The Story of 178873: Ben Fainer, Holocaust Survivor

May 2, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More

I met 81 year old Ben Fainer two weeks ago at Grand Center Arts Academy in St. Louis. Ben had been invited by one of the social studies teachers to tell the seventh graders about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. As a parent of one of the students, I was also invited to attend. I found his presentation to be stunning and inspiring. One of the things that stood out to me was Ben’s admonition that, despite all he went through, he found hatred to be self-destructive.

On April 21, 2012, Ben (known as “Bendet Urman Fajner” when he lived in Poland as a boy) allowed me to videotape the story of how he survived six years in several Nazi concentration camps, from 1939 until he was rescued by American soldiers in 1945. He was only 9 1/2 years old when he was captured. Therefore, in this interview, you’ll hear what it was like to be a child imprisoned for the crime of being a Jew. At first, he was assigned special chores like shining shoes and cleaning offices for the regime. He grew up in these camps, though, and eventually he was put to work in factories alongside adult prisoners. In this video, you’ll hear that he would never have survived had he not lied about his age.

He spent most of a year in a camp in Jelesnia, Poland, before being moved to camps in Blahame and then at notorious concentration camp at Buchenwald, where Ben’s “home” was Block 15. Through most of his imprisonment, his name was “1778873.” The horrors he experienced were intense, and he speaks frankly about how he dealt with these situations.

Until four years ago, Ben refused to discuss these horrors. Thinking about his imprisonment brought him too much pain, so he had been working hard for almost six decades to suppress these thoughts and move on with his life. Four years ago, though, he decided that he would tell people what he experienced, because it was important for people to hear this. More recently, Ben has been invited to speak to many groups of students, soldiers and other interested people, and he has come to see these invitations as opportunities. As you can see from this interview, Ben doesn’t merely recount the horrors; he also offers many insights into his experience.

As I listened to Ben, I repeatedly thought about the fragility of our most cherished aspects of civilization. I also kept wondering how such a wave of insanity washed over Germany, and I wondered how vulnerable we are to something this immense and insane happening again today, even in those countries we consider to be the most civilized. After writing this paragraph, it occurred to me that I probably have little to add to what most people think after hearing an account by a Holocaust survivor. It does occur to me, though, that we need to be careful that we don’t discount the importance of any of these account, simply because so many people were victimized in similar ways. We need to vigorously resist the idea, which I am paraphrasing from the often-quoted statement of Joseph Stalin: The victimization of one person in a concentration camp is a tragedy; the victimization of millions is a statistic.

You’ll notice that Ben has somewhat of an Irish accent. After being released from Buchenwald, he spent several years in Dublin, Ireland, before moving to Canada, and then the United States.

I was the person off-camera asking the questions; I was there with Ben, for three hours, asking him about his experiences. I then edited this video down to a bit more than an hour. I was there in person to hear his words, but I have felt compelled to watch this edited interview several times, to better absorb Ben’s words and thoughts.

Ben was initially a victim, but he was also a survivor. Today, I admire his courage in stepping forth to share his story. I agree that his story an important story to hear.

What follows is a basic listing of the topics discussed in this video:

00:26 Living in Bedzin, Poland
06:05 Jelesnia – Forced Labor Camp
09:31 Taken to a different camp: Blahame
12:45 Lying about his age
23:48 Buchenwald Conditions
30:31 More on Buchenwald
33:00 Every day is a new day. “Maybe I can survive tomorrow.”
36:44 No doctors; no treatment
37:25 Discussion of hatred.
45:47 After Buchenwald
47:08 Walk to Dachau (Death March)
47:49 Rescue by American Soldiers
50:27 Many prisoners died from eating too quickly after their release
51:18 No paperwork. Trying to find other members of his family.
54:35 Only 7 out of 250 relatives survived WWII
56:01 Traveling to Dublin
58:20 Refused entry to the United States because he was a “communist.”
1:01:28 Bar Mitzvah at 74 years of age
1:02:52 Surprise phone call from one of his rescuers
1:04:51 More on his long period of silence, and trying to make sense of his time in concentration camps.



Category: Good and Evil, History, Meaning of Life, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Melissa says:

    Thanks for posting this. I look forward to watching the video when I get off work tonight. Will you be posting an unedited-full length version as well?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Melissa: This is the only version that will be published, and it is a lengthy video. My edits were for two reason–A) Sometimes Ben discussed several things more than once–I picked the best and fullest discussion. B) I rearranged the order of the topics to make it more chronological. Thus, you are getting a comprehensive version of the conversation. Let me know what you think, after you have had a chance to view the entire video.

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