Holocaust survivor's message to kids is one of self-made success

Ben Lesser is on a mission to see that no one forgets the Holocaust.

The Summerlin resident recalled the day he was liberated from a German concentration camp as if it were yesterday,

"When I got out of Dachau, I weighed 65 pounds," he said.

Despite barely clinging to life, he was able to walk up to the Allied soldiers. His skeletal body shut down the next day. He spent about three months in a coma.

Now 83, he's made it his mission to help young people learn from his experience, speaking at schools and community venues wherever he can. His message is simple: Despite being pulled out of school at age 11, despite the horrors he endured and despite not speaking English, he held himself to a higher standard, to be the best he could be.

Lesser's speaking engagements are mostly regional, inspiring junior high and high school students, but he has traveled as far as Canada. He said some of the young people are in gangs.

"I tell the kids, 'If you work hard, study hard, who is stopping you from any profession you desire?' " he said. "Don't tell me it's because you had a deprived childhood. My childhood was deprived. If you want it, there are ways to do it, but you have to work hard at it and study hard. It will happen. There is no one holding a gun to your head and saying, 'You can't do it.' "

After his talks, he hands out lapel pins with the Hebrew word zachor, meaning "remember." Lesser estimated he's handed out 100,000.

The travel and pins are supported by his nonprofit foundation, the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.

This summer, he unveiled his new bakery line, Papa Ben's Kitchen, named for his father, who owned and operated a chocolate factory in their native Poland that was known for its chocolate-covered wafer cookies.

Papa Ben's Kitchen's first product is a line of mandelbroyt, similar to Italian biscotti, based on his father's recipes. The baked goods are produced in California and sold regionally. In Summerlin, the Smith's Food and Drug at 2211 N. Rampart Blvd. carries the label.

"He's always been the baker in the family," said Lesser's wife, Jean. "It's going to be in Gelson's. It's a hoi polloi place in L.A."

Lesser's bakery line is part of his mission - it supports his foundation by paying for his travel expenses.

His life today is all about reliving memories most would rather forget. By the time Lesser was sent to the concentration camps, the Nazis were rounding up so many Jews, they did not bother with tattoos. They just assigned him a number and hung it around his neck.

He would spend time in three concentration camps. He was a prisoner for five years. Of his family of seven, only he and his sister, Lola, survived. After liberation, both emigrated to America, where they reconnected in 1947. He was 18.

He had no education, no trade skills, didn't speak any English and had no money. Eventually, he and a buddy set out for Los Angeles by bus. They were dropped off downtown, where they found a hotel for $1 a night. They took odd jobs, but pickings were slim. They pawned off their clothing and possessions. Pretty soon, they were down to their last 20 cents.

"My friend would go to the cafeteria downtown, and he would fill his pockets so I would have enough to eat when he came out," Lesser said. "The next day, I would do the same. It was one struggle after another."

Lesser landed a job with a delivery company and stayed there, driving a UPS truck for 25 years. He learned everything about the company and volunteered for extra hours so his supervisors knew they could depend on him. Married with a family to support, he took odd jobs on the side.

"If somebody needed a roofer, I became a roofer," he said. "What did I know about roofing? I found a roofer, and I said, 'Look, I have a job. Let's do it together. You show me how to roof.' "

For an upholstery job he took, his friend taught him the basics in a one-night crash course. The next morning, he was "spitting" nails, holding them in his mouth and rapid firing them out between his lips, one after another, as he pounded a hammer.

Lesser decided to become a real estate agent, one versed in laws pertaining to real estate. When his UPS co-workers were going out for a beer after work, Lesser was either at a second job or attending night school at a city college.

It took several years of fitting classes around his work schedule, but he kept at it until he graduated and passed all his licensing exams. To promote himself, he approached a local newspaper and offered to write a column, "All You Need to Know About Real Estate." His only stipulation was that his picture appear with it.

Lesser steeled himself to build his real estate business another way: cold calls, knocking on doors and trying to get business randomly. It was not something he looked forward to doing.

"I remember I went to the first door, and I knocked on it. No answer," he said. "I felt relieved, and I started to walk away. And suddenly, the door opens up, and I walk back up, and the lady says, 'Aren't you Mr. Lesser?' and I said, 'Yes.' (She said,) 'Mr. Lesser, I read your column every week, come in, come in.' And suddenly, I was like a little celebrity. Wherever I went, the doors opened up for me."

Before long, he was advertising all over Southern California and knew real estate law so well, attorneys called him for advice.

After he retired to Las Vegas, he wrote "Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream." It is available from Abbott Press at abbottpress.com. Part of it details life under Nazi rule. The other part tells how he took on life to become a success.

"Ben Lesser is a natural storyteller with an eye for facts and details," said Joanne Gilbert, who edited his book. "Combined with his passion and commitment, his story makes audiences of all ages sit up, listen, remember and take action."

It was originally written as a memoir for the family, he said, "but because I speak in all of these schools, I (finished) 200 pages (and) I tore it apart. I said, 'That's no good. We don't need another memoir about the Holocaust.' What I needed was something to answer the questions of those kids ... about (that time in history)."

Before he agrees to speak at a school, he demands 3½ hours, as there is so much to get across. The first time was at the school of his grandson, Adam, when he was in fifth grade. Adam is now college age.

"I was given an hour to speak," Lesser said. "I began at 10 a.m. At 12, the lunch bell rang. No one budged. The teacher chased them out. Lunch? Forget about lunch. The kids surrounded me with questions. That's when I realized, live testimony is too important. There are so few of us left. We cannot afford to keep quiet. The world has to know ... (or) things could repeat themselves, you never know."

For more information about the foundation, visit zachorfoundation.org. For more information about Papa Ben's Kitchen, visit papabenskitchen.com.

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 387-2949.