Updated: Mar 24
Those close to us know that since my dad's passing in May 2016, we have been riding the waves of discovery of his/our family history. And what a wild ride it has been!
On July 3, 2018, I was scrolling through the subject lines of many unread emails. I scrolled past, and then went back to a subject line that read “Beniek Urman/Ben Fainer". In reading the email, it told a story about a bracelet that was found on the grounds of the Buchenwald Memorial -- formerly a Concentration Camp from 1937 to 1945. The email explained that the bracelet is engraved with your father’s name, and is also engraved with "178873", "1944" and "28", along with ornamental details. A photo of this bracelet was attached to the email.
Leaning way back in my chair with my hands on my head, my initial thought was “what kind of sick joke is this”? Although after some investigation, several emails, and a lot of help from a friend, it was confirmed to be authentic.
Beniek is one of the many variations of Ben's first name we have discovered, and Urman is his mother's family name, which he used along with Fajner/Feiner, his father's family name. The number “178873” is the prisoner identification number that was tattooed on my dad’s arm at Blechhammer, a sub-camp of Auschwitz in April 1944. Possibly, the engraved number "28" represents the Camp in Blechhammer where he was imprisoned that was known as Betriebskontrolle or Operational Control. And while imprisoned in Blechhammer, Ben [or possibly someone else] made this bracelet. This is not an I.D. bracelet that the Germans made; prisoners were branded like cattle and identified by the numbers tattooed on their arms.
This bracelet is unlike any other artifact found at the former
camp grounds, as it contains the name of its original owner,
along with a victim identification number that matched the
number tattooed on Ben’s arm. (One of the videos Ben made during
his life was titled " The Story of 178873" .) Other artifacts in the
Memorial’s collection do not contain personal identifying
information. Due to the unique identifying features,
the Buchenwald Memorial and the bracelet finder, Dr. Sven Bayer,
searched for the survivor and his family so the
bracelet could be returned to them.
In late 1944, the allies bombed Blechhammer, where Ben was imprisoned. The Germans began moving prisoners from camps in Poland to camps in Germany. In January 1945, Blechhammer was evacuated via an infamous death march to Gross-Rosen, where Ben remained for five days and was then transported by train to Buchenwald, along with several thousand other prisoners.
It is unknown whether this bracelet was discovered on Ben upon arrival at Buchenwald and discarded at that time. Or if was discovered at Gross-Rosen and then shipped to Buchenwald, and then discarded -- as it was not made of gold or another precious metal and of no monetary value. Within the Buchenwald Concentration Camp was a storage building that housed items that were taken from Jewish/other prisoners. It is the largest building on the site, and today houses the Museum.
After, I received this email from the Buchenwald Memorial, I immersed myself in my dad's history in connection with this time period. As I combed through his book, U.S. military, German and other records, Ben's past unfolded before me. I resumed my search for Israel Friedman, the man who told Ben that he was safe and free. Sgt. Friedman was with 120th Evacuation Hospital Unit, who treated the prisoners upon arrival at Buchenwald and other places in April 1945. We found Israel's son Richard in remote Washington state -- it seemed magical how it happened, as if Ben and Israel sent a "bolt from the blue".
October 2019. And now I was going to Germany to get Ben's bracelet. I bought a ticket, booked nights in Weimar and got on a plane to Berlin -- alone. Additional hotel nights, train/bus/taxi travel were all unplanned. If my dad could travel around Germany at 14 -years old - a damaged child with nothing left of the life he once knew --- I could certainly figure out how to get from point A to B, etc. I made a decision to go on this journey with an open heart and an open mind. As a result, I met several deeply compassionate human beings -- including Dr. Sven Bayer, the man who found this bracelet and was now returning it to us. Dr. Bayer grew up in Weimar, just a few miles from the place that was a concentration camp in his ancestors lives.
Although I tried to prepare myself psychologically for the trip, as I walked on the same grounds where my dad struggled to stay alive, where 10s of thousands of people suffered and died, where Israel Friedman and others found rows of dead bodies stacked like cords of woods and humans who look like walking skeletons --- the reality of it all was more than overwhelming.
I created a photo slideshow of my trip to Germany that you can view at the end of this article.
I shared these words of appreciation with one of the Buchenwald Memorial directors Dr. Kirsten Holm and Mackenzie Lake of the Memorial staff, along with Dr. Bayer, who found Ben's bracelet, and his father:
My father, Ben as he was known, was one of the few who somehow survived . . .
While he did not speak openly for decades, Ben spent the last 20 years of his life
talking about what he suffered and lost.
As we know, these stories are not uplifting. Ben, however, had an uncanny
ability to embrace people with his passion for life. He touched thousands of students
and adults through public speaking,videos and his memoir Silent for Sixty Years.
Once he opened up and began talking, he spoke regularly and fervently
against hate and about building a better humanity.
We were recently contacted by a high school student who heard Ben speak five years
ago, who is now about to graduate from college. For her senior project, she is doing a
live theater performance of portions of his memoir. Illuminating humanity in others —
This is Ben’s legacy.
At the young age of 14, while in the most frightening of circumstances, young Ben
clung to life and his identity by forging his being into a piece of metal.
I and my family are deeply grateful to receive this bracelet. … It is our plan to gift
Ben's bracelet to the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
Your altruistic gesture will allow Ben’s spirit to continue to open the eyes and hearts of
those who hear his story today and many future generations.
SLIDESHOW LINKS If you would like information on any of any the photos, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org:
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LINK TO VIEW PDF: