—The life of Ben Lesser during the Holocaust—
(Abridged from his autobiography)

My story begins with a name
So you will understand
In Hebrew, Benyameen… or Ben
Means “son of the right hand”

My mother called me ‘Baynish’
My family name is Lesser
‘Benku’ or Little Ben
A nickname by my sister

I am a survivor
As was my sister Lola
Survivors of the Holocaust
Also known as Shoah

But not many survived
I’m sad to say
When Adolf Hitler
Had his own way

My parents were killed
And so were my brothers
Moishe and Tuli
My sister Goldie and others

Over six million lives
Ended far too early
By misguided madmen
And immorality

Why I survived
And my family did not
Is still a mystery
I think of a lot

I was born in Poland
In 1928
In the city of Kraków
Soon ravaged by hate
What did we do
That made Nazis so mad?
Was being Jewish
Really all that bad?

They wasted no time
To make us feel the pinch
Forced into ghettos
Confined us, inch by inch

They took away our rights
Through the Nuremberg Laws
They beat us in the streets
Amid people’s applause

Not only Jews and Poles
But Roma as well
They’d march us through town
And ring the death bell

What reason did they have
To turn us in?
To turn the world against us
Beginning in Berlin?

No longer citizens
Stripped of every right
Jewish stores were pillaged
Even in broad daylight

Hooligans smashed our windows
And thugs raided our shops
Their crimes only increased
The more we begged them to stop

They threw books upon books
Into the bonfire flames
Anything “un-German”
Would be torched with their names

The Night of Broken Glass
At the hands of Hitler Youth
Wreaked havoc in the streets
Unleashing a painful truth
Synagogues were set ablaze
Mass arrests were made
Detained for being Jews
Under Nazi masquerade

The Star of David sewn
On the left breast of our clothes
What next? The color of our eyes
Hair, and measurement of our nose?

A yellow, six-pointed star
“Jude” in the middle written
We stood out like sore thumbs
Made sure that we’d never fit in

Hundreds of laws and decrees
Restricted rights of the Jews
Life changed pre-war Germany
By tainting people’s views

To segregate Jews from Aryans
Strict legislation imposed
Expelled from our neighborhoods
Then soon, our property disposed

The murder of innocents
Quickly became the norm
Terror and misfortune
Besieged those who’d not conform

For the creed of the Nazis
Was extreme in every sense
The annihilation of all Jews
Would spare no expense

Once our devoted friends
Soon became rivals and foes
Two faces in a mirror
Each in a separate pose

The world as we knew it
Crumbled before our eyes
Those we rubbed shoulders with
Under suspicious guise
The Nazis annexed Poland
With barely a fight
Then triggered a world war
With no end in sight

Soon after, our lives changed
That dreadful morning
Forced out of bed
Without even a warning

The roar of the engine
And the screech of the brakes
The sound of their boots
Their shouts gave us shakes

They cursed and they hollered
“Schnell!” they fell in a fit
“Jewish pigs” and “filth”
Smeared us with slurs and spit

And all because we were Jews
That was the charge and crime
The verdict was yet to come
The effects of a lifetime

They looted our house
And filled their sacks
Our profits and pickings
Wiped out with no tracks

Shrieks from the apartment
Across from the hall
From the mother of the child
The Nazi swung like a ball

Grabbed by his legs
Reeling him round
The ear-piercing screams
A deafening sound

“My baby! My baby!”
The mother begged the soldier
“Make him stop crying!”
Was all that he told her
Without the slightest thought
A scoff and sneer at most
He swung the baby head-first
Straight into the door post

The child’s head split open
His crying was no more
The parents were aghast
And started an uproar

They pounced on the Nazi
Horrorstruck and wild
But ended unconscious
Lying with their dead child

How does it happen
People float in the clouds
Then in the next scene
They’re left in bleeding shrouds?

The days that followed
Was a travesty on the Jews
To degrade and demoralize
And exploit and abuse

Some were forced into labor
At the expense of shame
The Nazis took it out on us
Singled out to blame

We were the culprits
The victims, the prey
The scapegoats, the suspects
The indicted on display

My father, broken
Staggered home one day
Bruised and bloodied
Dishonored, disarray

His face disfigured
From the beard they tore off
Like a soldier withdrawn
Like a drunk in a trough
My father, tongue-tied
No tears to be had
Neither forgive nor forget
Neither troubled nor sad

His spirit had been crushed
His shadow paralyzed
He was not the same man
Since he was terrorized

While the Nazis ran wild
In a random free-for-all
Families were torn asunder
On the other side of the wall

Thousands were corralled
Into ghettos in Poland
Our homes were overrun
By neighbors and Aryans

Jews were confined
Like dogs in cages
Kraków and Warsaw
Sealed off, outrageous

Brick by brick, cut off
From the rest of Europe
The only hope left
Was to pray and look up

“Blessed are you, Lord our God,
King of the universe”
Our pleas to no avail
As our families were dispersed

My grandparents and aunts
Uncles and cousins
Suffered the Kraków Ghetto
Along with other dozens

Walled in by barbed wire
There they met their demise
Brick walls like tombstones
While the world closed its eyes
By chance we escaped the ghetto
My kinsfolks, not so blessed
We avoided starvation
But death caught up with the rest

Moishe was a scholar
A craftsman, gifted all-round
But chose instead to save Jews
In the resistance underground

My mother’s name was Shari
With a flair for grace
The family she loved so much
Would soon be erased

My entrepreneur father, Lazar
Delved in chocolate and wines
Till they seized his business
And left him on the sidelines

News spread fast of the Germans
Rounding up men for slave labor
Few people could be trusted
Even less in one’s neighbor

So many children were taken
In spite of their parents’ pleas
And driven off in dump trucks
Left mothers on bended knees

Each town was liquidated
Bochnia was no exception
Bullets mowed down frantic parents
As their children lost protection

The last we had heard
No children would survive
Shot, then dumped in pits
Some were buried alive

The number was numberless
Of those led out in the woods
They sprayed them with bullets
Before stealing their goods
They’d dug their own graves
Then ditched them to rot
The forest stopped breathing
They were dead, the whole lot

Nazis wound up killing
Every Jew in sight
All the more, the new moon
Was blood red that night

Desperate measures were taken
To flee Bochnia at daybreak
I was fourteen, Tuli was seven
“Get us cross the border, for God’s sake!”

Wondering if we’d ever live
To become men we dreamed to be
Not knowing fate we left behind
Of lives lost from the killing spree

Along with eight others
We laid on our backs
In the chassis of a coal truck
Breathing through cracks

We made it to the border
At the top of the mountain
Our escape to freedom
Started all over again

The night was pitch black
No stars, no moon
Just two young boys
Hoping freedom would come soon

We snuck by the guards
At the Czech border
By crawling on all fours
One behind the other

We squeezed through barbed wire
And edged our way through
Then slid down a ravine
And crossed Slovakia, too
One night to rest
To regroup our thoughts
To regain our strength
Into Hungary we’d cross

First to Budapest, then Munkács
There we waited for our parents
But days turned into months
Impatience into forbearance

We got wind of bad news
That Moishe was found
Captured by the Nazis
To a camp hellbound

Known for mass murders
Its vile and vicious shooting
Płaszów was center stage
For massacres with no undoing

The Germans attempted
To erase all signs of their crimes
Bodies dug up and burned
One can read between the lines

But Moishe escaped
From two concentration camps
Only to be killed
By Allied bombs perhaps

We learned soon after
Of my parents’ tragic death
Of a farmer telling the Gestapo
That led to their last breath

Caught in the chassis of a coal truck
They lined them in a row
Then shot them one by one
Their blood mixed in with the snow

Eleven bodies lay dead
My mother and father among them
Buried in a mass grave
Their lives ended in total mayhem
No time to grieve
No tears to shed
No formal rite
No prayers were said

Of feelings unfelt
And words unspoken
Of parents lost
And children heartbroken

As they tried to escape
They were exposed and killed
Murdered in cold blood
Their bodies were stilled

One last chance to hold them
My beloved Mammiko
One last chance to love them
My beloved Tattiko

It seemed that killing Jews
In 1944
Was more worthy than winning
The Second World War

That same year in March
Without even a fight
The Nazis took over
And thus, our plight

The invasion of Hungary
The German Army’s scheme
To kill as many as possible
Under Hitler’s regime

The SS evicted all Jews
Before any of us could run
We already received our orders
Faster than it had begun

And so the round-up followed
Everyone in a trance
No time to pack our bags
Not even a spare pants
We all felt very soon
We would cease to exist
For the Germans had our names
Written on their list

We were permitted to take
Only what we could carry
So we layered on our clothes
Not that it mattered any

Then we marched in step
With bundles on our backs
To a brick factory
With a courtyard by the tracks

A column of cattle cars
Lined up for us there
Filthy and grimy inside
The stench left us scared

Why do we believe in lies
Than to believe in the truth?
Why do we forget with age
And leave behind our youth?

We believed we were deported
To a German labor camp
So they broke us up into groups
And forced us up the ramp

Eighty crammed into each car
Squashed in like sardines
Squished like mud underfoot
Dragged out of our dreams

I stood close to my brother Tuli
My cousin Isaac, aunt, and uncle
No sign of the rest of my family
Till a stretcher brought in a young girl

She was badly beaten
It was my sister Goldie
Her clothes soaked in blood
All she wanted was to hold me
Her face swollen beyond notice
Her skin, black and blue
I bent down and asked her
“Goldie, what happened to you?”

She hurt with every effort
And whispered in my ear
“I tried to escape,” she moaned
“But my schoolmate interfered”

The hunters easily caught her
And beat her to a pulp
Until she lost consciousness
At the hands of a Nazi cult

Ordered to get on the train
Once used to carry cattle
It’d be easier to reach heaven
If we took the Tower of Babel

They screamed us to climb in
Goldie walked on her own
We struggled to hold her upright
So her weakness was not shown

It didn’t matter who we were
Grandparents or babies
Once the door slammed behind us
We knew we were in Hades

The train pushed for three long days
Where it would end we did not know
It seemed the life we once lived
No longer followed our shadow

If someone had stood up
Then someone else sat down
Some would not make it through
By the time we reached the next town

The conditions were brutal
Two buckets for human waste
By the time it was full
Dignity lost, people disgraced
Excrement fouled the floor
Our boxcar reeked of urine
Hard to forget the malice
Hard to forgive the German

What little one had to eat
The others stared in hunger
The old ones could sacrifice
Unlike those who were younger

We had to huddle together
To protect us from our own
Or else we would starve to death
And end up skin and bone

Everyone got sick
From the stench of foul air
We felt less than human
Nothing could compare

Again, we passed through a town
The sign was written ‘Oświęcim’
We knew we were in Poland
But we also knew it was grim

The sign over the gates
Reassured us at first
Until truth had set in
And found ourselves cursed

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’
‘Work Makes You Free’
Would not be freedom
But ‘Murder in the First Degree’

Despite our whereabouts
And fears and apprehension
We thought we arrived at
A labor camp and detention

We pulled into a siding
And saw some wooden barracks
A figure in the distance
Who appeared in hysterics
Just when we thought
At last we arrived
The train pulled away
Our hearts left behind

The train rolled on
Just over two miles
All hell broke loose
For Jewish exiles

The doors flung open
Gasping for fresh air
We pushed our way out
Just in time from despair

Total confusion
Frightful and shaking
Nazis clubbed us
After disembarking

The old were badly treated
As were women and children
The death toll in Birkenau
Was well over one million

Far removed from anyplace
Thick forest on all sides
Lombardy poplars and birch trees
Hate makes the world divide

Questions left unanswered
Of where and why and what
Liberty and justice
It was anything but

We clung together
Like cement on a brick
Torn apart in the chaos
It happened too quick

At the head of the line
Looked like a medical doctor
A woman approached him
Wanted nothing to do with her
He wore a white lab-coat
And a snug white glove
And as they filed into line
The guards gave them a shove

Men motioned to the left
Women pushed to the right
The screams of separation
Continued all through the night

Everything was lost
The moment Tuli was taken
Goldie just disappeared
And I was left forsaken

Was God the slightest bit concerned
What happened that eerie day?
How my family tree was cut down
When all were taken away?

That image still haunts me
Torn from my grip
My Tulika sent off
On a one-way trip

Never to return
Never seen again
Gassed and cremated
Only ashes remain

The stench in the air
Was nothing I’d smelt
The hate in my heart
Was nothing I’d felt

I saw four chimneys
With their flames above
Whose job was to douse
Jews to get rid of

Human residue discharged
From smokestacks like snow
And filled the air with death
Then covered the ground below
My brother lay waste
Among the grey ashes
Near bales of human hair
And piles of eyeglasses

They took every possession
Our lives confiscated
And all the while we wept
The guards intoxicated

The thought made me vomit
The smell was rancid
Sickening, the gas chamber
And the men who ran it

I called to mind my sister
Goldie once played the violin
If given a second chance
A concert musician she’d been

Corpses carried off in carts
Ashes set the sky in haze
Bodies dumped and piled in heaps
Without remorse, set ablaze

My footprints engraved in the dust
Of the ashes from the chimney
Could that have been all that remained
Of my dearly beloved Tuli?

The camp orchestra played
As they filed into the chamber
Their names might be forgotten
But their cries always remembered

How sad to see the world
Turn the other cheek and ignore
The Jews arriving two by two
But gassed, four by four

Yes, the world overlooked
What we could not
Men lined up in rows
Then killed with one shot
I speak of my people in past tense
They are the ones I mourn
The ones whose lives were short-lived
And the ones who would never be born

Their books unread on the mantelpiece
Their tallits never to be worn
Their shadows no longer follow them
Like sheep led to be shorn

The family that once was
Will never return
From fiery furnaces
Whose bodies were burned

Amazing the power
Of an index finger
Of who is to be gassed
Not the smells that linger

In order to separate
The weak from the strong
He ordered their deaths
As though nothing was wrong

Those destined to the right
Whose outcome was decided
Had walked into ovens
As though they were misguided

Those destined to the left
Would work till they dropped
Burning all evidence
Since the ovens had not stopped

Auschwitz was designed to kill
Birkenau no different
If only the blind could see
Instead of play ignorant

Strong men were essential
To do the dirty work
When asked if I could run three miles
I agreed with a smirk
I was barely sixteen
Fifteen and a half years
I had to prove I was able
A young man with no fears

My life depended on it
I had to live to tell
What happened in these walls
For the sake of those who fell

Enemies of the state
Soviet prisoners-of-war
Poles and Jehovah’s Witnesses
Their aim was to kill more

Homosexuals and Slavs
Afro-Germans and Gypsies
Each met with a deadly fate
That only the seer sees

Men were needed, not boys
To satisfy a settling of scores
And to do so they stopped at nothing
And kicked down every door

The German race endangered
From within and without
Their lust for rank and rule
Would end the Jews, no doubt

I pretended I was eighteen
With a man’s deep voice, I said
“I am healthy and can work”
And sent me to the left instead

My uncle and cousin did the same
Their lives for a little while were spared
Only a matter of time for them
They got what was coming unprepared

This doctor I was told
Was the ‘Angel of Death’
He chose who would live
And who’d take their last breath
Imagine your fate
In a madman’s hand
Either life or death
In a single command

Doctor Mengele was his name
Far from medical practice
We all wanted our lives to live
But it wasn’t something he asked us

Then off to the cinder-block building
And into a very large room
We got undressed before the guards
To take a shower we assumed

But another inmate was waiting there
With clippers in his hand
And shaved my head in seconds
Leaving me hairless, not even a strand

Not only our heads
But our bodies, too
To rid us of the lice
That typhus fever drew

Then we took showers
And got sprayed with DDT
Pesticide that killed the lice
My uncle, cousin and me

Another inmate thrust a bunch
Of striped clothes under my armpit
Much like pajamas, flimsy and sleeved
Didn’t care that they wouldn’t fit

Then handed a pair of wooden clogs
And a round wooden disc on a string
Ordered to wear this necklace at all times
It resembled some dog collar thing

From that day forward
My name was 4-1-2-1-2
It could always be worse, I thought
On my forearm tattooed
We were then lead into barracks
With three-tiered rows of bunks
Thinly covered with straw and rags
Vermin-infested, smelt worse than skunks

The three of us took the upper bed
Thinking we’d have more air
What a picture we must’ve been
Three men in pajamas with no hair

The latrines outside
Were a sight in itself
Repulsive and foul
To relieve yourself

Up to 15,000 Jews a day
The quota had to meet
They dug fire pits to waste no time
More corpses produced more heat

These death-merchants were proud
To multiply the deaths
Gas known as Zyklon-B
Would add to their progress

The deadly gas needed
Only five to twenty minutes
To suffocate its victims
And tally the final digits

New transports from Hungary
To “process” more Jews
Stockpiled with suitcases
Watches and jewelry and shoes

Guards relished from the eyehole
As sufferers gasped to breathe
Once victims fell to the floor
They pulled gold out of their teeth

The Jews tore at cement walls
And left their mark with their nails
Though bodies strewn on the floor
Soon burned and left no trails
The Sonderkommandos did the dirty work
Of pulling the bodies out
Though some of them were still alive
Something they couldn’t do much about

Corpses piled five or six
One on top of the other
Loaded onto wooden carts
I wonder if one was my brother

Tied together so they wouldn’t roll off
Bodies hauled to the crematory
If quota could not feed the ovens
Then next they’d feed from the dormitory

Desperation had set in
They threw bodies into dump trucks
To increase productivity
And to keep up with the influx

The trucks then headed for fiery pits
And dumped the human cargo
Filling the earth to hide their remains
Will only honor them tomorrow

The flames never seemed to douse
Though death blew with the breeze
And sullen screams rose from the pits
The screams of tiny babies

The Nazis couldn’t be bothered
With these helpless, holy innocents
They took up space in the gas chambers
Disposed of for their inconvenience

Hurled into dump trucks
Along with gassed bodies
Then chucked into fire pits
Along with their mommies

In Birkenau for two weeks
Crawling with human lice
Nothing short of hell on earth
Parasites, bugs and mice
Eaten alive by scoundrels
Lice as well as Nazis
Living on and inside us
A slow death only death sees

How I dreaded their roll call
That happened twice a day
For those who couldn’t stand
Collapsed and carried away

We stood in line for hours
In the scorching summer heat
To weed out the weak from the strong
Even in winter’s peak

We dared not move an inch
Or sneeze or stare or look sideways
They could be pulled out and killed
For attention they might raise

We were ordered to take off our caps
Together at the same time
If one was not in keeping with the beat
He’d be shot at the drop of a dime

These were the games the Nazis played
At our expense if we got caught
Sometimes they’d shoot just for the fun of it
And kill us on the spot

Food ration was the talk in the camp
Meager portions at best
Soup was filthy water and waste
And bread I could barely digest

Poor excuse of a cup of coffee
Bread made of saw-dust instead of flour
They jeered and heckled while we dined
And pointed rifles from the watch tower

Starvation was long-drawn-out
Organs and tissues broke down
Skin rash, heart attacks and hunger pain
Bodies just fell to the ground
Typhoid and tuberculosis
Dysentery and pneumonia
Whiplashing and dog-bites
Dehydration and diarrhea

These were some of the conditions
That plagued our confinement
Starvation was the after-effect
And disease was our quiet lament

We finally left that hell-hole place
Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau
Transported to a rock quarry camp
Near the Czech border in Durnhau

We used sledge hammers to break rocks
Tumbled down from the mountains
Broken into gravel pieces
One huge boulder would make thousands

We ran the heavy mining carts
Down to the grinding machine
Then we pushed the carts back up
Such ways we were demeaned

Over and over we kept up this pace
We hammered and hauled and heaved
Slave labor was dirty work in the dust
And ate little for what we achieved

I feared my uncle
Would never survive
The merciless toil
Since we had arrived

I figured out a plan
That just might save him
Or at least buy some time
Before it got too grim

I would take a huge risk
And pay a huge price
With diamonds in my shoes
I was able to entice
I kept those diamonds secret
Hidden for a rainy day
And though that day did not rain
The rain would come, as they say

My uncle lived a little longer
As a cook in the kitchen on site
If only for a short time
At least satisfy his hearty appetite

There was something that made me feel
That night we might not survive
We had just returned from labor camp
We lined up in rows of five

Yet another roll call
But this one was different
Refused to dismiss us
The Commandant was belligerent

Exhausted and starving
We stood as they counted
Three inmates escaped
Yet we were surrounded

Some would face torture
And certain death in the dark
Punishment and payback
They’d surely leave their mark

We shook in the night wind
More from fear than from cold
They pulled out every tenth man
Twenty-five lashes, we were told

My uncle in front of me
Would be the tenth man
He would never withstand it
He’d die before it began

I was quick to switch places
With my uncle and me
And become number ten myself
So that he could be free
Then they picked me and the other “tens”
To await our fate in the yard
It was certain to inflict severe pain
We’d be dead or brutally scarred

When an inmate would escape
Rare under the circumstance
The Nazis would pick ten at random
To show a firmer stance

Either unbearable torture
Or death by the end of a gun
That would surely teach the inmates
It was better to stay than run

The Commandant approached us
Handsome yet callous and cruel
A half-full bottle in one hand
And fury ready to fuel

“I’m going to teach you pig-dogs
A lesson you’ll never forget!”
We shook in our pants not knowing
Some ended up soaking wet

With a fräulein hanging on him
It was clear he had much to drink
The guards dragged over a sawhorse
And now we were pushed to the brink

Each man would have his turn
To be beaten at the stake
Close to the sawhorse and on his toes
Careful not to make a mistake

He’d have to bend his knees
At the opening of the sawhorse
Arch his body up and over
Without touching wood, of course

To see us fall flat on our faces
That’s what this nasty game was
Two kapos picked for the beatings
Because of escapees, all because
There had to be enough space
Between stomach and the two-by-four
For a hand to pass through
Or beatings would be worse than before

We had to count out loud
As our tormentor whipped us hard
The beatings were dreadful
To the great delight of the guards

The demented game was such
That if we miscounted from insufferable pain
Or touched the sawhorse or ground with our heels
Then we had to start all over again

The first man shrieked in agony
Blood seeped through his trousers
Since he quickly lost count
We knew this could take for hours

“Louder! We can’t hear you!”
Commandant Wolf yelled
“You accursed Jew pig!”
And shot him unparalleled

Not before he kicked him in the face
With his black marching boots
Did a bullet shoot through his temple
Followed by “Heil Hitler!” salutes

Without a second thought
He swung back his revolver
To the pleasure of the fräulein
Back into his holster

She walked over to him seductively
And gave him a hug and a kiss
As though Commandant Wolf had just saved the life
Of the damsel in distress

The next prisoner was an older man
Who miscounted after ten hits
He started crying and begging for mercy
Not soon after he called it quits
The man collapsed to the ground
Excruciating was his pain
But ordered to stand up and face him
The Commandant went insane

Since he could not stand fast enough
Again he pulled out his gun
And shot the man right in the head
Another Jew was done

The third victim was quick to breakdown
It seemed impossible to bear
He soon lost consciousness as well
The result was a bullet in despair

Now it was my turn to do it
With three dead bodies at my feet
I had to succeed the first time
Otherwise I’d be a repeat

Despite all I’d been through
And the horrors I’d seen
Still determined to live
And just over fifteen

I must have been in a trance
My mind left my body for awhile
I walked over to the sawhorse
And took my position with a smile

I arched my body over the top
And shifted my weight to my toes
With each wild hit, I could feel my flesh
Being torn from under my clothes

I was now on center stage
Like a freak in some freak show
But resolved to count as loud as I could
Twenty-five blows in a row

After I nearly expired
A silence of disbelief
Everyone had stopped breathing
Everyone but me in relief
The kapo told me to go over
To the Commandant and thank him
So I stood up, cramped and bleeding
And walked tautly, sinister grim

“Danke schoen, Herr Kommandant!”
I thanked him with distaste in my heart
What I really wanted to do
Was whip him the way he ripped us apart

He then put his hand on my shoulder
Unnerving and snug in a white glove
He would make an example of me
For lasting his game and rising above

He turned me around to face the others
Those who were still waiting to be punished
“Now you all see how it should be done
Nothing to worry about when it’s finished”

No doubt, his idea of a twisted joke
The punchline of a running lunatic
But little did he know the reason I survived
Much younger than the rest, strong as a brick

All of a sudden, commotion at the gate
As the guards dragged in three men
In the end, the escapees were captured
So torture ended for the remaining “ten”

They were beaten so bad
Blood from top to bottom
Time was not on their side
Even if they bought some

Devilish joy crossed the face
Of the Commandant now smiling
He’d watch them hang, one by one
And relished to see them dying

The last man to hang prayed the Shema
The Hebrew prayer when all hope is gone
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God,
The Lord is one,” as the guards clapped on
“And you shall love the Lord your God
With all your heart, being, and might”
We remained there in single file
Praying with him silently that night

I was the last one
To be beaten that day
To be cruelly tortured
And on full display

That night was the first of many
I could only sleep on my front
My back lacerated from lashes
As the guards went on a manhunt

Even there, lessons were learned:
Never let hardship break the spirit
Never lose sight of the goals
No matter how illicit

Not soon after, the night air was rowdy
What seemed like the sound of cannon fire
A harsh voice over the loudspeaker
Told us to vacate the camp entire

All the prisoners who could walk
Were marched beyond the barbed wire
We only guessed what happened to them
Left behind, their fate was dire

My uncle was left in the kitchen
I never saw my him again
I had to march out without him
He died, left behind with the men

Now only my cousin and I remained
So we joined together like twins
As we marched out the main gate
My heart heard the bowing of violins

Our walk soon became a Death March
We forced our feet that were dragging
Its sole purpose: to kill us all
Those weakest fell behind lagging
Those who couldn’t keep up the pace
Were shot and left on the road
Waiting for others to collapse
They took out their guns to reload

It was winter time by then
Incessant snow and sleet and ice
Over rough terrain and weather
To survive we would pay the price

For food was scanty and scarce
Barely enough for the bitter haul
They’d sometimes throw a piece of bread
And laugh as the starving brawl

Some prisoners stopped walking
Fell down and died on the spot
One foot in front of the other
As long as we didn’t get shot

Isaac grew weaker
With each passing day
I let him lean on me
So he wouldn’t fall prey

The guards were severely griping
Like screech owls in the night
I begged him not to give up
Not to give up the good fight

I forced myself to carry on
For the sake of my cousin
I tried not to look behind
At those who died in the oven

Isaac felt a burden on me
So begged me to let him go
I reassured he was no load
Even though he walked slow

I was ever so grateful
To still have him with me
He inspired me to be strong
And restored my dignity
I could see he lost his will to live
He pleaded to let him lie down
And be put out of his misery
But I refused that he die on the ground

I was determined
To keep him alive
Which gave me motive
For both to survive

Along this journey of death
The road was littered with bodies
Of people who had been shot
And left like dogs in the freeze

Days had turned into weeks
We no longer felt our limbs
When will this deadly trek end?
When did it all begin?

Isaac’s spirit was broken
Like a busted branch on a tree
We ended up only two
But started off as many

How could God excuse the sins?
The doctrine of a psychopath?
Hitler steered a nation off course
While the world fell into his wrath

Time no longer had meaning for us
A day was like a thousand years
We glared at the ground as if to pretend
“We’re heading towards new frontiers”

It was springtime when we arrived
At a place called Buchenwald
A labor camp that worked to death
Its inmates, afraid and appalled

A slogan hung over the gates
“Everyone gets what he deserves”
So the Jews were as sure as fate
They would die from a war of nerves
That next morning, we moved out again
It was the spring of ‘45
The Allied Forces were gaining ground
But would they find us alive?

With the Soviets, Britain and France
And the Americans well supplied
Germany was wearing the noose
As the Allies closed in from all sides

Thus, we were on the move again
Before the world was ever to know
What happened behind the walls of the camps
Of the slaughter that started 12 years ago

Led out through the gates to another train
A long line of cattle cars
Up to eighty loaded in each stall
How many remained of David’s stars?

At least it wasn’t a Death March
So I helped my cousin get inside
The doors slammed closed, sealing us in
Silence… as if we’d already died

A half hour later, the doors thrust open
And loaves of bread were thrown in
Some had taken two or more loaves
It was supposed to be one per person

Those at the front got more than their share
And us in the back got none
So I fought with the others to get mine back
I would not let myself be outdone

A test of survival for the fittest
I felt a quick stab under my chin
I was relentless till I got the last bread
It was for Isaac that I had to win

My face felt wet from the cut of a knife
The shock from all that transpired
A gash through my chin and tongue
Just for the bread I desired
I tore from my trousers
And bandaged my chin
A deep hole in my face
Frightened eyes from my kin

For weeks they shuttled us
Back and forth on the train
And all of that time
Without food to sustain

Most of us were dropping dead
From starvation and sickness
Sunken cheeks and bones
Was all that remained to bear witness

Isaac and I were still alive
Since I rationed out the bread
The size of half an egg each day
Otherwise we would’ve been dead

We had to eat it secretly
So no one would kill us to get it
The ones who devoured two loaves or more
Died long before they finished it

They died a horrid death
Their bodies dehydrated
They gorged on too much bread
Their digestive system hated

Mass confusion became the norm
After weeks of hunger and panic
Desperation caused inmates to kill
As though they had become satanic

Dare I say, even cannibalism
Until most everyone was dead
With very few of us left
We were outnumbered by rotting heads

The torture was persistently harsh
Our “train ride” ended in Dachau
A camp for political prisoners
We thought our end who start now
Without care, without worth
They treated us like beasts of burden
Transported back and forth
Without direction, without reason

What seemed to me a month on the rails
Was likely two months in all
Some could barely stand on their feet
While others could do nothing but crawl

Doctors, professors, and clergymen
Those seen a threat to the Third Reich
And those outside of German culture
Were persecuted and disliked

Concentrated in one place
Impounded like stray canines
Reduced to shame and sorrow
Death tallied from the rail lines

Once again, the doors opened
Abusing us breathing corpses
Beating us with slurs and sticks
As though we were work horses

Isaac and I managed to climb down
Through a floor littered with skeletons
We swapped cattle cars for another hell
When would we see the Americans?

For hell awaited us inside this camp
As in all the other camps before
I saw a pile of human driftwood
In abnormal poses of twenty or more

Lodgings were prearranged for us
Barracks next to the stench of death
No bunks this time, just a cold floor
And the fake warmth of my foul breath

The only reason we were not burned up
And reduced to ashes in the ovens
Was the shortage of coal to feed the kiln
That shortly before killed tens of thousands
But there was no question
We were destined to die
I doubted another summer
Another Kraków in July

How long could we escape death?
When would we give up the ghost?
When would we be shot in the heads?
Then burned and made into compost?

Yet dreams can be realized
If you stick to the script
If you read the fine print
If you resolve the conflict

Three days later, freedom at last
We could not believe our ears
“Liberation! Liberation!”
Skeletons in a valley of tears

Faint screams of jubilation
Of disbelief and despair
The dead seemed to come back to life
But I didn’t know from where

Isaac and I leaned ‘gainst each other
And forced ourselves to stand
The guards had fled in the pitch of night
Leaving the watchtowers unmanned

We held on tightly to each other
And staggered unsteadily outside
To meet a mob of joyful inmates
Not knowing if we were dead or alive

Some embraced our liberators
Crying without tears in their eyes
Others too weak to celebrate
They just stared up and asked God why

A shockwave poured through the camp
That they were released from captivity
But many fell before the sun had fallen
Many more died before they were set free
News of deliverance
Was harder to believe
Than all the atrocities
That we had received

I saw an American G.I.
Climb the Nazi watch tower
And heaved the guard into the yard
To show there was a change of power

Shocked at the sight
Of walking skeletons
Some only breathing
Most of bones and skins

Our liberators in disbelief
Of the horrors they saw
Of emaciated bodies
At the hands of the devil’s claw

The Death Train from which we arose
And the Death Camp that followed
Would claim tens of thousands of lives
That ovens burned and earth swallowed

One could not pass through Dachau
Without puking from rancid flesh
Cold-blooded massacre
To that I can attest

Its victims—vermin-infested
Hollow-eyed and brutalized
Barely walking, barely breathing
Comatose and traumatized

Unrecognizable human beings
If ‘human beings’ are the words
They plagued the barracks and the grounds
And where there was death there were birds

We were too numb to move
And too stunned to even think
So long under German eyes
And still frightened of their blink
We suffered the after-effects
Of eating even a morsel
Dysentery and malnourished
We could not be over-careful

Although barely living
Isaac was worse than I
On the brink of death
My cousin and my ally

I rocked him softly in my arms
And pretended it would be alright
That when all was said and done
At the end of the tunnel we’d see light

I held him close and spoke faintly
My bones served as a headrest
To keep him alive the last six years
With that I was obsessed

“Hang on!” I whispered
“We are finally free!”
But his vacant eyes
For him would not be

We seemed to have our lives back
Whatever that really meant
We couldn’t erase the past
But we could dream the present

I insisted that Isaac hear my voice
As if that would keep him alive
I told him about the Americans
Who saved us after we arrived

My voice grew stronger
As Isaac’s grew weaker
The rhythm of his breathing
Faded deeper and deeper

All night in my wearied arms
Well after he passed away
I wouldn’t let him go
In my arms I let him lay
With tears down my sunken cheeks
At dawn they took him away
I tried so hard to hang on to him
My heart had begged him to stay

Then I, too, lost consciousness
And collapsed right after
But unlike my cousin Isaac
I didn’t die from the taskmasters

Maybe he only felt free to die
Once he knew I would live
It’s as though he carried me through
I’d receive much more than I’d give

What would it matter
To be freed, then perish?
To have lost all your loved ones
And nothing to cherish?

I soon lost consciousness
Famished for months
I barely remembered
The priest held me once

Over his shoulder he took me
To a field hospital in the yard
For the first time in many years
I was treated with love and regard

He talked to me softly
As I had to Isaac
And asked me my name
I faintly whispered, “Benek”

I weighed only 65 pounds
As good as skin and bones
Everything on his shoulders
Was everything I owned

Then he said something special
Something I’d never forget
“Be proud of your religion”
Standing like a silhouette
“From the way your people suffered
You’ve paid such a high price
For being a Jew and Jewish
Don’t abandon it, is my advice”

This Catholic priest had saved my life
He forever changed the way I viewed
Gentiles and Poles and everyone else
With body healed and heart renewed

When we reached the medical tent
I was gently placed on a cot
Handled with deepest respect
My body a vessel, not something bought

The attendants covered me
With a real blanket and linens
After being beaten and starved
Strange but dreamlike conditions

They fed me through a feeding tube
That was the last thing I remember
Then I passed out for several months
When I woke up it was a blur

But I found myself
In a hospital bed
Not fighting to live
But alive instead

In a Jesuit monastery
Called Saint Ottillien
Far-away from Buchenwald
Dachau, Auschwitz and Berlin

The monks in the monastery
Had cared for survivors
No longer degraded
No longer outsiders

So many of us
In the same situation
Once despised outcasts
Now a healing nation
We took care of each other
In that hospital ward
And prepared for the future
A world unexplored

The longer I stayed
The stronger I grew
The more I became
The boy I once knew

I felt a strong sense of hope
That life might be worth living
That God might even exist
That this was my new beginning

Righteous people are everywhere
In every religious and ethnic group
Despite our unique differences
That’s no reason to send in the troops

We share a common humanity
Yes, a common denominator
Stop the hate that leads to genocide
Put on love and imitate her

It’s better to honor
Our shared humanity
Than despise our contrasts
And succumb to insanity

The Nazi regime massacred
All seven of my family
And used us camp prisoners
To win the war financially

Though both love and hate
Are what’s inside us
One thing in common
They’re both contagious

We choose how to live
Between love and hate
I say “Choose love!”
Before hate dictates
So to revere the souls
Of the ones gone before
To honor their memory
In Hebrew: ‘Zachor’

Never forget the past
‘Zachor’ means ‘Remember’
Never tire from telling
From January to December

Learn by heart his story
Before Ben Lesser retreats
To join his family in heaven
So history will not repeat

This is why Ben survived
This is what he’s lived for
To prove the Nazis wrong
To ensure hate is no more

© Written by Holocaust survivor Ben Lesser
with a little rhyme from Michael Botermans