Teenagers Confront Our Past in Poland

AUSCHWITZ, Poland, 1943: A young Jewish woman named Sophia, in her twenties, trudged down a dirt road. A wife and mother, she had no idea where her husband and child were. She never found out, because she never left Auschwitz.

AUSCHWITZ, Poland, 1990: A young Jewish woman named Sophia, in her twenties, trudged down a dirt road. A wife and mother, she knew her husband and child were safe and that she would walk out of Auschwitz to freedom and security.

“I’m going to Poland’,’ I told my mother several months ago.

I wasn’t sure how she would react to such an announcement. My mother lost her own mother in Auschwitz and her father in So-bibor, two of Nazi Germany’s most efficient death camps in Poland; she was one of the few children to survive.

At first she was silent, letting me talk.

I explained to her that I would be an adult participant on “The March of the Living’,’ a journey for Jewish high school students through Poland. We would commemorate Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) by marching through Auschwitz. And after visiting what little remains of Jewish life in Poland, we would continue our journey in Israel, where we would celebrate the rebirth of the Jewish homeland on Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). The trip would take place from April 18 through May 3, uniting 3,500 young Jews from 36 countries. I felt I owed it to the grandparents I never knew to go and see with my own eyes what happened to them and to our people.

“It chills me to the bone to think that my daughter, named for my mother who died in Poland, is going to be in that terrible place. I will not think about you while you are there!’ my mother told me.

I debated with myself over why I wanted to go on this trip, which I knew would be difficult and emotional for everyone. I was leaving behind my husband and one-year-old son for two weeks, not an easy thing to do.

As soon as the plane took off, I knew I had made the right choice.

Throughout the trip, all of the adult participants marvelled at the teenagers, with their unending enthusiasm, perceptive understanding and deep concern. Florence Siegel, a grandmother who took part in the trip, said it best: “The children were an inspiration and tremendous comfort to me. There were no age barriers between us; we were all peers!’

Many of the participants on The March of the Living had direct links to the Holocaust. Each of us searched the prisoner lists and photos at Auschwitz, looking for a family name, only to learn from our tour guides that the photos and lists are rotated and are incomplete. We stared at the piles of human hair, the suitcases and the eyeglasses and we wondered, did they belong to a relative?

Rositta Kenigsberg, president of the International Network of Children of Survivors, travelled two hours from Warsaw to visit the former home of her father, a survivor of several concentration camps, in a small town called Miedzyrzec near the Russian border. While she was taking pictures of the house, an elderly man came out of a nearby building. He began yelling at her to go away and threatened to call the police.

“We told him that this was the house my father used to live in, so he probably figured out we were Jewish. He was spewing hater Kenigsberg said.

One young woman, who had lost relatives in each of the four camps visited by the group, placed a small tombstone engraved with her grandfather’s name among the thousands of jagged stones at Treblinka. “I want to leave his memory here for everyone else to see!’ she said.