Ben Fainer, Holocaust survivor, dies at 86

Bernard ‘Ben’ Fainer is shown at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in a 2013 Jewish Light file photo.  

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

When first meeting Ben Fainer, his expansive personality and relaxed smile could throw you off. It was impossible to tell from his optimistic outlook on life and gratitude for his blessings that he was a Holocaust survivor of several Nazi death camps.

He did not share his story of survival until his friend Marci Rosenberg, then chair of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, convinced him that he had an obligation to share it.

Mr. Fainer, 86, a longtime resident of St. Louis, died Wednesday, May 17. For the past several years, he had shared his inspirational life story through numerous speeches at the Holocaust Museum and in a moving memoir, “Silent for Sixty Years,” that he co-wrote with his friend Mark W. Leach.

His longtime friend Michael Staenberg told the Jewish Light:

“Ben’s lungs finally gave out. They had been weakened in the death camps when he inhaled the fumes from the crematoria. One never recovers from such an experience, physically and psychologically.” 

Bernard Joseph Fainer was born in Bedzin, Poland, near Poland’s border with Germany, on May 1, 1930.  He was the son of Rubin Fainer and Hannah Ida Urman Fainer.  He was married to the late Susan Christina O’Brien Fainer. They had seven children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

“After being silent for 60 years about his experiences during the Holocaust, Ben Fainer came out with a vengeance,” said Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. “He started speaking at the museum to our students, and he was able to connect with them in a very real way.

“However, speaking only at the museum was not enough for him. He was truly ubiquitous, and he was one of our greatest ambassadors. He made it his life’s work to make sure everyone he encountered knew about our museum.”

Starting at age 9 in 1939, Mr. Fainer survived six slave-labor camps until he was liberated from a death march near Buchenwald at age 15. He lost his mother, three siblings and 250 other relatives during the Holocaust.  

After liberation, he met his future wife, Susie, while in Ireland working for relatives. The couple married and immigrated to the United States by way of Canada. 

Mr. Fainer worked in the garment industry. He and Susie moved to St. Louis in 1957, where they settled down with their seven children.

In St. Louis, Mr. Fainer worked for Barad & Co. at 1520 Washington Ave. in the garment district of St. Louis. In his 2012 autobiography, Mr. Fainer and co-author Leach wrote that Mr. Fainer discovered that while working in St. Louis, another Buchenwald survivor worked in the same building.

“We were both startled to learn that we’d been at Buchenwald at the same time,” he wrote. “Even more shocking, we’d both lived in Block 15. … What are the chances that two guys from horrible Block 15, living next to the crematorium sheds, would end up working one floor apart in the same building in St. Louis, Missouri?”

In his book, Mr. Fainer describes unspeakable horrors he witnessed at Buchenwald, including “seeing people pushed into the crematoria alive.”

Staenberg and Cavender spoke admiringly of Mr. Fainer’s strong will to live despite his failing health in recent years. 

“He had a powerful will to live and fought to the end of his life,” Cavender said.

Staenberg told the Light

“Ben Fainer was a true perfectionist, in a good way. When he cut cloth for Barad’s clothing company, it had to be to exact specifications. All that he undertook in life, in business and in his life after the Holocaust, he did with the same dedication and attention to detail. He was truly an inspirational friend.” 

Longtime Holocaust volunteer docent Irl Solomon also paid tribute to Mr. Fainer, his friend and colleague.  

“He was a wonderful, spirited, feisty man, a force of nature, who lived a full life after the U.S. Army’s 26th Division set him free,” Solomon said.

Private family services were held last week at Bellerive Gardens Cemetery on North Mason Road, where Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation officiated.  

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m., Sunday, June 26, at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, 12 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. Memorial contributions are preferred to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.  

Survivors include his seven children, Michael Fainer, Phillip Fainer, Sharon (Todd) Berry, Sandra (Roman) Isenman, Janice Fainer, Cynthia (Glenn) Barker and Gary Fainer; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.