This is the point in my story, where my memory starts,” described Fred Lessing, a Birmingham resident and 85-year-old Holocaust survivor. “My mother put her arms around [me and my brothers] and she said, 'you are Jewish boys, but if anyone finds out, they will kill you. And we are now going to walk out of the house pretending to take a walk. Don’t take anything with you. Don't draw attention to yourselves. Just put on your coat,' and that’s what we did. We walked out of the house. Only I immediately disobeyed and took my little teddy bear with me. At that point, that was the end of my childhood. I now became part of the grown up world in which we were criminals.”
Lessing was barely six years old on October 23, 1942, when his family abruptly left their home in Delft, Holland and became one of the 1.6 million children who spent their childhood in hiding. His mother, who he describes as a strong matriarch, “took over. She said we have to hide, but we cannot hide together. If one of us is caught, then the whole family is caught.”
Over the next few years, Lessing moved throughout Holland and the Netherlands, with his mother periodically showing up to make sure he was all right.
“My job was to become a Christian child as best as I could. I stayed with different families and always my mother would say, 'don’t ever tell anything about who you are or your family. Just try to be nice.'”
He describes this period of his life as that of an actor in a play. “I became very aware of everything. I did whatever I could do to maintain my hidden identity.”
Towards the end of the war, Lessing was reunited with his father and brothers in a rural cottage that lacked water, electricity, and a toilet. They were supposed to stay for two weeks, but ended up there for nearly a year until the war ended. They did not know if Lessing’s mother had survived; she had been taken to the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen and eventually ended up in Algiers before returning to Holland after the war ended.
The Lessing family immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s, and after receiving his PhD from Yale University, Lessing became a professor at Oakland University (which was then the Michigan State University Oakland) in 1962, and had a family of his own.
For almost 40 years, Lessing recalls, no one discussed the Holocaust. Then, in 1991, there was the first international gathering of hidden children in New York City.
“I went to that and it completely changed my life. It’s not that I had forgotten anything, but nobody talked about it.”
Since then, he has become a regular speaker at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, speaking to thousands of visitors over the years. Despite a pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lessing has recently returned to tell his story in person, ensuring that his story, and the atrocities of the Holocaust, are never forgotten.
“I always took my bear with me,” Lessing said of his early speaking engagements, “because he had been the only thing I had during all those years that I lived with other families.”
For nearly 30 years, the bear has been on loan from Lessing to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Center, in Jerusalem.
Story: Hillary Brody Anchill
Photo: Laurie Tennent