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 Welcometoterranova 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.

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Amazon

Shopping sustainably is increasingly important given the severity of the climate crisis, but sometimes it's hard to know where to turn. Thankfully, Amazon is making it a little easier to browse thousands of products that have one or more of 19 sustainability certifications that help preserve the natural world.

The online retailer recently announced Climate Pledge Friendly, a program to make it easier for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products. To determine the sustainability of a product, the program partnered with third-party certifications, including governmental agencies, nonprofits, and independent labs.

With a selection of items spanning grocery, household, fashion, beauty, and personal electronics, you'll be able to shop more sustainably not just for the holiday season, but throughout the year for your essentials, as well.

You can browse all of the Climate Pledge Friendly products here, labeled with an icon and which certification(s) they meet. To get you on your way to shopping more sustainably, we've rounded up eight of our favorite Climate Pledge Friendly-products that will make great gifts all year long.

Amazon

Jack Wolfskin Women's North York Coat

Give the gift of warmth and style with this coat, available in a variety of colors. Sustainability is built into all Jack Wolfskin products and each item comes with a code that lets you trace back to its origins and understand how it was made.

Bluesign: Bluesign products are responsibly manufactured by using safer chemicals and fewer resources, including less energy, in production.


Amazon

Amazon All-new Echo Dot (4th Gen)

For the tech-obsessed. This Alexa smart speaker, which comes in a sleek, compact design, lets you voice control your entertainment and your smart home as well as connect with others.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.


Amazon

Burt's Bees Family Jammies Matching Holiday Organic Cotton Pajamas

Get into the holiday spirit with these fun matching PJs for the whole family. Perfect for pictures that even Fido can get in on.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

Naturistick 5-Pack Lip Balm Gift Set

With 100% natural ingredients that are gentle on ultra-sensitive lips, this gift is a great gift for the whole family.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.


Amazon

Arus Women's GOTS Certified Organic Cotton Hooded Full Length Turkish Bathrobe

For those who love to lounge around, this full-length organic cotton bathrobe is the way to go. Available in five different colors, it has comfortable cuffed sleeves, a hood, pockets, and adjustable belt.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

L'Occitane Extra-Gentle Vegetable Based Soap

This luxe soap, made with moisturizing shea butter and scented with verbena, is perfect for the self-care obsessed.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.

Amazon

Goodthreads Men's Sweater-Knit Fleece Long-Sleeve Bomber

For the fashionable men in your life, this fashion-forward knit bomber is an excellent choice. The sweater material keeps it cozy and warm, while the bomber jacket-cut, zip front, and rib-trim neck make it look elevated.

Recycled Claim Standard 100: Products with this certification use materials made from at least 95% recycled content.

Amazon

All-new Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote

Make it even easier to access your favorite movies and shows this holiday season. The new Fire TV Stick lets you use your voice to search across apps. Plus it controls the power and volume on your TV, so you'll never need to leave the couch! Except for snacks.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.

Even as millions of Americans celebrated the inauguration of President Joe Biden this week, the nation also mourned the fact that, for the first time in modern history, the United States did not have a peaceful transition of power.

With the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, when pro-Trump insurrectionists attempted to stop the constitutional process of counting electoral votes and where terrorists threatened to kill lawmakers and the vice president for not keeping Trump in power, our long and proud tradition was broken. And although presidential power was ultimately transferred without incident on January 20, the presence of 20,000 National Guard troops around the Capitol reminded us of the threat that still lingers.

First Lady Jill Biden showed up today with cookies in hand for a group of National Guard troops at the Capitol to thank them for keeping her family safe. The homemade chocolate chip cookies were a small token of appreciation, but one that came from the heart of a mother whose son had served as well.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Welcometoterranova and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Welcometoterranova-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.