From inside the cattle car, the teenage boy could read the words on the sign outside the camp.
“Work sets you free.”
Ben Lesser, then about 15, had arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of four concentration camps at which he was imprisoned for being a Jewish boy during the Holocaust.
“You think you’re on a vacation? Think again,” he recalled a camp leader telling him and others at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “You see those ashes? Those are your mothers, your fathers, your brothers and your sisters.”
The now-89-year-old spoke to a couple dozen people inside Noa Peri-Jensch’s living room in Summerlin on Wednesday evening. It was one of many such gatherings across the nation for Zikaron BaSalon, Hebrew for “memories in the living room,” to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Lesser has dedicated his life to Holocaust education, and he shared his tale to bridge the gap between those who experienced the Holocaust firsthand and those who have only heard stories.
“The clock is ticking,” said Peri-Jensch, regional director for the Israeli American Council.
Survivors are dying, she said, adding many European Jews felt safe and were in denial of the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the 1920s. It’s as important as ever for survivors to pass on their stories, she said, as there are still some who deny the atrocities of the Holocaust.
As he stood in front of the fixated group, Lesser peppered his story in English with Hebrew, German and Polish, recalling the words he, Nazis, fellow survivors and others spoke during his journey. He held up photographs of himself — likely taken by Nazis — at a concentration camp as well as his sister’s paintings of memories.
Five of the seven people in his family were slaughtered. He and his sister were the only ones who survived. All of his extended family was killed. His sister died a few years ago.
Lesser, born in October 1928 in Krakow, Poland, and his family went to a ghetto in Bochnia, where children were dragged into dump trucks and hauled away. Nazi soldiers shot parents and loved ones as they chased after the trucks and their loved ones.
With the help of deception by Lesser’s sister, they escaped the ghetto, but his parents didn’t survive the escape efforts to Hungary.
Of the 3,000 people taken by train between the concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau, Lesser was the only survivor, he said.
Nearly 70 years after liberation, Lesser, who runs the website I-Shout-Out.org, wants people to be able to share messages of love and support with future generations. The website, hosted by the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, has set a goal for 6 million people to take a stand against hatred that will last forever.
Temple Beth Sholom, 10700 Havenwood Lane, will host a Yom Hashoah commemoration at 3 p.m. Sunday.
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau will speak about his book, “The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men.”
The event is open to the public. For more information, call 702-804-1333.