Spring came exceptionally late to southern Poland this year, the patches of snow along the railway track into the former Birkenau concentration camp a reminder that winter had begun to loosen its grip just two days earlier. Yet that didn’t stop some 11,000 people marching the 3 kilometers from Auschwitz, arriving under a pale but hopeful sky as the names of some of the more than 1 million children murdered in the Holocaust echoed around the barracks and chimney stacks of the biggest Jewish graveyard in the world. This was the beginning of the annual March of the Living ceremony, which has been held every year on Holocaust Memorial Day, close to the Jewish calendar date of Nissan 28, since 1988.
Representing Los Angeles, 165 students attended the April 8, 2013, march, along with eight Holocaust survivors. The survivors were Paula Lebovics, Natalie Gold, Gabriela Karin, Jack Adler, Harry Davids, Sidonia Lax, Joe Kreintenberg and Dorothy Greenstein.
Lebovics was incarcerated in the Kinderblock at Auschwitz-Birkenau at the age of 10. She recalled being liberated by the Soviet Red Army, in January, but said that many children were still dying after liberation, as the effects of imprisonment took their toll.
Adler went through the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau before being liberated by United States forces in May 1945.
Karin paid tribute to a man named Karol Blanar, who helped her and seven others survive the Holocaust. She said that Blanar hid and fed her, and even gave her books, risking his own life to protect her. He was later named one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Bobby Hendish, an educator with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, was leading the students on the march. His grandparents, Charles and Lilly Hendish, were survivors of the Holocaust.
“This is very special for me in so many ways,” Hendish said. “I’m really looking forward to taking part in the experience with these kids, showing that our people have a homeland and that they cherish it.”
For student Max Adelstein, 18, it was a very personal pilgrimage. He told of his grandfather, a survivor, who at Max’s birth, rejoiced with the words, “Finally beat them.”
Among the speakers at the moving ceremony was Frank Lowy, a Holocaust survivor and son of Hugo Lowy — a Hungarian Jew who was beaten to death by the Birkenau guards when he refused to give up his tallit and tefillin.
Lowy, founder of the international Westfield retail group, helped bring an original, restored wartime railway carriage to Birkenau in 2009. The wagon now stands as a memorial to the half million Hungarian Jews who perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Inside the wagon is a bag containing Lowy’s own tallit and tefillin.
Taking to the stage at Birkenau, Frank Lowy reflected his father’s own inner strength as he fought and overcame visible grief to deliver a powerful speech (see sidebar).
“I never realized that he had the strength,” Lowy said, “ the spiritual strength, to take on the brutal guards here in Birkenau. No matter how hard they hit him, he protected the sanctity of his tallit and tefillin. They could break his body, but they could not break his spirit.
“The tallit and tefillin were part of him, part of his personal relationship with God, and he was ready to die for them.”
Addressing the thousands of young people attending the March of the Living, Lowy said: “I was 13 when I lost my father. Now I am 82 and, you know, I still miss him.”
Other key speakers on the day included Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and Holocaust survivor, and Lt. Gen. Benjamin Gantz, chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces, whose mother survived incarceration at Bergen-Belsen.
Lau told a moving tale from August 1943, when the Nazis conducted a search of the southern Polish town of Bochnia. In his words, a child of 6 hid in a garbage can from the soldiers but was eventually discovered.
According to Lau, the boy “stood up in the garbage can, and forced himself to give a smile from one ear to the other. And from his pocket, he offered the Gestapo officer a lollipop … it was the dearest thing he had.”
The officer shot the boy in the head.
In honor of the Righteous Among the Nations, the theme from the movie “Schindler’s List” was played before six torches were lit. The first torch honored the “second generation,” the children of survivors, who had never met their grandparents. The second, perhaps most poignant flame, was lit in memory of the children murdered in the Shoah, followed by a torch for the survivors of the Holocaust. The fourth torch was for the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, and for the soldiers, civilians and resistance fighters who died in World War II. This was lit by Hugo Lowy’s grandchildren, David, Steven and Peter Lowy, the latter of whom is chairman of TRIBE Media Corp. Next was a torch for the minorities who were victims of the Holocaust. The sixth flame was for the State of Israel.
After the torches were lit, United States Ambassador for Austria Ronald S. Lauder told the young people at the ceremony: “You are our hope, you are our future … you can do great things.”
The ceremony ended with prayer and mourning — El Male Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish — followed by “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.