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.”
Students asked to see the tattoo on his arm, given to all Nazi prisoners. Without hesitating, Midler showed them his left forearm bearing the number “B-2433” — “B” for Birkenau.
Never forget what happened in the Holocaust, he told his audience, because it could happen again if people don’t appreciate the value of democracy. Proclaiming the United States “the best government in the world,” he said liberty is in jeopardy without an educated society that understands the lessons of history.
Midler advised the children to respect parents and teachers, study hard, become educated and “have your own mind and speak up” when they see injustice. “When you see things that aren’t right, be strong,” he said. “We’re about building a better world.”
After Midler’s presentation, the Del Mar Heights sixth-grade students wrote to thank him. Names have been omitted to protect the private and personal nature of the letters. Following are excerpts from a few of the more than 60 letters:
“I have never appreciated living in America so much until now. Hearing about the Holocaust from an eye-witness brings everything I’ve learned about it to a whole new level.”
“Thank you for taking the time to share your amazing and tragic story with us. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to talk about that. … I admire your courage, bravery and kindness and wish you the best in all your future. We will never forget your family that passed away in the camps and will honor them forever. You have inspired me to do great things.”
“Your story left me in tears. …Your speech taught me and showed me that you never gave up, always had hope, and never lost faith.”
“I’m amazed you can talk about what you went through. I admire you for having the will to live. … You are one of my few role models in life, by your act of courage and will.”
“I admire your bravery and your willingness to stand and speak about your hardships. You taught me a very important lesson: to stand up and speak out about things you don’t agree with.”
“You show me that you have great courage and a very strong heart. … Your story has taught me to never give up and always fight for what you want. You have taught me the true definition of courage.”
“By coming to our school, you became a hero and a role model to many of our classmates including me.”
“Your story is very motivational to me because of all the hardship you went through and you still never gave up. … It was an honor to hear your story.”
“I will never forget your life-changing story and hope that it will be passed on to the next generations. Your story taught me to keep believing and trying. I will never give up and it’s all thanks to you.”
“Seeing you in front of me was confirmation that such a terrible catastrophe could really have happened. Sometimes I wonder how the world might have been different if all those Jews had survived. Would any of them have been famous inventors, athletes or political leaders?”
“The day that you came, I got home, sat on the couch, and started to cry. Your story was so emotional, it was like I was there with you.”
“I learned so much more from you than if I watched a documentary or read a book because I was able to experience the truth from you. ... I am so grateful that you made it through the Holocaust.”
“You have made me feel so great to live in the U.S.A. where we are free to think and do whatever we choose. You are a true hero.”
“More than often people deny the undeniable, try not to believe the unbelievable, and remain oblivious of the horrors of the Holocaust. But how can such a thing be forgotten?”
“Because of your speech, I’ll make sure such hatred will not happen again.”
“It sometimes amazes me that only some people spoke up and helped Jews. After you gave your speech, it made me think of how you shouldn’t judge people about how they look or what they believe in.”
“I will always remember to try my best and to never give up hope. … To me you are a hero.”