Local survivor endured six Nazi camps from age 9 to 15

Bernard ‘Ben’ Fainer at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. Fainer recently published a memoir, ‘Silent for Sixty Years.’ Fainer co-authored the book with Mark W. Leach.


“There is no cookie cutter Holocaust experience,” says Bernard “Ben” Fainer in his recently published memoir “Silent for Sixty Years: Ben Fainer—Holocaust survivor” (Amazon Create Space, 188 pp. $16) which he co-authored with Chesterfield resident, Mark W. Leach. However, for most readers, Fainer’s survival story will seem more remarkable and unique than most: In September, 1939, when Fainer was in a round-up of Jews from Bedzin, Poland he was only nine years old—although by precocious insight he represented himself as older. By the time Fainer was liberated at age 15, he had endured 5½ years of forced labor and had been to six different Nazi camps.

During the time of the roundup, Fainer and his father were put on the same truck and taken to a labor site elsewhere in Poland. But Fainer’s mother and three younger siblings, including a baby girl just a few days old, were immediately segregated for transport with other women and children. He never saw them again.

After liberation, Fainer joined his mother’s siblings who had emigrated to Dublin in 1931. There he apprenticed to an uncle and learned pattern construction as an aspect of apparel manufacture. That skill served him well in providing a comfortable livelihood for a family of seven children after he emigrated to Canada and later the United States.

In 1952, Fainer married Susan O’Brien Fainer, whom he describes as “the greatest wife in the world.” They had been married some 43 years by the time of her death from cancer in 1995.

Video Digitization Services ad

Fainer, of course, confided in his wife about the concentration camps, but for many later decades he deflected curiosity about the number on his arm and kept a stony silence, even with his children. Then, about five years ago, he was convinced to become a Shoah educator at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. Fainer now maintains an active speaking schedule at local churches and other sites, in addition to his regular talks to visiting students at the Holocaust Museum.

It was there that Fainer recently capped a morning speaking engagement with an interview for the Light.

Let’s leave it to readers to discover in your book the unusual, and some will think, shocking reunion you had with your father after being liberated. But can you describe your father as he was before the war?

My mother and my father were from different worlds. She came from a rabbinic family, and he never came home sober. He had a mean streak; he would turn the furniture upside down just for the hell of it. He also manhandled my mother. He was an illiterate tailor, but an excellent craftsman. He owned a workshop where he employed eight or nine people. We might have lived comfortably. But he misspent the money, and my mother had to scrub floors to make ends meet.

What comes to mind as the worst of what you experienced while in the camps?

I saw people who couldn’t keep up get a bullet to the head, and they would drop to the side of the road. Then they would be eaten by birds or other animals and turn into a pile of bones. When I was in Block 15 at Buchenwald, a crematorium was right next door. Guys would be shoved in screaming. The crematorium ran 24/7, but still the bodies would pile up. They couldn’t shove them in fast enough. One of the liberators said they could smell the corpses a half-mile away.

You had a lot of camaraderie with your fellow prisoners. Did people watch out for you because you were young?

The camaraderie was great among everyone. We were all Jews in the same boat. We talked to each other. We encouraged one another. When I was cleaning SS quarters, I was able to filch leftovers for myself and I would hide food to bring back to the barracks to share with a few guys. Or I would take a cigarette or two from a pack and bring those back.

It was when you had a job cleaning the SS barracks that you learned not to be a wise guy.

We had shoes with heavy, wooden soles and black leather tips. Part of my job was polishing shoes. An SS guard asked me: Why haven’t you polished your shoes? When I said, “I just didn’t feel like it,” he took his rifle and knocked me upside the head. I bled a lot. But I recovered. From then on, no smart-mouthing.

One of the reasons you survived: You never contracted any diseases like typhus—which comes from lice?

That’s right. And I didn’t get it. But I did have lice. I used to be able to reach under my arm and scoop them up by the handful. It took me years to get rid of the lice. They were embedded under my skin.

It’s a huge irony that when the Allies began bombing the factories, you were cheering for the Allies, but meanwhile, a bomb might have killed you.

I had to cheer for the Allies, because that was how the end was going to come. When the Germans could, they would fog over the entire factory. When they didn’t, a lot of us got killed because they were dropping bombs like eggs—in the vicinity of the target. We would hop into the pits left by bombs, on the theory that a bomb will never fall in the same place twice.

Tragically, after liberation a significant number of survivors died when they had a chance to eat a regular diet. That was another bullet that you dodged.

Yes, I don’t know where I got the sense to go slow and not gorge myself. But hundreds of others died because they ate too fast. When you’ve been on a starvation diet, your stomach shrinks and the lining of your stomach gets thin. If you start packing it in, your stomach busts into pieces.

You talk in your book how people lost the will to survive. You saw it in their eyes. But that didn’t happen to you.

I didn’t think about what could happen to me. I couldn’t afford to grieve. I’d wake up and congratulate myself on still being alive. Every day was a new day.

Every time you were moved to a different camp, you went there at a forced march—long distances, in any kind of weather wearing the blue and white striped uniforms that weren’t much heavier than pajamas. How did you endure five of those “death” marches?

It was two things. I had a good God watching over me. And the devil gave me a kick in the pants.