91-yr-old Holocaust survivor Ben Lesser is sharing his story. It's one we all need to hear.
ZACHOR Foundation

"What's 'the Holocaust'?" my 11-year-old son asks me. I take a deep breath as I gauge how much to tell him. He's old enough to understand that prejudice can lead to hatred, but I can't help but feel he's too young to hear about the full spectrum of human horror that hatred can lead to.

I wrestle with that thought, considering the conversation I recently had with Ben Lesser, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who was just a little younger than my son when he witnessed his first Nazi atrocity.

It was September of 1939 and the Blitzkrieg occupation of Poland had just begun. Ben, his parents, and his siblings were awakened in their Krakow apartment by Nazi soldiers who pistol-whipped them out of bed and ransacked their home. As the men with the shiny black boots filled burlap sacks with the Jewish family's valuables, a scream came from the apartment across the hall. Ben and his sister ran toward the cry.

They found a Nazi swinging their neighbors' baby upside down by its legs, demanding that the baby's mother make it stop crying. As the parents screamed, "My baby! My baby!" the Nazi smirked—then swung the baby's head full force into the door frame, killing it instantly.

This story and others like it feel too terrible to tell my young son, too out of context from his life of relative safety and security. And yet Ben Lesser lived it at my son's age. And it was too terrible—for anyone, much less a 10-year-old. And it was also completely out of context from the life of relative safety and security Ben and his family had known before the Nazi tanks rolled in.


ZACHOR Foundation

Before I spoke with Ben, I had prepared myself for what I was going to hear. The baby story was brutal, but I'd read enough Holocaust stories to expect all manner of horror. The Jews being rounded up and taken to the woods to dig their own graves before being shot and thrown into them. The cattle cars crammed with bodies so tightly no one could move—where men, women, and children languished in hunger and thirst, standing in their own excrement for days. The Nazi commandant who made every 10th prisoner in line hold their body over a sawhorse and take 25 lashes, shooting in the head anyone whose body touched the sawhorse through the beating.

The concentration camps, the death camps, the gas chambers. I was prepared for all of that.

What I wasn't prepared for was the fact that Ben Lesser's dad was a chocolate maker. He was one of the first, Ben explained to me proudly, to make chocolate-covered wafer cookies, like a Kit-Kat, only he made his in the shape of animals.

Hearing Ben describe the way he and his siblings would excitedly run to their father when he got home from work, knowing he'd have pockets full of chocolate for them—that was the detail that did me in. The simple sweetness of it. The fact that their life was so delightfully normal before it turned into a nightmare. That backdrop made hearing about the horrors Ben witnessed and experienced from age 10 to 16 all the more heinous.

ZACHOR Foundation

Ben was 15 when he and two of his siblings were shoved into a cattle car and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp complex where Nazis systematically murdered 1.1 million people in five years. When they exited the car, a man was directing people to go left or right. Ben, a strong young man, was sent to the right with his uncle and cousin—they were going to work. His sister Goldie and younger brother Tuli were sent to the left.

Ben only learned that his sister and brother had gone straight to the gas chambers when a guard later explained, with a twisted sense of satisfaction, that the ash gently falling from the sky was made up of the bodies of the workers' loved ones.

By the time the war ended, Ben would lose his parents, three of his four siblings, and countless extended family members and friends to Hitler and his followers' hatred. His older sister, Lola, was the only member of his immediate family to survive.

The stories Ben shared from Auschwitz-Birkenau, from the "Death March" to Buchenwald, and from Dachau—where he would ultimately be liberated when the war ended—are every bit as horrific as everything I've described so far. It would take far more space than I have here to share it all, but Ben has written it all down—the tragedy and suffering as well as the miracles that occurred both during and after the war—in his autobiography.

But simply putting it all down in writing wasn't enough.

ZACHOR Foundation

"In my mind there are questions that have never been answered," Ben writes in the opening of his memoir. "You might be surprised to learn that my first unanswered question is not, Why did that insane Hitler try to destroy the Jewish People? Instead, my first unanswered question is, Why did the so-called sane world stand by and let this Genocide happen?

"Having experienced the savagery of genocide first-hand as a child, while living in a supposedly modern, cultured, European country, I also have two additional questions: One, What are the circumstances and choices that led up to this and other genocides? And two: What must we do to prevent it from happening again? Anywhere. Because, sadly, as the old saying tells us, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.'"

These are the questions Ben seeks to help all of us answer as time takes us further and further away from the Holocaust. Ben is one of a handful of survivors who are able to share first-hand experiences as Jews under Nazi terror—a fact he was keenly aware of when he founded the ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation in 2009. "ZACHOR" means "REMEMBER," and the purpose of the foundation is to make sure the world never forgets the lessons of the Holocaust or the millions of individual lives that were taken there.

The story of the Holocaust isn't just in the masses of humanity killed, but in the individual stories of those who survived. For years, Ben spoke at schools, sharing his story with young people. At 91, Ben has retired from the school circuit, but he's not slowing down in his efforts to teach the lesson of what hate can lead to.

ZACHOR has just launched an online Holocaust curriculum—the first to be created and facilitated by and through the firsthand testimonial of a survivor. Ben told Upworthy that he wanted to create a curriculum that would be free and easy for teachers to access so there would be no excuse for schools not to teach about the Holocaust.

Considering the study findings that came out today, Ben's curriculum could not be more timely.

The 50-state survey of young adults in the U.S. found that nearly two-thirds were unaware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, nearly 1 in 4 say they think the Holocaust is a myth or that it's exaggerated, and approximately 1 in 10 had either had never heard of it, didn't think it happened at all, or—perhaps most alarmingly—think Jews were responsible for it.

Clearly, we need to be doing a better job of educating our kids about the Holocaust. If we don't, the online disinformation machine will lead them to believe it was all a hoax.

The Zachor Holocaust Curriculum consists of eight lessons, which interweave Ben's personal story with facts about the Eastern European part of the war, how Hitler and the Nazis operated, and the Holocaust in general. It includes written content, fact inserts, photographs, and videos. It is free to register to use, and available to anyone with internet.

Perhaps the most unique element of the ZACHOR curriculum is the interactive component. Ben has created a Storyfile—a mix of artificial intelligence and hologram technology that will enable people to ask Ben questions and get answers long after he's no longer here. He spent hours answering thousands of questions, all of which was recorded from various angles and put into the Storyfile program, so people will always be able to hear Ben's answers to their questions from his own mouth.

Ben's foundation has also launched an anti-bullying campaign called "I SHOUT OUT." Anyone can go to the website i-shout-out.org and share what they shout out for—equality, peace, human rights, etc.—to let the world they stand against hatred.

I asked Ben what is the main message he wants people to take from the horrors of the Holocaust. He said, "It's very simple. Stop the hatred."

We all need to listen and heed Ben's words. Even just this five-minute video in which he shares how the Holocaust got started is worth viewing and sharing with our kids.

3 - Ben's Testimony. It all started with hatred. youtu.be

It may be a few more years before I share the full scope of Nazi cruelty with my son. But I will absolutely make sure that he knows what happened during WWII, about the millions of lives destroyed by hatred, and how, as Ben says, "One person with the gift of gab could turn the minds of millions."

Zachor indeed. We will remember.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."