Holocaust survivor shares story with students

Ben Fainer leans in closer to hear a question from Jazmine Luebbert, at left. Fainer, who now lives in St. Louis, spent part of his Friday at Helias High School talking to sophomore students about his time in a Nazi concentration camp.
Ben Fainer leans in closer to hear a question from Jazmine Luebbert, at left. Fainer, who now lives in St. Louis, spent part of his Friday at Helias High School talking to sophomore students about his time in a Nazi concentration camp.

For 60 years, Ben Fainer kept silent about the horrific experiences he endured as a victim of the Holocaust.

Even his own children didn't know he once was imprisoned in some of the Nazis' most infamous camps - hellholes with names like Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald. Big for his age - his father was 6'6" - Fainer knew enough to lie to the German soldiers when they came for his family. Not yet 9 years old, he told them he was 15.

On Friday, Fainer, 83, of St. Louis, shared his life experiences with English students in Jefferson City at Helias Catholic High School who are studying "Night," the autobiographical account of Jewish author Elie Weisel's survival.

English teacher Sarah Kempker said it took her a long time to locate a survivor willing to share his or her experiences. "I had to call the next person and the next and the next," she said. "But I didn't realize his full story until I heard it today."

Whether they were soldiers or victims, like many of his generation, Fainer wanted to forget those terrible memories. Instead, they focused on work and raising their families.

After years of secrecy, he first opened up in 1996 to Marci Rosenberg with the Shoah Foundation. About five years ago, he reluctantly agreed to give talks to visitors to the Holocaust Museum in St. Louis. He now has a book - entitled "Silent for Sixty Years" - and regularly shares his message with school groups, military assemblies and church organizations.

Fainer's childhood, already marked by deprivation before the war started, was cut short in 1938 when the first German soldiers arrived in Bedzin, Poland, shouting "Raus, Raus, Juden Raus!" and rounding up the town's Jews. Able to work, Fainer and his father were shunted to the right. His mother and three siblings - including a newborn sister - were shoved to the left. His mother is believed to have been executed at Auschwitz, although documents released relatively recently show she might have survived until the war's end.

"They shoved them onto the trucks like a bunch of cattle," he said.

It was the last time he saw his family. Fainer told the students he can talk about his wartime experiences, but he cannot discuss the loss of his "dear mother" without losing his emotional composure.

"I've seen the worst horror any human being saw in six years," he said.

A ladies' tailor by trade, Fainer spent his career constructing and sewing all kinds of women's garments. "I would call myself a lady's man, but some people take it wrong," he said.

Like his life, his conversation with the students on Friday veered back and forth between the ebullient, funny quips that mark his personality and the tragedy that marred his youth. He also shared with students a self-directed video that explains some basic Holocaust history and how he experienced it. Of the 9 million Jews who had resided in Europe before the Holocaust, approximately two-thirds were killed.

Since the Jews of Będzin were among the first to encounter the Germans and Fainer wasn't liberated until April 23, 1945, he spent all of the war in the Nazis' grip. The worst physical pain he endured was the day he smarted off to a guard and was rewarded with a rifle butt to his jaw. He also remembers the shocking way in which the Germans disposed of their victims' bodies - by stacking them in piles and shoving them en mass into crematoriums - even as some were still living.

During that time, he endured extreme workloads, lice, a complete absence of hygiene, freezing temperatures and near-starvation. "I was 15 years old, and I weighted less than 70 pounds when Americans came," he told the students.

"Camaraderie kept us alive," he said of the other men who endured the conditions with him.

After moving through five different Nazi camps, he searched in Germany for surviving members of his family. Although he encountered his father, Fainer was not greeted warmly. The two men went separate ways.

Ultimately, he went to live with aunts and uncles in Ireland. One memento of his childhood, a boyish picture sent by his mother to her family, survives.

But he also met his sweet wife, Susan, in Ireland. Hoping to earn more money, Fainer talked Susan into following him to North America. Blocked in the U.S. by fears of potential Communists, the couple landed in Montreal.

"I couldn't even spell communism," he scoffed.

From there they traveled to Toronto before finally coming to U.S. in 1957, thanks to the Eisenhower administration's willingness to loosen the rules. Fainer has been a U.S. citizen since 1962.

Clearly, the great joy of his life is the seven children he and his wife raised and their numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (She died in 1995. Afterward, Fainer moved briefly to Florida.)

"I hope to God everyone here has the wonderful life that I've had. I have the world on a string, I'm sitting on a rainbow," he said.

The Helias students who heard his story wanted to know if he maintained any of the friendships he struck with other men in the labor camps and what happened on the day of the American liberation.

He told them the day of the liberation was "wonderful" and the American soldiers treated "us like lords."

They also asked how he dealt with questions from his Irish family members and his own family.

"They knew where I was (during the war years), and they knew I didn't want to discuss it with anyone," he said. "Susan knew."

His story really came to light when he told a friend, a rabbi, that he wanted to become bar mitzvah at age 74. (The Jewish coming-of-age ceremony typically is conducted when a boy turns 13.) Blown away by the idea that Fainer was in Buchenwald that year, the news of his celebration became a statewide news story.

That publicity helped U.S. Army Sergeant Norris Nims, who was there the day Fainer was liberated, find him. For the two men to meet was "quite a rare occurrence," Fainer told the Helias teens.

Mostly Fainer's mission on Friday was help students understand the history of the Holocaust. "It's important that we know the horror a monster (Hitler) can do so that it doesn't happen again," he said.

And he exhorted the students to be tolerant of all faiths. "My wife was a good Catholic girl, and I am a Jew," he said, noting all seven of his children are Christian.

It also bothers him when Germans, or people with German ancestry, feel guilty for what took place in Nazi Germany.

"I don't hold on to hate," he said. "It's water under the bridge. I don't hate nobody. But I hope to God it never happens again."

Upcoming Events