Benjamin Lesser: 'The Friendship We Shared Will Always Live On'

Posted by We'll Meet Again Editor on
Ben Lesser (center) and Moshe Opatowski's children Osnet and Zohar.
PBS/Blink Films

After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, Ben Lesser has made it his mission to spread kindness and encourage others to shout out against hate and intolerance.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the interviewee. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Ben LesserBen LesserCourtesy Photo

PBS: We see you visiting the monastery you once stayed in, St. Ottilien. This is the same monastery where you met Moshe, and where you reunited with your sister Lola. Can you take us through your experience revisiting St. Ottilien again during your journey?

Ben Lesser: Yes, this is the third time I visited St. Ottilien and each time it brings back memories. In this case it was good memories since the [“We’ll Meet Again” production] crew wanted to recreate the room exactly as it was when I first met Moshe. When I woke up from my coma (6 weeks-2 months) the nurses were very happy to see me come to life. They called on each other and they all came running toward me; one brought a mirror so I could see myself. I was surprised because I saw myself not as a skeleton but with a few more pounds.

I looked good and the following day the nurse came to ask a favor of me. She mentioned there was a shortage of beds and wanted to ask if she could double up my bed head to toe with another young man who was also a survivor. This is when I first met Moshe and they brought him over. We took to each other right away. He was about 2-3 years older than me and we were both from Poland. We both left in August to the Kibbutz in Landsberg.

Ben's sister with her husband.Ben's sister with her husband.Courtesy Photo
PBS: In the moments that you saw old photos of Moshe and watched his testimony from Israel, what was running through your mind?

Ben: We were at the Shoah Foundation when I listened to his testimony; [Steven] Spielberg’s team had interviewed all remaining Holocaust survivors. When [the “We’ll Meet Again” producers] brought me over to watch his testimony a few people in the Shoah told me he passed away a few years before. I was very upset and hurt that I missed the chance to meet him again and find out why he walked away from me in Germany.

I would’ve liked to rebuild our past and ask forgiveness for any bad feelings we had between us. I made the decision to see my sister instead of continuing on the mission to Palestine (now Israel) with Moshe. I missed the chance to make amends with him. I listened to his testimony and I was pleased to hear that he mentioned me. It was a bittersweet feeling to know that after all these years he still thought of me as I did of him.

He said he had a good friend who was like a brother to him and mentioned Benjamin Lesser. I learned that time is precious and we should tell our loved ones how much they mean to us before time runs out. I am sorry that I did not reach out to him as the years went by.

PBS: After you learn of Moshe’s passing, you take a trip to Israel to meet with his son and daughter for a very emotional reunion. What is next for you and Moshe’s children?

Ben: We became very close in those few days that we met. We exchanged addresses and we are staying in touch. We are trying to catch up for lost time and plan on seeing more of one another in the future. I consider them family; their father will always be a brother to me. The friendship we shared will always live on, nothing can change that. I love him as my brother.

Ben Lesser (left) at dinner.Ben Lesser (left) at dinner.Courtesy Photo

I will always be thankful to Ann Curry for placing Moshe’s children in my life. They’ve been accepted by my family as my niece and nephews; family is everything to us. It is beautiful to see our family continue to grow. I was overwhelmed to see the legacy that Moshe left behind. He founded and built the Kibbutz with his own hands. He raised his family by the true meaning of devotion to the Israeli lifestyle.   

PBS: During your story, we learn that you’ve dedicated the majority of your life to teaching children about the Holocaust so that it’s never forgotten and to teach others in the world about tolerance.

Can you tell us more about your teachings as well as the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation? 

Ben: We do everything humanly possible to try and keep the memory alive. Be the voice of those who were silenced. The souls of our dear departed ones, all six million of them, are crying out to the world in a single word: "ZACHOR." ZACHOR means REMEMBER. As we remember, we must educate. The lessons of the Holocaust must teach future generations to recognize, speak up, SHOUT-OUT and do not be a bystander. Our ultimate goal is to extinguish the hatred that breeds genocide. 

I created the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation to keep this world from acquiring amnesia. I make it my mission to travel to schools, universities, and institutions of all sorts to share my story and remind them that this could happen again. There is a lesson to be learned. Bullying is very relevant right now. Hitler did not start with killing; he started with hate and then created propaganda.

Ben with his daughters.Ben with his daughters.Courtesy Photo

We at Zachor are doing everything possible to stop bullying, hate and fighting. I wrote a book, “Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream,” to make sure this world would not forget. I give the reader reminders on how to treat one another and not to succumb to hate. We are all God’s children, his creation. We have to learn to live side by side. We have to learn to embrace our differences, not hate them. 

As one of the remaining few survivors left to tell their story, it is imperative to speak out against hate, not to be a bystander, and to speak out compassionately. We are all one human race. Hate and love are both contagious, so why can’t people choose love instead of hate?

If you would like to be part of something powerful, here is your chance: I-SHOUT-OUT [campaign in association with Zachor] invites you to join millions of voices to speak up and out against intolerance, injustice, anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry, bullying, and to love thy neighbor. Take a stand and help us reach our goal of six million shout-outs for the six million silenced voices.

People can let tragedies make them stop living but it is possible to live through extreme circumstances and still have a life of meaning, a life that matters. Choices can turn your entire life around; it is up to you. No one in this wonderful country is stopping you. You can always find excuses, but if you work hard, study hard and are diligent you can accomplish anything in this great country of ours.

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