Nearly 67 years have passed since Ben Fainer was liberated by American troops from seemingly endless captivity by the German military. But he has only begun to talk about that time in his life during the past four years.
Fainer, a Holocaust survivor now in his 80s, will speak Wednesday in Cape Girardeau during a commemorative event of Holocaust Remembrance Day at Southeast Missouri State University.
A native of Poland, Fainer lives near St. Louis and makes frequent appearances throughout the Midwest to tell his story in schools, churches, community centers, military quarters and other venues.
He was 10 when Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. When troops evacuated his hometown, he and his father were separated from other family members and taken to a forced labor camp. Between 1939 and 1945, he lived in several concentration camps and was among thousands who participated in a death march through Germany, where guards moved prisoners in an attempt to prevent their liberation by Allied forces. Following the war, he learned his mother, two sisters and brother died in Auschwitz.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., encourages communities across the U.S. to hold events near or in conjunction with Holocaust Remembrance Week, set this year for April 15 through 22. The official Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Yom HaShoah, is April 19.
Dr. Mitchel Gerber, a professor of political science at Southeast, introduced the annual events to commemorate the Holocaust to the university and local community around 15 years ago. Often speakers for related events are survivors from the St. Louis area, but Gerber has also invited scholars with extensive knowledge of the Holocaust and World War II. Gerber is himself a researcher of the Holocaust and created an upper-level interdisciplinary course on the Holocaust at the university.
Fainer's decision to wait until later in life to speak about his experiences is not unusual, Gerber said. Gerber studied video testimonies of Holocaust survivors at Yale and said he saw many others who waited decades to recount their memories as well.
For those people, "it's dealing with memories that are painful, of course," he said, and survivors did not want to relive those traumatic times, so did not talk about them at all.
What hearing those experiences can do for students now, as well as the community, he said, is add an extra layer to what is already known about genocide, since much of that knowledge comes from documents that were not written by victims.
Only firsthand testimonies from survivors give personal insight that provides a whole other context, he said.
"We need to use these as an additional source of information," he said. "It adds that human touch."
Efforts to educate about the Holocaust many years later need to continue, he said, because it is important to remember victims. Those efforts are also relevant in today's world, he said, since human rights issues and genocide remain.
Fainer's speech at noon to 1:15 p.m. Wednesday in the University Center Ballroom is free and open to all university students, faculty, staff and the public.
One University Plaza, Cape Girardeau, MO