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The annual educational pilgrimage is a way to teach younger Jews the history of the Holocaust.
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Justin Miller has heard that some of his great-aunts and great-uncles perished during the Holocaust.
“I don’t know much about it,” the Roanoke County teen said quietly.
This week, Miller, a 16-year-old junior at Cave Spring High School, is learning much more about the Holocaust, Nazi death camps and the millions of Jews and others who died during the genocide of World War II. He and nine other Jewish teenagers from the Roanoke Valley and surrounding region are currently visiting Poland as part of the International March of the Living tour, an annual educational and religious pilgrimage that teaches younger generations about the Holocaust and the history of Israel.
Touring the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Birkenau is far from the typical spring break for these teenagers, who say the trip is necessary in order to better understand the horror of the Holocaust, in which more than 6 million European Jews and other minorities died.
Most of what these teens know about the Holocaust has come from school books and from watching movies such as “Schindler’s List.”
“But in the movies you don’t get the feel” for the enormity of the horror, said Zoe Stein, a 17-year-old senior at Alleghany High School.
By visiting the concentration camps, “I will feel more connected to it,” she said.
The students are being accompanied by several parents and adult chaperones from Temple Emanuel and Beth Israel Synagogue in Roanoke. They left early Wednesday with a larger group from Greensboro, N.C. The two-week trip concludes with a tour of Israel.
This year’s tour marks the 25th anniversary of the March of the Living, which began in 1988 as a way to teach younger Jews from all over the world the history of the Holocaust and how the Jewish diaspora led to the founding of Israel in 1948.
This year’s trip, which will include about 10,000 people worldwide, will commemorate several anniversaries, which include the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding and the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, during which armed Jewish fighters held off German attempts to deport Jews for several weeks. The Germans eventually sent 70,000 troops to destroy the ghetto, where 56,000 Jews were killed or sent to concentration camps.
On Monday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the students will join a march in the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau network of concentration camps, where at least 1.3 million people were killed during World War II, many of them in gas chambers.
“Standing in the gas chambers, where so much energy will be bouncing off the walls, it’s going to be overwhelming,” Jake Lichtenstein, a 16-year-old sophomore from Hidden Valley High School, said before the trip.
The trip will have its lighter moments, especially in Israel, where the students will go dancing, rafting and hiking.
Coming to grips with the evil of the Holocaust, however, is the reason for going.
The trip “gives context to what we have studied,” said Ben Polk, 15, a sophomore at Patrick Henry High School.
“We’ve read books and seen movies, but we have not had the feeling of actually being at the place where it happened,” said Lila Derrico, 15, a sophomore at Cave Spring High School.
Hannah Greenberg, one of the adults in the Roanoke group, is going on the March of the Living trip for the first time since touring with one of her daughters 12 years ago. Greenberg, director of the Jewish Community Preschool, has a personal connection with the concentration camps: Her father was a prisoner at Auschwitz as a boy. His father was a soldier from Russia, who moved the family several times from Romania to Germany to Russia before being captured. Greenberg’s father survived and moved to Israel after the war, where Greenberg grew up in the city of Haifa.
Greenberg, who is making her fifth March of the Living trip, said her father spoke little of the Holocaust when she was growing up, but he was always searching for lost family members. He found very few, she said, explaining that she has virtually no family connections left in Europe.
“He never talked about it much,” Greenberg said of her father, who is now 82. “Just recently, after my older daughter went on the march, only then did he start to talk about it a little.”
The trip should also provide the youths a better understanding of their Jewish heritage, Rabbi Kathy Cohen said.
“They really might come to know the importance of their Jewish identity,” said Cohen, rabbi at Temple Emanuel. “It’s different being raised in Roanoke, where there are so few Jewish kids. We have a vital community and we try different things to bring people together. The March of the Living will be a great lesson for them, and will show them just how special their heritage is.”
Cohen is going on the trip with her daughter, Ariel, 17, a junior at Hidden Valley. Cohen took the trip with her son, Joseph, five years ago. Her oldest daughter, Sarah, made the trip in 2006.
Younger Jews who were born several decades after the Holocaust are losing connections to the generation that endured the horrors. Like the aging World War II generation that saved the world from fascism, Holocaust survivors or those who knew them are vanishing.
An elderly survivor from Greensboro will be traveling with the group, which will allow the students “to build a personal relationship” with someone who was there.
This will be the sixth time a local group has made the March of the Living journey. The trip is not inexpensive, costing $5,000 per person. The Roanoke Jewish Community Council and the Sam and Marion Golden Helping Hand Foundation provide the bulk of the funding, but the students came up with the rest with yard sales and other events, which included hosting a recent lasagna dinner at the temple.
The students received special permission from their schools to go on such a long trip, some of which will coincide with spring break. Some students will miss baseball, lacrosse and soccer games, but their teachers and coaches gave their blessings.
The trip will be “real life-changing for these kids,” said Greenberg, one of the chaperones.
“It doesn’t really matter what religion you are,” she said. “When you see the evil that can happen in the world, when you see the place where these things happened, it can change your personality. It almost makes you a better person. It makes you want to enjoy life and enjoy your friends and families and you want to make a better world.”
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