David Grossman, 18, wanted to make the Holocaust more personal. Eliya Shachar, 18, wished to understand her grandmother's pain. And Max Kappel, 17, wanted to find a tangible place to comprehend the Shoah.
They were among 51 teenagers from Los Angeles who took part in last week's March of the Living 2005 in Poland, which retraces the nearly two miles from Auschwitz to Birkenau, following the path of concentration camp inmates forced to walk to the gas chambers. They were accompanied by survivors for whom that trail once meant death, including Nandor "Marko" Markovic, 82, a Holocaust survivor, and his wife, Frances, who squeezed into the slow-moving and untidy line of about 20,000 people from almost 50 countries.
The annual march began in 1988, bringing together teens and seniors, Jews and non-Jews and an ever-decreasing number of survivors. Their walk commemorates Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, which took place this year on Friday, May 6, an appropriately chilly, gray day with intermittent heavy rain.
Before the day was over, the teenagers would encounter both the expected and the unexpected and find hope amid the recounting of the horrible.
A shofar sounded to begin the march.
"This is the most amazing thing I've ever seen -- all these people headed to the same place for the same reason," said Dganit Abramoff, 16, one of 32 students from Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. Fifteen others were from Milken Community High School and four from other high schools.
Their small clusters interspersed with participants from South Africa and Siberia, France and Canada, as the students struggled to follow the "L.A. Youth USA" placard held high by 6-foot-4 Yoni Bain, 18.
Some teens found themselves walking alongside 37 boy scouts, ages 13 to 20, dressed in tan military-style uniforms, from Opola in southern Poland.
"We came here because we know there's pain here," said scout Michael Hoffman, 16.
Sara Warren, 17, marched with her mother, Jackie Heller, one of 25 adults in the Los Angeles contingent. They talked about Heller's grandmother, who hid in eastern Poland during the Holocaust and who lost her entire family.
"I never thought so many people cared," Warren said.
The sea of matching navy blue Jewish star-studded jackets was partially hidden beneath brightly colored rain ponchos and opened umbrellas. Many marchers chatted loudly; some occasionally sang.
Sometimes, the march more closely resembled a disorderly walk-a-thon than a commemoration of victims and survivors coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Some students did not consider the march sufficiently somber, but "the very normalcy of the march is its miracle," said Phil Liff-Grieff, associate director of Los Angeles' Bureau of Jewish Education, leader of the L.A. adult group.
The atmosphere turned more solemn when the road curved up toward and then over railroad tracks that brought more than 1.3 million people to this notorious death-camp complex. Marches became more sober still as they approached Birkenau's front gate, where they listened to a reading over loudspeakers of the names and hometowns of those murdered.
Survivor Markovic, who lives in Los Angeles, was participating in his second March of the Living. He suffered from an inflamed ankle and was usually flanked by students eager to help. But he and his wife concentrated on assisting a teenager near them who was feeling sick but was determined to participate.
Markovic spoke frequently to the students about his life, about how the Nazis invaded his shtetl in former Czechoslovakia in 1941 and took his father. A year later, when he was 16, they came for him, along with his mother, brother, two sisters and other family members, shipping them by cattle car to Birkenau.
After a couple weeks, he and his brother were transferred to a series of work camps and then, as the war was ending, sent on a forced death march. After many weeks, Markovic collapsed, desiring death. He felt his brother kiss him goodbye. Sometime later, he felt an SS soldier put a gun to his head. But the soldier relented, saying: "For you I won't waste a bullet. You are dead already."
When Markovic next opened his eyes, Lt. Hirsh, an American soldier, was looking at him. Hirsh gave him pancakes and took him to a hospital. Afterward, Markovic reunited with his brother and one sister, eventually settling in Los Angeles.
"You give me hope," Markovic confessed to the students. "I know you are inspired because you see a broken heart standing before you telling you to not forget."
Ari Giller, 18, an Asian adopted into a Jewish family, had always felt disconnected from his Jewish heritage, but he found a link through Markovic.
"It's pretty intense how he went through this huge ordeal and came out a faithful Jew with a good attitude," Giller said. "He makes me feel good about humanity."
To many students, the march highlighted the week in Poland. But it was just one part of a physically and emotionally challenging -- and occasionally uplifting -- six days filled with horror and history, tears and epiphanies.
Noah Mendelsohn, 17, sobbed suddenly upon first seeing the five brick ovens in the crematorium of Majdanek, the death camp near Lublin that the group visited on the first day.
"I could hear the screams and see the nail marks inside," he later explained.
The teens were also moved by Irving Silverman, 85, of Tucson who accompanied them to the synagogue in Tykocin, a former shtetl near Bialystok and home to Silverman's parents before they immigrated to the United States in 1908. This was Silverman's first trip to Poland.
"I'm not a survivor, but I feel I'm representing all the dead members of my family who could never do this," he said. "Every Jew has to do this."
Warren, the student traveling with her mother, visited the grave of her ancestor, Reb Yom Tov Lipman Heller, in the cemetery adjoining the Remu Synagogue in Krakow. There, Rabbi Steve Burg, Los Angeles chaperone and director of the National Council of Synagogue Youth, explained that Reb Heller was a venerated, prominent 17th century rabbi and author of the Tosafot, a commentary on the Mishneh.
"Your heritage always feels like it's so far away, but today, for the first time, I feel that I can grasp it," Warren said.
Burg has led four previous March of the Living trips.
"Before you get on that plane to Israel," he told his students on the last full day in Poland, "decide on one new change for yourself.... I don't care if you decide to wear a kippah, pray or become a campus activist -- that's between you and God -- but you must decide on something."
A core goal of trip was to turn history into personal memory, said Stacey Barrett, director of youth education services for Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education and leader of the Los Angeles teen group. She told the teens: "You need to take on the task of becoming witnesses to the Shoah for the next generation."
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