Las Vegas Review Journal – Holocaust survivors share stories with area students
By Trevon Milliard
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
A Nazi soldier swung the baby boy by his ankles, demanding that the screaming mother stop his crying.
“With a smirk on his face, he swung the baby’s head into a door post, killing him instantly,” recalled Ben Lesser, who was barely 11 at the time but will never forget the sudden stop to the baby’s shrieks.
That was three days into Germany’s World War II occupation of Krakow, Poland, in 1939. It was Lesser’s “first taste of Nazi brutality.” Soldiers ransacked Jewish homes, killed the baby of Lesser’s neighbors and pistol-whipped his own family.
Lesser didn’t escape the Holocaust until “five years of living hell on Earth.” He was one of two survivors in his immediate family of seven, he said. His extended family, numbering in the hundreds, all perished under Nazis’ hands.
“They were all slaughtered,” he said, holding up black-and-white family photos for a group of students in grades seven to 12 to see. They sat frozen in their seats, silent, eyes fixed on Lesser’s tormented face. For an hour on Wednesday, Lesser and four other local Jewish Holocaust survivors shared their history with Clark County students assembled at the Northwest Career and Technical Academy, near the Las Vegas Beltway and U.S. Highway 95, as part of the 2012 Holocaust Education Conference.
Out of the 240 participating students, almost 100 heard Lesser speak. Some of the younger students, in shock, didn’t know what to say afterward.
“Oh my God,” said Jason Williams, an eighth-grade student at O’Callaghan Middle School, near Hollywood Boulevard and Washington Avenue.
The atrocities built as Lesser continued his story. One night, Lesser hid between two walls to avoid a Nazi raid of the Jewish ghetto.
“That night, we heard all kinds of screams, dogs barking and shooting,” said Lesser, who crawled out in the morning. “We saw bodies of what used to be people, torn apart by dogs.”
Other students knew enough about the Holocaust to be a little prepared but were surprised by Lesser’s lack of blame. He pointed out that Germany was a cultural icon before the Nazis rose to power, a nation full of scientists, teachers, musical composers.
“It all started small, with hate,” he said, “like bullying in school.”
First, they burned Jewish books.
“Then, they started burning people,” he said.
He saw it after his night between the walls.
People later gathered the body parts on pushcarts, piling the pieces in the ghetto’s square and drenching them in gasoline, a method used to kindle the book bonfires he had heard of years earlier.
Lesser hates recounting the worst moments of his worst years. The nights before his speeches the memories come back, haunting his sleep.
But he keeps doing it. Sixteen years now.
“You kids are the last generation that has the privilege of listening to survivors,” said the 83-year-old survivor who now lives in Las Vegas. “Only a few of us left, but so many willing to listen.”
Listening is vital.
“If it happened then, can’t it happen again?” he asked after running through five years in an hour, ending his tale with his train ride to the Auschwitz concentration camp, about 37 miles west of Krakow. Soldiers pushed 80 people into each car, giving them just two buckets of water and a few hay bales for three days. People took turns sitting on the bales because the ground was covered in “sludge,” he said.
“We were entombed.”
When the train arrived at the camp, it was snowing ash.
“We thought it was a smelting factory,” said Lesser, who was 15 at the time. “No one could imagine anything else.”
They soon discovered the worst about the death camp, the largest of its kind established by the Nazi regime. But it all started small, he said, returning to his point about book burnings and bullying.
Lesser’s message of staying “vigilant” against hatred and not just standing by, wasn’t lost on a group of six female high school juniors in the audience.
“We’re always fast to judge, but what would we do?” Ariel Wolfman asked her friends, who were disappointed in the lack of immediate response to help the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
The question remains relevant today, realized students from the Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy near Vegas and Rancho drives, who were at the assembly. Genocide didn’t stop with the Nazis, Darrien Barajas noted.
Their English teacher, Nancy Harding, then asked them a question.
“If that time ever comes, what are you going to do?”
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at [email protected] or 702-383-0279.