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.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

Freya from Maya Higa's YouTube video.

Ever wonder what an ideal date for a lemur would be? Or a lizard’s favorite Disney princess?

Thanks to one YouTube poster with a passion for animals and an endearing sense of humor, all questions shall be answered. Well, maybe not all questions. But at the very least, you’ll have eight minutes of insanely cute footage.

In a series titled “Tiny Mic Interviews,” Maya Higa approaches little beasties with a microphone so small she has to hold it with just her thumb and forefinger. And yes, 99% of the animals try to eat it.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

Cellist Cremaine Booker's performance of Faure's "Pavane" is as impressive as it is beautiful.

Music might be the closest thing the world has to real magic. Music has the ability to transform any atmosphere in seconds, simply with the sounds of a few notes. It can be simple—one instrument playing single notes like raindrops—or a complex symphony of melodies and harmonies, swirling and crashing like waves from dozens of instruments. Certain rhythms can make us spontaneously dance and certain chord progressions can make us cry.

Music is an art, a science, a language and a decidedly human endeavor. People have made music throughout history, in every culture on every continent. Over time, people have perfected the crafting of instruments and passed along the knowledge of how to play them, so every time we see someone playing music, we're seeing the history of humanity culminated in their craft. It's truly an amazing thing.

The pandemic threw a wrench into seeing live musicians for a good chunk of time, and even now, live performances are limited. Thankfully, we have technology that makes it easier for musicians to collaborate and perform with one another virtually—and also makes it easier for people to create "group" performances all by themselves.

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A round-up of delights from around the internet this week.

Hey all!

Welcome to Upworthy's weekly roundup of delights from around the internet. This week's list features a little of everything—gorgeous music, cute kids, adorable animals, hope for the planet and a brand new video message from the late and great Betty White.

That's right, Betty White left us a message of gratitude shortly before her passing. It's brief, but how lovely to see and hear her speak to her millions of fans one last time. Few celebrities are as universally beloved as Betty White was, and though we knew she couldn't live forever, it would have been fun to see her celebrate her 100th birthday. Now, at least, we get to experience her joy and warmth with a few last words.

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