Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive

Alfred Lessing - January 26, 1993

Picture of Himself/The Bears Head

Let's, um, tell me what the head is made out of.

Um, [he laughs] the head is made, now this is going to get real complicated here, um... from the breast pocket of the little wooly suit pants and little jacket, that I had during those years, it was nice and it was soft, there isn't much fuzz left on it now, but you can still tell that mostly in his ear here, there is still a little fuzz left, um that was once nice soft fuzzy material. Now the amazing thing, and I know that's why you asked me to explain where the head came from... um... in about 1987, I think it was about 1987, I got a call from my brother Abba, Attie in Chicago, and he said, "Fred, I'm sitting here looking at a catalog of B'nai B'rith Holocaust materials, film strips, and there's a picture accompanying, I think it's a film strip and it... I swear you are in this picture..." and so he described this picture to me, here's the picture... [holds up picture]Alfred Lessing wearing the jacket the bear's head came from and here is the little catalog that it came from, see that picture of the kids, well, this little note says, "Is it you? I think so, Shalom Abba." And this is me. He sent this to me, but even before I received this in the mail, because I said to him, "well, send it to me, I don't know of any such picture, but let me see it." "You know," he said "I swear it looks like you..." um, a couple days later, by accident I was talking to my oldest brother, Ed, who lives in New York, I said, oh by the way, Abba was telling me about a movie called "The Courage to Care" in which there is a picture and at this point Ed interrupts me and he says, oh Fred, The Courage to Care, I saw it on TV, oh by the way, you're in it. [he laughs] This totally freaked me out when I saw this picture, it had a big impact on me, I didn't know what to do, I felt picture before, this isn't me, and the next moment it was, "My God, this is me, I remember this, no I don't remember this, this is not me, this is me." It was a strange experience, uh... but it represents for me some kind of awakening, uh, of the kind that I talked about earlier, that all hidden children are having, that more and more I felt I had to do something about it... I began to research this picture, I will skip over the details, eventually I located this picture, it's in Amsterdam in the War Museum and I asked them to send me an enlargement of it, which they did... um... it is an awesome picture of children with their stars, [pause] Jewish children herded together no longer tolerated in schools and [pause] um, shortly thereafter deported with their families in railroad cars, prodded, pushed, kicked and with their parents sent to extermination camps. A million and a half, -- children-- a million and a half children. I sometimes try [weeps] to picture what that would look like, a million and a half children. So, the feeling I had about this picture is: these children are all dead, the likelihood of any of them being alive, is very, very slight. It turns out that in Holland, despite its somewhat positive, loving, protecting our Jews kind of image that it had for many years, maybe because of the Anne Frank story, I don't know, maybe it's just that Holland is cute, you know, dikes and little Dutch boys, or something and maybe it's because the Dutch people hated the Germans, but despite all that, Holland is second only to Poland in the percentage of Jews it lost. I believe that's correct, it's something like 80 or 85%. So the chances of these children surviving is slight and furthermore it felt to me as though the reason this picture is appearing in books, because shortly thereafter it appeared in another book, is because it symbolizes all those children [pause]. But, I felt, "wait a minute, I'm still here, God Damn it, I'm still here... [weeps] I'm still alive you bastards! There is a wonderful movie I saw about this time with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, I think it was called "Papillon", and it is this incredible story of survival of this poor guy and the movie ends with him jumping off a cliff and floating away from this prison island on some cork bales tied together and the camera pulls away and he is all alone in the ocean and he's saying, "I'm still here, you bastards, I'm still here." And that's what I felt about that and I felt a need to speak for these kids... and I've been struggling with that ever since because I don't, it is so incredibly difficult to know or to find the words, what does one say, and how do I speak for these kids, what does that really mean? But there is no longer any doubt that that little boy, the second from the right, this little guy here, [pause] that that's me. Uh, because among other things, there are other pictures in my own family that date from this exact same period and here is one of them... this is me and my brother Attie, and a bunch of other kids, this kid is at least Jewish, he's wearing a star, the others may or may not be.

Are you?

I'm wearing a star, yes.

But is there a pocket?

Right. There might still have been a pocket, I don't know if... no this would have been before the diphtheria.. so I don't know if you can see the pocket there, but it's at least from this same material. Maybe it was not the breast pocket, but I'm wearing the jacket of it there. I'm wearing the star of course and we went, we had a camping trip, which meant we went I think one block and there was a vacant field and we put up a sort of a tent... here is another photograph you can see us actually camping, there I am, my brother is there and we were having a wonderful time. This same period of time when I lived with my grandfather in Amsterdam and that is when this must have been taken, I must have gone to this Jewish school, which is right on the street that my grandfather lived on. So, the jacket actually ended up helping me identify, I mean the head of the bear and the jacket, because I couldn't believe it was me cause I had never seen the picture and I didn't clearly remember it, going to the school, very slowly bits, fragments come back to me, but it was for me just a moment in a long journey... and it was at the beginning, it was the very first place I went, when we went into hiding in Delft on October 23, 1942, the first place I ended up was with my grandfather in Amsterdam.

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