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The Jacket from Dachau: About the Exhibit

Curator's Statement

The Jacket from Dachau: One Survivor’s Search for Justice, Identity, and Home

Survivors of the Holocaust frequently attribute their ability to avoid death to one main variable: luck. For Benzion Peresecki, the 15 year-old son of a delicatessen owner from Radviliškis, Lithuania, surviving the Holocaust was indeed fortunate, but came at an immense cost.

Within a span of 10 years, Benzion’s father died from a stomach ulcer, his brother was murdered by the Nazis, he was forced into a ghetto, and was imprisoned, beaten, and subjected to forced labor at the Dachau concentration camp. After liberation, Benzion spent five years in a displaced persons camp with his mother, Chiena, who herself survived a death march at the Stutthof concentration camp.

After immigrating to the United States, Benzion fought to re-establish his identity, find justice for his family’s suffering, and create a new home. Throughout his postwar years, no matter where he lived and how many times he moved, he always kept his jacket from Dachau.

Benzion never explained to his family or friends why he brought the jacket with him to New York; in fact, he never told his children that it even existed. However, keeping his jacket is consistent with other resilient actions on his part: his immigration to the United States; his search for a new, meaningful identity despite underemployment and several iterations of his name (he formally changed his name to “Ben Peres” soon after his immigration); his courage coping with the emotional and psychological stress from his traumas; his tenacious search for justice through a decades-long reparations campaign with the German government; and, his determination to support his wife, mother, and two children in New York.

On July 4, 2015, Ben’s jacket, which had been in his closet for 65 years (and 37 years after his death), was discovered at the estate sale of his home in Bellmore, Long Island by a vintage clothing collector named Jillian Eisman. Ms. Eisman’s grandfather served in the Soviet army during World War II, and her brother was killed on 9/11; so, she immediately recognized the jacket as an object of pain, understanding, comfort, and reflection with which the public should engage. She subsequently donated the jacket to the Kupferberg Holocaust Center to ensure that students and the broader community could view the jacket and understand its significance.

New York, a city of immigration, determination, tragedy, and perseverance, also plays a role in this story. Ben and his mother lived and worked in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan after their immigration. They also both received medical treatment from several New York doctors for physical and psychological injuries sustained during the Holocaust. In 1968, with modest reparations payments awarded by the German government more than 20 years after their liberation, Ben and his mother, Chiena, along with his wife, Chaya, and two children, Lorrie and Michael, were finally able to buy a permanent home in Bellmore, NY. Ben lived there until his death in 1978.

This exhibit was compiled from over 1500 documents, films, and photographs left by Ben Peres and his family that contextualize his search for justice, identity, and home after he was torn away from his Lithuanian home. The curatorial team for the exhibit included Queensborough’s own students and KHRCA interns: Peter Bandziukas, Kaitlyn Cicciariello, Gillian Farnan, Abigail Jalle, Alejandro Leal-Pulido, Daniel Nussdorf, and Nitya Ramanathan.

We encourage you to visit the reflection area in the gallery and in the online version of the exhibit, both of which are structured to document your own responses to this compelling story.

―Cary Lane, Ph.D., Curator-in-Residence, KHRCA, Assistant Professor of English

―Dan Leshem, Ph.D., Director, KHRCA

We would like to acknowledge and thank Marisa Hollywood, Assistant Director of the KHRCA, Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dr. Geoffrey Megargee, Dr. Saulius Sužiedėlis, Jillian Eisman, Sam Widowsky, the USC Shoah Foundation, Kat Griefen, Lorrie Peres, and Michael Peres for testimonies, historical information, fact-checking, documents, images, and films that helped contextualize the artifacts in this exhibit. We also wish to thank Henry Schein, Inc. and Henry Schein Cares for their invaluable mentorship and support.

Lectures and Events

KHRCA 2016-17 Colloquia - Fleeing Genocide: Displacement, Exile and the Refugee

The Jacket from Dachau: Exhibition Preview

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016 at 12:20pm at the KHRCA

Speaker: Dr. Cary Lane, Assistant Professor of English, Queensborough Community College

In July of 2015, the KHRCA was contacted by a vintage clothing dealer about a recent acquisition of a unique garment at an estate sale. In the back of a walk-in closet, amid a variety of old shirts and vintage dresses, hung a faded striped jacket. A year later, we now know the story of Benzion Peresecki, a young Jewish man from Lithuania who wore this jacket for ten months in Dachau and kept it for 33 years. The exhibit tells Peresecki’s story of his immigration to the US, his legal pursuit for reparations, as well as historic photos, maps, multiple testimonies, and short films. It is a story of Holocaust survival, chance encounters, and how a single artifact can weave a narrative of justice, identity, and a search for home. Dr. Lane, the KHRCA 2016-2017 Curator-in-Residence, will tell the story of Ben Peres and his journey through the Holocaust to a new life in New York.

 

Campus-wide Exhibition Opening Reception: The Jacket from Dachau

Thursday, October 6th, 2016 5pm-7pm at the KHRCA

Join the KHRCA for a special wine and cheese reception as we celebrate the opening of this exhibition.

 

The Jacket from Dachau: Exhibition Opening Lecture

Sunday, October 30th, 2016 at 1:00pm at the KHRCA

Speaker: Dr. Cary Lane, Assistant Professor of English, Queensborough Community College

The KHRCA unveils our newest original exhibition that tells the story of Holocaust survival, chance encounters, and how a single artifact can weave a narrative of justice, identity, and a search for home. This exhibit is co-curated by Cary Lane, Ph.D., the KHRCA 2016-2017 Curator-in-Residence and assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College. Join us for the official public opening as Dr. Lane discusses the process of research and discovery that led to the development of this new exhibition.

Exhibit Videos