By Marsha Sutton
Senior Education Reporter
When Ben Midler spoke before an assembly of 65 sixth-grade students at Del Mar Heights Elementary School this week, you could have heard a pin drop. No one squirmed, no one spoke, no one was distracted.
Midler, a Polish Jew who alone among 70 family members survived the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s World War II concentration camps, told of his childhood and growing up in Bialystok, a major, predominantly Jewish city in northeastern Poland.
Born in 1929, Midler, now 82, was 10 when Germany declared war on Poland, changing his world forever. He told the students how Jews in the city were confined to a ghetto where they lived in squalor. Eventually, the Jews were either murdered or deported to the camps.
After two years in the ghetto, Midler was taken in a railroad car to the first of six concentration camps where he said most of the Jewish prisoners were led to the “showers,” gassed and then burned in crematoria.
He was later moved to the infamous Treblinka concentration camp, where he said the chimneys were “working full-time 24 hours a day” to burn bodies.
Finding his skill as a tailor valuable, the Nazis spared his life, but not before shipping him to the Birkenau concentration camp where as a young teenager he witnessed some of the most inhumane horrors of the 20th century.
Midler remembered the so-called “angel of death” — Dr. Josef Mengele, who greeted the incoming trainloads of Jews and decided with a flick of his wrist who would go directly to the gas chambers and who would be sent to work or be subjected to his gruesome medical experiments.
Mengele had a marker for children to measure height, Midler said. If children were tall enough, they might live. If they didn’t measure up, they were killed.
In the camps, Midler lived on a slice of bread for breakfast, a clear broth for lunch, and another slice of bread for dinner. “When people next to me died, I’m not ashamed to say I took their bread,” he said. “They didn’t need it any more.”
He survived typhus, starvation, freezing conditions and unimaginable indignities — eventually to be liberated. He was forced to spend six months in Cyprus before being allowed entry into Israel, then finally making his way to the United States.
He said hope that he might live to see his family again kept him going. “To be alive today is a little miracle, a little determination, and because I was young,” he said.
But none of his family members survived, including his parents, younger brother and sister, aunts, uncles and cousins. Thirty family members on his mother’s side and 40 on his father’s side were all lost.
“I speak for the people who aren’t here today, who were killed in the crematoria,” he told the children. “Hitler was going to wipe out the Jewish race, but I’m alive and he’s dead.”
For many years, Midler never spoke about his experiences during the Holocaust, but writing a book about it “helped me to not live with it day in and day out,” he said. Bitterness, he said, can poison your life. “I don’t live in the past – I live in the future.”