Ben Lesser’s experience in the Holocaust is one that everyone should learn about and learn from. He endured unimaginable horrors, and it is important that his story is known. If you have the honor to speak with Mr. Lesser, or to read his book Living a Life That Matters: from Nazi Nightmare to American Dream, it is quickly evident that there is so much to learn from his pre- and post- war experiences as well. Yes, it includes loss, suffering, and tragedy. But at other points it also includes love, hope, adventure, and many other things. While this post contains a taste of Ben’s experiences, of course it cannot include all of them. I encourage everyone to purchase and read his book from the Zachor Foundation, linked here.
Ben was born on October 18, 1928 to Shaindel and Lazar Leser. He had four siblings: Moishe, Goldie, Lola, and Tuli. Ben’s father had a kosher wine and syrup factory, as well as a chocolate factory named Pischinger’s. He was the first person in Europe to manufacture chocolate covered wafers, which were similar to Kit Kats except they were made in the shapes of animals like bears and rabbits. “Every day when my father would come home, us kids would search his pockets, and he always made sure to have some chocolates for us!” said Ben. Seeing a Kit Kat bar still reminds him of these memories.
The Lesser family was at their home in Krakow, Poland when the Nazis invaded in 1939. Lazar went to his wine and syrup factory and saw Nazi guards stationed at the gate. The guards chased him away. He then went to the chocolate factory, but it too had been confiscated. “A man works his whole life to build a little business to take care of the family, and just like that it’s taken away from you”, Ben said.
The Jews in Krakow could either live in the ghetto, or leave Krakow to go to a neighboring town. Ben’s sister, Lola, had a young man named Mechel who fell in love with her. Ben recounts, “[Mechel] went to my father and said Mr. Lesser, you know how I feel about Lola. Someday I would love to marry her. But do me a favor; I’ll take care of everything, but go to the same community where my family is moving so I can be close to Lola.” Ben’s father agreed, so the family packed some belongings and left. Along the way, a Jewish religious prayer book in which Lazar had taped 1000 American dollars was confiscated by the Nazis. They were left penniless.
How was Lazar going to feed the family? Ben’s future brother-in-law, Mechel, rented a farm house for the Lesser family. The farmer lived on one side, and Ben’s family lived on the other. Between the two apartments there was a baking oven. When Mechel found out about the Lesser family’s financial situation, he bought Ben's father a 100-pound sack of flour, figuring it would be enough to feed the family.
“When my father saw the flour, his face lit up”, Ben said. “He started making pretzels. Why pretzels? All you needed for pretzels was flour, water, and salt. And those ingredients he had. He brought it to neighbors, and it was a novelty so people started to buy it. Before you knew it, he became a little baker.”
Ben is unsure how his father knew how to bake, because he was in the chocolate business and in the wine and syrup business. But, suddenly he was baking. Ben was 12 years old at the time and remembers helping his father bake many kinds of cookies, matzah, and mandel bread (a biscotti-like Jewish cookie). This lasted for about a year.
Ben’s life during the Holocaust includes an escape to Hungary in 1944, transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death march, and much more. He was liberated from Dachau on April 29, 1945. He passed out, and regained consciousness two and a half months later in a hospital bed of a Bavarian monastery called St. Ottilien. One wing of this monastery was dedicated to providing medical care to Holocaust survivors.
In July of 1945, a Lithuanian rabbi came and said he wanted to organize a banquet for a Jewish holiday called Purim. Purim took place in February, but Ben explains that the rabbi said, “I am sure that Gd will understand a Purim in July. None of you had a Purim for years.” A baker was needed to make challah and hamentashen (a cookie made for the Purim holiday). Ben volunteered, since he remembered baking with his father in the beginning of the war.
Ben Lesser shares his experience of making challah for a Purim banquet post-liberation.
Around this time, Ben found out that 6 million Jews passed away. “I decided, since there were six million of our dear departed ones slaughtered, I will make a challah that is six feet long”, Ben said. The oven was deep enough. Ben made the challah dough, rolled four strands, and then asked for the girls to help braid since it was too big to reach the strands alone. The girls took off their shoes, stood on the table, and were assigned numbers one through four. Ben directed them to each hold their strand and move where he told them to, until they formed a beautiful braid. “It was like a challah dance”, Ben said.
When Ben and the girls carried the challah to the oven, everyone stopped. They remembered different ovens from during the Holocaust.
Still, they put egg yolk and poppyseeds on top of the challah and put it in to bake. When Ben uncovered the challah at the banquet, everyone cried upon hearing the meaning of its length. “It was a happy occasion but for a while everyone was full of tears”, Ben said.
Fast forward a few decades. Living in the United States, Ben started the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. The foundation was running out of money, so Ben called his daughters and said, “What did my father do when he didn’t have any money? He started to bake.” Ben decided he would make mandel bread to sell and try to save the foundation. He still remembered baking mandel bread with his father, and remembered its delicious taste, but he didn’t have a recipe. “My father didn’t have a recipe", Ben said. "It was all done in taste and feeling."
Ben started to put ingredients together. His daughter would write down what he did, and when it did not turn out exactly right he tried again and again. After weeks of perfecting the recipe, they finally made something that tasted close to Lazar’s mandel bread. They brought in a baker to start baking the mandel bread, and Ben’s daughter Gail thought of four flavors other than original: minty dark chocolate, chocolate espresso bean, spicy chipotle with ginger and dark chocolate, and lemon blueberry. Ben’s favorite is still the original. It’s the one he still bakes, and as Gail says, “That’s the one that has the flavor of his family.”
Everyone of course loved the mandel bread. It sold quickly, and stores in California and Las Vegas carried it. But, mandel bread requires many hours since it is baked twice. Between the time needed to bake it and the supervision to ensure it was kosher, the process became too costly; this is why it is no longer sold today.
Despite this, this cookie of Ben’s childhood is still loved and enjoyed by family. When Ben’s grandchildren come over, they always ask him where the mandel bread is. Ben describes that neighbors know its delicious scent; he always gives it out to them, too, and they all love it. Time and time again, Ben and his family have taken their suffering and made meaning out of it; the mandel bread is a testament to that.