Season 2, Episode 2
Surviving the Holocaust
Premiere Date: Nov. 20 @8/7c
Join Ann Curry for dramatic reunions between survivors of the Holocaust and the people whose lives were shaped by it. A survivor of Auschwitz searches for the friend who gave him hope, and a Jewish refugee looks for the little girl who helped him start a new life in America.
More than six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. And yet amidst the hatred and suffering, deep bonds were forged between those fleeing the atrocities that span generations.
Note: This episode was made possible with support from the USC Shoah Foundation.
Ben Alalouf, 77, was born in a bomb shelter in Skopje, Yugoslavia, now Macedonia, as the German Army invaded in spring 1941. The younger of two brothers in a Jewish family, Ben and his family spent three years in hiding, first in Albania; when it became unsafe there, the family made their way on foot and by boat to Italy, desperately searching for a way out of Europe and away from the Nazis.
The Alaloufs were able to book passage on a ship bound for Spain and England, but the ship sunk after hitting a German mine. An Allied military ship headed for Naples rescued the family after finding them clinging to the side of a lifeboat. From there the Alaloufs set about searching for other ways of escaping Europe.
After the Allies liberated Italy in June 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned an Army ship,Henry Gibbins, to transport surviving Holocaust refugees to the United States for temporary residence. Leaving Naples on July 21, the ship carried about 1,800 wounded American soldiers and just under 1,000 refugees. It arrived in New York on August 3.
Classified as temporary guests, the refugees lived behind barbed wire in a former military base in Oswego, N.Y., and had to sign a contract stating that they would return to their countries at the end of the war. Hundreds of families were thrown together in this makeshift community of refugees, and it was here that Ben met “Seka,” a fellow child refugee whose family lived in a neighboring cabin. The families became close friends.
Seven months after the war was over, President Harry S. Truman allowed the refugees — who had no real home to which to return — to apply for U.S. citizenship. In 1946 Ben and his family began a new life, settling in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father’s first job was selling hotdogs on Coney Island, and Ben shined shoes outside subway stations.
Ben has lived life to the fullest, working as a high school administrator and running marathons. Today he is a father, and he and his wife Martha split their time between Naples, Fl., and Nashville, Tenn.
Ben Lesser was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1928, one of five children in a Jewish family. At the age of 11 in 1939, he and his family were subjected to the harsh anti-Semitic persecution of the Nazis. In 1941, an ordinance was passed that stated that Jews had to leave the city or move into the ghetto, where 15,000 Jews were crammed into an area previously inhabited by 3,000 people. Forced to flee their home to avoid the ghetto, Ben and his family spent the next two years on the run and in hiding through Poland, were smuggled into Hungary and then eventually captured and sent to Auschwitz, where most of them tragically perished.
As a young man, Ben was selected to work in the labor camps and by the age of 17 had survived four concentration camps, two death marches and two death trains. The day after the three-week death march from Dornhau Labor Camp to Buchenwald, he was put on the notorious, almost three-week death train to Dachau. Only 17 of the over 3,000 people on the train survived; today Ben is the only living survivor.
Three days after Ben arrived at Dachau in April 1945, the camp was liberated by U.S. soldiers. He was then officially a “displaced person” with no family or home to return to.
Ben was sent to a makeshift hospital at the St. Ottilien monastery in Bavaria. After several months in a coma, he woke up next to a fellow Polish Jew from Lodz named Moshe Opatovski. Having both survived terrible trauma and lost their families, the pair became great friends. Together they joined a Zionist group and began training for a mission to migrate to Palestine. Just as they were due to depart, Ben learned that his sister Lola had also survived the war. Instead of leaving with his friend, Ben chose to stay behind in Germany to reunite with her, saying goodbye to Moshe. The pair never saw or spoke to each other again.
Ben and his sister migrated to the U.S. in 1947. Settling in California, he built a successful career in real estate. Since retiring in 1995, Ben has devoted his life to ensuring remembrance of the Holocaust. In 2009 he founded the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, I-SHOUT-OUT campaign, and is the author of "Living a Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream."
Today Ben lives with his wife Jean in Las Vegas. He has two daughters, four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.