The man who imparted the value of kindness onto scores of children has died, amid more than 200 thank-you notes penned by young students.
U.S. Army Pfc. Bernard Lens, 96, died of heart failure May 21 at his home in Bucks County. A graveside ceremony May 24 buried the former soldier with military honors.
He was known for frequent talks at school and community centers that chronicled his experience liberating Dachau concentration camp.
Students, moved by the presentations, often sent Lens handwritten notes expressing gratitude for his time. He kept every letter, niece Kathleen Lens said.
“It was his purpose,” she said, of sharing his experience in the Holocaust. “He lived in such a positive way. It was his way of making the best of it.”
Born in Philadelphia and raised during the height of the Depression, Lens faced economic uncertainty throughout much of his childhood. His mother raised three children on her own, and Lens was forever grateful for her dedication to the family.
Despite the circumstances, Lens graduated from Central High School in 1939. He enlisted in the Army at 19, inspired by the raging war in Europe.
During his military tenure, he served for a time under Gen. George S. Patton in Patton’s Third Army, witnessing countless wartime atrocities. One particular experience Lens never forgot occurred when he helped liberate Dachau concentration camp.
In his speeches, he often recalled the shock of entering the camp to find so many sick, dying and dead. The victims were frightened by the soldiers, but Lens ingeniously connected to them by mentioning his Jewish heritage and using humorous slang.
The experience impacted Lens deeply and, until his death, he gathered photographs of Holocaust victims.
He spoke widely about the Nazis’ horrors to ensure they never happened again and to preach kindness.
“He wanted to make the world better. He couldn’t do enough for others,” Kathleen Lens said.
After the war, Lens worked in sales for the clothing industry. For years, he couldn’t bear to speak about what he witnessed overseas.
“When we were kids, the adults would always say, ‘Don’t ask Uncle Bernie about the war. Don’t talk about the war,’” Kathleen Lens recalled.
“It was so painful for him, [remembering] the atrocities,” she said, but she noted that, “When we were adults he started talking.”
After that, he never stopped talking: He was even scheduled to give a speech to elementary school students on the day of his funeral.
Many of his talks were given in conjunction with the Holocaust Remembrance Program of Post 697 of the Jewish War Veterans in Levittown, which Lens participated in for more than 25 years. In 2015, he won the group’s Person of the Year award.
His connection to his audiences was bolstered by his quick sense of humor.
“He was a magnet for people,” Kathleen Lens said.
She shared an anecdote from this year’s family Passover seder, laughing about how at 96, “he was out until midnight!”
Similarly, after his great-nephew’s Bar Mitzvah last year in Connecticut, Lens had to be dragged back to Philadelphia after enjoying three days of festivities.
Kathleen Lens described her uncle’s ethos simply: “He embraced life.”
He is survived by three nieces and a nephew, as well as many grand- and great-grand- nieces and nephews.