these – I don’t know what to call them – these monsters…just look for any kind of reason to pull someone out to kill them, to set an example.
So you had to keep timid. And try to do everything that they ordered you to do. And not to be outstanding, or visible, in such a way. So… if you’re insignificant, they don’t look to pull you out, and show an example.
This may be one of the reasons that I survived.
And I was always very… don’t know how to say it? I was always very enthusiastic about life itself.
I hadn’t had a life, until that point, and whatever I did have, at this point, was sort’ve blocked out of my mind. I didn’t remember the good years any more. So to me, life was very important, and I had to do everything humanly possible to survive, not to give them a reason or a cause to pull me out, and kill me.
What was one of the most uplifting things you witnessed during your imprisonment?
There were a lot of incidents like this, but few and far between. Because missing one bit of food meant certain death. I remember one inmate gave away his ration of food for a cigarette butt, and the guy died that night.
The Nazis had figured out exactly what a person needed to live until the following day, so very little of it went on where people were generous by giving away their food – they couldn’t afford do, it meant certain death.
But I did come across very generous and very good people in my life, who had saved Jewish people, and I called them “Righteous Gentiles.” I even had a head of the Gestapo who saved my sister, Lola, the one who survived – and saving her, she saved me and dozens of others people from a ghetto. And that enabled us to escape the ghetto and run away to Hungary, which was still a free country. Now this head of Gestapo knew what he was doing was wrong, according to their laws, and eventually, he was executed by the Germans. But he saved many Jewish people, including myself and some others that i know survived the war thanks to him.
So not everyone was bad.
But of ALL people – we couldn’t believe the Head of Gestapo would do what that man did.
Who were your liberators and could you talk a little about when you first saw them and if you kept in touch with them over the years?
At first, you know, they looked like GODS to me.
I was liberated by the American soldiers. And every soldier that i saw looked like a God. I didn’t know how to thank them.
But I have met liberators – and until I started teaching about the Holocaust, and speaking, and lecturing – actually, it’s in my book, and it’s a long story to tell, but how in Tennessee, at the University of Tennessee, I happened to accidentally meet the liberators of Dachau, 2 gentlemen who liberated me.
And they were telling their stories about what they found in Dachau, these atrocities, and I was a speaker immediately following them.
And sitting there, I couldn’t believe – I was on pins & needles – these people rescued my life! These people liberated me!
And then when it was my turn to speak, i walk over to them with shaking knees, and I embrace them, and I say: “You two gentlemen gave me my life. You liberated me. I wouldn’t be here without you.“
OF ALL PLACES. And they happened to be the soldiers who liberated Dachau! And I was liberated there! How strange and coincidental that were in the same stage, talking about the same thing. And when they talked about liberating Dachau, and all these atrocities – I couldn’t believe what I heard…
Yes, yes. Those are the only two gentlemen I met those many years later, and we keep in touch quite often.
What was the first thing you ate after being freed from the camp?
The first thing I ate, I remember, 2 GIs, American soldiers walked up to us, and they opened up a can of Spam. And they handed it to me and my cousin.
Well, it smelled so good that we made a mistake and we ate some of it.
And unfortunately, both of us came down with dysentery, I guess it sped up, he would’ve probably died anyway, and my cousin died in my arms the night after liberation. I got very sick too, and when they took him away from me, I tried to follow.
I only weighed 65 pounds. I was a skeleton. Skin and bones.
So what can I tell you? The first food we ate was Spam.
I never ate that in my life before. I guess the Americans found it in the German magazines, and they handed it out to the starving people. They meant well, but our stomachs were not used to it.
A Jesuit priest picked me up, and took me to a field hospital in Dachau, where I passed out, and I was out in a coma for over 2 months. So what I ate afterwards, I have no idea. But it was good food, because I came to myself, and surprising when I woke up after coma, I couldn’t believe seeing myself – I looked pretty good! I had flesh on me.
I looked like a human being again.
What was your initial experience of America when you first arrived in 1947?
Well, when I was arrived, I was very, very overcome. I was impressed. It was just overwhelming to me.
First, I arrived in New York harbor, and of course, the skyscrapers, the lifestyle… I made a sort of promise to myself then: This is going to be the first day of your life. From this day on, there is only ONE place to go: SUCCEED. I will build a family, I will do whatever I can in my power to succeed in this United States of America.
And this was my first impression. I liked what I seen. I met people who I thought were industrious, with businesses and families and love…there’s respect. I loved what I saw in America. I became American in my heart immediately. So I adopted America, and I am glad America adopted me, and allowed me to be part of it, and become a citizen.
As a surviour, do you think you could ever forgive those who caused the Jewish race persecution? If so, what makes you forgive them, if not what would have to be done for it to be forgiven?
Okay, that’s a very good question. No, the answer is: I can’t forgive those people who were directly involved, the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Obviously, I can never forgive them. And perhaps I feel that it’s not really up to me. It’s up to the victims. They have to forgive them. But I can’t forget. But the other answer is: I do not blame the son for his father’s sins.
Which means I have nothing against the people of Germany today.
They are not at fault for what happened. And to me, we are all part of the human race. So whether you’re German, or French, or American… whether you’re one religion, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant – it doesn’t matter. We are all part of the human race.
And I respect every person. As long as they prove themselves to not be racist or hateful people. As long as they don’t repeat the atrocities from the past – I respect them. And I tolerate them. I think it is beautiful that we are different.
So I hope this gave you the answer.
How hard is it to keep painful memories at the forefront of your mind as you do this? How do you find the motivation and inspiration to do so?
Well… I am thankful to God for the strength that I am healthy enough to share my story. And I hope for many years that I can continue doing this. Because it is something that needs to be done.
I started it over 20 years ago, approximately 25 years ago. It all started with my grand-son, who invited me to speak in one of the schools. Before I was silent, I kept it bottled up in me. I thought Why subject our children, our grandchildren, to all these tragedies? I wanted them to grow up as normal American kids. Not to feel some kind of guilt-trip or something. So I didn’t talk much about it. But my grand-son asked me to come to school to talk about it.
And from that date on, I came to Los Vegas Nevada, and I joined the Holocaust Survivor’s Group, and the speaker’s bureau, asked for volunteers. So I volunteered. And I haven’t stopped speaking since. I felt I had to reach out. I had to do much more than just speaking, exposing colleges. It has to be more wider-scale. So I started Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, hoping it would reach millions of people worldwide. We have to keep this world from acquiring amnesia. But there are many other ways to reach out. And as time went on, I kept adding those ways.
Since I retired – actually, when I retired to Las Vegas, I felt I’ll take it easy for a while, I always felt that I was a very hard worker, but it turns out I’ve never worked so hard in my life as retirement!
So yes, I am grateful for this. I will do everything possible – because the world has to know. We have to do everything possible to keep the world from forgetting.
Have you or any other survivors you’ve met had to deal with PTSD or other mental health issues after the war ended? How were you able to go through it?
Post-traumatic stress, is that what you’re saying?
I didn’t have very much of that.
I knew… there were no surprises. I knew exactly what was happening in the camps. I went through it every day.
So after liberation, I really did not have that much stress, because after going through hell, everything is paradise.
I knew I had to work hard in order to achieve my dream, to be successful in this world, but to have post-traumatic stress… I didn’t. I dunno. Maybe because i was too young, I didn’t realize. But to me, every day was a gift from heaven.
So after going through what I went through – everything was easy. It was simple.
To some people – things may look hard, like hard work, or digging ditches, or who knows what you’re doing that’s hard. To me, it was a pleasure, work. I’m doing this as a free man, a free person!
I never try to stay away from hard work. I knew that in order to succeed, you have to work hard. And I did many things in this wonderful America, in this country of ours, that wasn’t easy. But I don’t remember post-traumatic stress. I really don’t have an answer for that.
You’ve obviously had an amazingly long life and experienced a lot of extreme things. What is the single moment in your life that stands out in your memory the strongest?
Well… the worst thing stands out in my life is memory, the memory when we arrived into Auschwitz, and they said “Women and children to the right, and men to the left” and I was holding onto my little brother Tully, my older sister Goldie, and we were just… pulled apart.
Never to see each other again.
And when I found out where they went… and what happened to them, that was one of the worst nightmares of my life.
I couldn’t believe when I was told that they were actually those ashes that we see, those flames shooting out… those are our parents, our mothers, our fathers, our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters… ashes.
This was a terrifying moment in my life. When I realized my sister, my little bother, were just burned to death. Just… I couldn’t get over it, for a long time.
And of course… other memories, there are many others.
Having my first daughter, my second daughter, my marriage to my lovely wife of 64 years…
There are a lot of wonderful, wonderful moments in my life. Besides the atrocities at the beginning
How frustrating is it that some people refuse to believe the Holocaust occurred?
I don’t believe that they don’t know better. They know better. They just believe that if a lie is told long enough, that some people will start believing in that lie. Because nothing in history was ever as documented as the Holocaust itself. So… you know, how could they deny it?
Eisenhower, when he came across these camps, instructed his soldiers, the fighting men to take pictures – all the pictures they could, from all they saw, these atrocities, “because someday there will be people denying that it ever happened.” That it ever happened. So he was smart enough. And millions, and millions of pictures. It was documented in pictures, and films. So what’s the use of denying it?
They are preying on youngsters who don’t know better, or uneducated people. This is why education is important. Because people who are in countries who don’t have the chance to know the truth – they hope that these people will believe it.
Those are anti-Semites. People who hate Jewish people.
What do you think about the status of Jews in Europe today?
bout the status of Jews in the world today? It’s very grim. I read about it all the time. It seems like Anti-Semitism is taking over, all over again. It’s not so… visible, openly.
But what bothers me the most is in Germany itself, it’s become fashionable among the elites in Germany to make jokes, and to sort’ve blame things on the Jewish people. This is… what actually started the whole thing.
Hitler, and the Nazis, did not begin by killing. This is not how it started.
It all started with hate. Propaganda. And… this is happening again. Not to such an extent, as before, obviously. But I can see in my personal opinion that I have, if I am allowed to say this – I personally feel that there is only one race in the world, and that is the HUMAN race.
And we are all human.
So apparently, there is a little amount of evil that is lurking in each one of us. We have to be very careful not to allow it to surface. Because we are all the same people.
I guess that the Nazis were not born monsters. They had lovely families. There were educated people. So… people can be subverted in such an easy way. Simply by words from the mouth.
Hitler was a good orator. And he lashed out. And that’s how it started. It’s beginning again. Little jokes, here and there about Jews. Little jokes about problems all the fault of a Jew… in anice way. You know?
And this is happening all over again in parts of the world. And it’s fashionable to make jokes about Jews. That bothers me. It bothers me a lot. And it’s happening. Of course, it is fueled by religion, and other sources… but WHY? Why can’t we tolerate and respect each others’ religion? Why can’t we live side-by-side? And respect?
No matter what your religion is.
See the beauty in that part. And why do we have to try and convert others to be like them, or like us?
The beauty in this world is that we are different – we think different, we have different beliefs, we look different… can you imagine if we all looked the same, and if we all believed the same? Like Hitler wanted the Nazis to be?
It would be a dull, dull world. It would be like a bunch of ants following a leader.
So yes, I am very disturbed at what is happening. And this is why I am doing MORE than I can do. Day and night, I have sleepless nights, I think of what I can do…to get the message out. To get to more people.
And this is why it’s so important to go to schools, why education is so important.
Because hatred exists ONLY where people are ignorant.
So each one of us has to choose responsibility. To live lives that work against hatred.
Obviously – hatred is out there, even with bullying. Or political campaigns. Reckless driving. All of these things contribute to an environment of hatred.
And hatred can only exist where people are ignorant. So we must constantly provide anti-hatred education. And in doing so, we can contribute to the healing of others.
To respect. To heal the world. It has to be through education. And it has to be through educators who are… known that they believe in tolerance, and respect. So we have to be also very careful who these educators are.
If you had the chance to go back in time and see your young self, what would you do and what would you tell him?
I would tell myself “Ben, you have to respect and love all people in this world. Do not discriminate. Do whatever best you can in your life to help others. In general, just be a person of love, instead of hate. We have so much in this world, and I guess.. after going through all this hatred, and atrocities, I would absolutely tell myself that Ben, you cannot discriminate. We are all part of the human race. And this is something that I feel starts – hatred begins in schools. I would tell myself that.“
It starts early as bullying. When you bully someone, you make an enemy for life. So why bully? Why hate?
This is something I have learned from living this life of mine, and going through hell on earth… that we have to find a way to prevent this from ever happening again.
So it has to start with me. I have to be the one. I have to be a loving person, instead of a hateful person.
And whatever you do – don’t ever be a bystander. If you see someone else being hurt, or something being wrongfully done – don’t be a bystander, the way the world was during World War II.
Speak up. Let your voice be heard.
Shout out. Let the world know. And this is what I am hoping I can accomplish in my life. To get this world to shout out… for peaceful purposes.
Shout out for love, for tolerance, against anti-Semitism, against racism… we only get it through education, so if I had my chance of reliving my life, this is what I would try to do. And this is what I am trying to do, in the last 25-30 years of my life.
What would you like every young person to know? What advice could you give them on how to live well?
The advice I can give every person… to live better…is “No matter – I want each person to know that life is a matter of choices.”
An individual can always CHOOSE what happens to them.
Whether it’s a crisis, or a calamity, people can choose to either ruin their lives, or to learn from it, and move forward.
It’s essential to understand the consequences of personal choices.
It’s possible to let tragedy or trauma become a reason to stop living.
But it’s also possible to live through extreme circumstances like I did and commit to a life that has meaning. A life thatmatters.
If you strive – whatever profession you’re in – to be the BEST in that profession – and if you work for a company, try to find out how you can, or what you can do, to help this company succeed – then you will be successful.
Don’t be a clock-watcher.
Just…see what you can do to possibly improve that company, so they can make money, hire more people… if you have this outlook, be the BEST in whatever you do… you have nothing to worry about in life. You will have a wonderful life.
This is what I feel I succeeded in. Because i never thought about myself personally. I thought if my boss is going to be successful, I will be, automatically, awarded. That’s the best advice I can give you.