Survivor endured concentration camp via domain of spirit

It was not his strapping youth that saved 17-year-old Benjamin Bender from death during his hellish imprisonment at Buchenwald in World War II's waning months.

It was his mind.

Speaking slowly, in thickly accented English and without emotion, the gray-haired Holocaust survivor grabbed and held the rapt attention of a capacity crowd who'd come to listen to this unlikely public speaker at Black Oak Books in Berkeley on a recent Wednesday night.

Bender has written a book about his grisly experience, "Glimpses Through the Holocaust and Liberation," published by North Atlantic Books of Berkeley.

Despite the gruesome details of extreme cruelty and pervasive death at the hands of the Germans, Bender's saga proved strangely uplifting as he revealed a secret to his — and others' — survival.

They let their minds soar.

The native of Poland recalled Sundays in Buchenwald, when some of the Jewish prisoners would hold lively philosophical discussions. Invoking the words of Plato, Socrates, Descartes, and other great thinkers, some concentration camp inmates found escape "from the physical pain to the domain of the spirit," said Bender.

"You forgot the pain. This was an act of conspiracy, an open rebellion against the Third Reich."

That the Germans missed this act of defiance, for surely they would have quashed it, gave the conspirators desperate joy. It meant, explained Bender, "that we were still alive."

On the other hand, he said, at this "small" concentration camp of 30,000, where Jews were dying at the rate of 300 a day, some of the sick and starving succumbed to destructive thoughts.

They'd talk about food, dishing up delirious visions of edible delights. This type of banter actually killed some people, according to Bender.

"When you are starving and you talk about food, that's total insanity. People just went insane. To talk about those things and never to reach, never to have…"

The human mind "is a powerful weapon," Bender believes: It can be used destructively, such as in the case of those whose talk of food literally pushed them over the edge, or positively, in Bender's case, as "an escape."

Bender also explained how, when you are in living hell, even a chance encounter with the mundane can provide peace.

Once, he said, on a brutally cold afternoon while marching from work duty, a group of prisoners was locked in a barn while a farmer treated the German soldiers to warm drinks in his home.

The freezing prisoners quickly realized that there were cows in the barn. Bender described how the men cuddled against the cows for warmth and peeked between the slats of wood siding to see a delightful scene: large white rabbits hopping about the fields outside.

"Time stood still," Bender said quietly, looking blissful. "We left the cowshed invigorated."

Bender arrived at Buchenwald on Jan. 17, 1945 and was liberated three months later, on April 11. His parents and grandparents were killed in the war. His brother, older by three years, was executed six hours before the liberation.

After the war, Bender lived on a kibbutz in Israel. He broke a personal vow to never again set foot on German soil by returning to Buchenwald in 1991 for the filming of "Liberators," a documentary about the African American GIs who helped liberate camps such as Buchenwald.

A chance encounter with the producer led to Bender's involvement in a film that he is convinced serves the greater good.

Though his return to Buchenwald was painful, Bender finds satisfaction in knowing that the movie has been viewed by millions throughout the world. It was well received, and nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary.

In writing his book, Bender also pushed through emotional injury in order to provide others with a brutal but critical view of the past.

"I said once that I was blessed with a good memory," he said. "Sometimes I would like to forget the bad times and remember the good times. But if you have a good memory, you remember both."

It was his duty, his "legacy to posterity," to write "Glimpses," Bender said. Now a resident of Florida, Bender wrote in English, his fourth language.

Writing forced Bender to relive the horror. "Even talking about it and reading it [now], it's like being again in those places," he said.

Almost apologetically, Bender told one admirer who came up to shake his hand, "I wish I could read another story. But this was my life."

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Liz Harris

Liz Harris is J.'s culture editor. She can be reached at liz@jweekly.com.