Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive

Alfred Lessing - January 26, 1993

Reflection on his Experiences

Tell me... you have how many children?

I have four children. Two from my first marriage and two from my present marriage.

And, in the brief time we have left, did you ever tell them any of this when they were younger?

With some exceptions, but relatively few, very little.


Let me break it into two segments. My first marriage, my first two children, my two sons, Aaron and Joshua, uh, I think they know extremely little, I have since given Aaron, who has expressed an interest, my book, my collection of transcribed interviews with my own family members, uh, so he can learn about it, but I think all that I ever told them were exciting stories. Typical things a father might tell a son that would be exciting, you know, like an exciting ball game, but for me they were stories about airplanes. I remember Josh loved the story about how one of the Canadian tanks made a corner too tight in the village and knocked the whole front of the Post Office down so that after than the guy selling the stamps was inside but you were standing on the outside because the whole front of the building, the whole lobby was gone. He loved that story and he loved the story about, like kids, you know bombs and tanks, but the real meaning of this, the Holocaust, the anti-Semitism, the dehumanization, the suffering, the terror, no. Now, the children of my current marriage, Benjamin and Shawna, they know a great deal more because I am more out of hiding like, as I said earlier, after 40, 50 years this stuff begins to surface, and not just because of me but it's in the movies, it's in the magazines, books are coming out, and so they are more exposed to it now. Um, but two other significant things to mention in that context. My son, Benjamin, helped me with the transcription of these tapes. And in that way, found out a great deal about my story and his roots. He went through all of the interviews, I interviewed my mother, my father, both my brothers, I told my own story and I interviewed my cousin who had some stories to tell. And, Ben helped translate and transcribed all this and so he knows. And he also came to the conference on hidden children, the first international conference and talked to other children of survivors and children of hidden children. Shawna, who is six years younger, she is at this moment 13 years old, um, I have never told her much, she hasn't read, but last year, she announced that she wanted to be Jewish. Meaning, she wanted to be Bat Mitzvahed, she wanted to belong to a temple, and since that time, she has been pretty active. She of course, has involved the whole family in becoming more Jewish or more connected with other Jews, like yourself, I might add. She suddenly wrote a paper on Bergen-Belsen last year. Not at my prompting, but out of her own interest, knowledge... she participated in a Stop the Holocaust in Bosnia program that she and some friends at school put on this year in which they made very explicitly the parallels with many photographs and many accounts and her part was about the Holocaust and what happened in places like Belsen and Auschwitz. And, she is going to be Bat Mitzvahed and as part of that she will be doing a study of some role model and she recently told me that she is considering using as role model, people who hid Jewish children. So, it's a complicated question. I believe it is all passed on in some form or another. Both the positive and the negative, cause there are negatives from this experience. That needs to be said. And I'm not either afraid or ashamed to admit this about myself that you do not go through something like that as a little child or at any age, but my message is as a little child, without it leaving permanent scars and permanent damage... and this is worth saying because there is a myth that if the kid is young enough, maybe he won't notice. If you have incest with a little enough kid, they won't remember. Or if you beat kids when they are young enough, they won't remember. And I think even my own family, maybe my mother even wished that, that her youngest son, little Freddie, that he was so young that maybe it will all, you know, pass like it didn't really happen. And that is not true. I have tried to say at various times today that I knew. I knew... nothing is hidden from little kids. And I don't believe anything is hidden from my children either, even though I have never sat down and said, I want you to know what happened to me. I want you to know my story, I want to pass it on to future generations... I don't do that... but they know. It's in their hearts, I don't know how they know. I don't know how [weeps] my daughter is turning into who she is turning into and last week I said to her, it's incredible moving when she told me that she might do her Bat Mitzvah study about someone who saved children. She said she was very worried about my reaction to that. She said that she figured it would either be really positive or else that I wouldn't like it for some reason. I said, my reaction is not important, this is YOU... but that you should think of that and suddenly I couldn't speak any more, [weeps] I just had so many feelings about how is this transferred, how do we pass things on to our children... and I believe it is not mostly through what we think we teach them... Kids absorb, kids know. And, you know, that's my, as I said a number of times today, that's my perspective and that's my message... I still don't know what the message is that I should... if all the children in that picture are dead, and that is likely, I have continued to search for them, and so far I have not found anybody, I have made contact with a few guys who knew about that school or maybe even went there, I recently sent him a copy of this picture... but I think they were there earlier or later, I doubt that they're in this picture... And even if not all of these are dead, a million and a half children died and how do I speak for them, and what I have said here today is all I know how to say at this point. It amounts to... don't underestimate children, don't underestimate what they know, what they feel, what they understand, and therefore, what they have to teach us. I... [pause] can I read a sentence or two from something I wrote about this?


I'll leave that picture there and... I was asked some years ago to write a brief as possible statement... this thing I have talked about for hours here today... and so I summed up my story in one little paragraph and then I wrote a second paragraph about its meaning and I won't read all of that, but I would like to read a sentence or two from it. "I define the Holocaust in terms of the destruction [pause] of children and of childhood. I speak not only of the thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands of actual children who were murdered by the Nazis, but of all who died because inside each one there was a living, breathing, feeling, caring, needing, hoping, loving child who wanted to live freely to grow, to love, to be. The Holocaust represents the fear and hatred of this childlike innocence and freedom of spirit, then and now. To treat children as persons and persons as ends is, in my childlike view, the only worthwhile goal and the only safe morality for human civilization. I have a great fear and hatred for the rationalization of pain and oppression in the name of some grownup's conception, or other, of what is good, or holy, or necessary, or noble, or moral. No belief, no value, no dogma nor principle, no abstraction is ever more important [weeps] than the freedom and dignity of a child. If we do not learn this from the Holocaust, we learned nothing. Shalom."

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