Several weeks ago I went to see Holocaust survivor Ben Fainer speak – his second booking at our library headquarters because the first one filled the auditorium to overflowing and many people (including me) had to be turned away. Mr. Fainer has a published memoir, Silent for Sixty Years, because Marcie from the Shoah Foundation St. Louis branch kept pestering him to break his silence about his painful past. He had kept his tattoo hidden even from his own children, but they knew their father was haunted by something big.
Ben Fainer is a character, a grandfatherly type with a silken mane and jovial attitude, a great storyteller. He said he survived the loss of his beloved mother and the six years in six different concentration camps because he was a big, strong boy encouraged by fellow prisoners. He was ten years old when taken by the Nazis and put to work, rising at 3:00 a.m. and threatened with death if he stopped to rest or could not go on. A lifetime later, he met one of the American soldiers who liberated his camp. Norris Nims called Ben after seeing a newpaper article about his Bar Mitzvah at age 70 – long overdue since he turned 13 in the camps.
I don’t know how many survivors are still alive now, but Ben is obviously a rarity around here, speaking at schools and to other groups almost daily and serving as docent at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum. He has some heart problems and should slow down, but he doesn’t. Marcie, who insisted his stories were important, gave him a way to heal and gave him a passion to pass on the stories and to hope such a thing never happens again. Even though it still does. Even though it hurts him to tell these stories.
I’ve been reading Silent for Sixty Years and it’s like listening to Ben Fainer talk, you across the table with your dropped jaw and pained heart. Ben tells it like it is, no dressing it up or fancy literary talk. I like his book better than Elie Wiesel’s Night because it is so personal. You are watching and affected deep inside as your grandfather shows his arm and tells you nightmares that are not dreams. He tells you what he feels, what he thinks, what he wonders about. And he is gracious, big-hearted and open-minded despite all that was done to him. Grateful and respectful of the US military for his own rescue and all the times it has come to the rescue of others. And no, he doesn’t have answers for how the US can care better for its own people and still go out to save others. All he knows is he is thankful to have been saved and to have a place to live safely and happily ever after.
Wow, that breaks my heart, but I have enormous joy for him.
His buried secrets are exactly the same and as deep as those who survived combat. A lot of people in today’s America seem to have become isolated from war and its horrors. I hope his heart has come to terms with his life.