Ben Lesser stood straight and confident before a standing-room-only crowd at the Lorain Palace Theater Wednesday night and told of the horrors he faced at the hands of Nazi oppressors.
He survived as 6 million of his fellow Jews and 5 million others died.
More people than he cares to remember, including family members, died in front of him as he watched helplessly.
Lesser, 91, of Las Vegas, travels the world and tells his story. He does it for free and plans to do it as long as he is able. As the number of Holocaust survivors diminishes every day, he is living proof to the unenlightened few who continue to deny the Holocaust happened.
Lesser was part of “a day of remembrance of the Holocaust and heroism” that honored the Jews who were killed in the concentration camps and during purges as well as the 5 million others including homosexuals and gypsies.
Lesser told of hiding as Nazis murdered his neighbors in Poland and later in Hungary. He watched as a particularly brutish soldier killed a crying baby, an act so reprehensible that even the soldiers’ fellow Nazis looked horrified.
He ended up in Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland, where he persuaded Josef Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death” who performed horrible experiments on prisoners, to let him live.
“When we arrived at Auschwitz, Mengele looked at us and decided who should stay and work and who should be killed,” he said. “I saw the pattern. When my turn came, I told him I was 18, (he was only 15) healthy and happy to work. He waved me to the side and I lived.”
Rabbi Enid Lader of the Beth Israel — West Temple of Cleveland that serves Lakewood, said hearing Lesser was unforgettable.
“It was so moving,” she said. “It speaks to how decent people will help each other and show courage in the worst of times.”
Bill Vanek of Avon Lake said hearing Lesser speak made him think of his own family.
"I want to say the program was wonderful, but that's inappropriate," he said. "It was inspirational, powerful and haunting," he said. "Hearing him speak makes me see how this type of thing could grow again and how much we need to stop that from happening. We all need to be aware of that danger."
Ironically, Lesser was not even scheduled to speak at the service. Up until a month ago,
Holocaust survivor Stanley Bernath of Beachwood was prepared to recount the horrors he experienced in a Nazi concentration camp.
“He agreed to do it eight months ago,” said event organizer Arnie Milner of Birmingham Township in Erie County. “Everything was fine and then a month ago, he died.”
Milner was upset enough over the death of his friend, but it left him with a very big pair of shoes to fill.
“I was sitting in my office and I picked up a book written by Sam Lesser that he had sent me several years ago,” Milner said. “It talked about his ordeal in the camps. I thought he would be wonderful, but it was so late. There was a telephone number in it, so I called and spoke to Lesser’s daughter, Gail Gerber, and explained what had happened.
“She laughed and said this was ‘meant to be,’ and said her father had been scheduled to speak on that day, but the date changed,” Milner said. “Lesser speaks all over the world and is in great demand, but he said he would happily come to Lorain. As Gail said, it was meant to be.”
Besides speaking Wednesday night at the Palace, Lesser spoke earlier in the day to more than 1,000 Lorain County students at the venue. It was a history lesson delivered by a man who lived it.
“I’m Jewish, but he is the first speaker I have heard who actually experienced this,” said Laurie Edel of Avon Lake, who attended the evening event. “He’s speaking words that everyone needs to hear.”