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March of the Living Starts to Focus on Present-day Poland, Not Just Past

The trail leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau is laden with the memories of Jews who were marched to their deaths on Polish soil during World War II.

For many who retrace those steps as part of a student program designed to fulfill the mantra “never forget,” their focus will be on the past.

Thanks to an initiative sponsored by the New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee, however, some students will march down that trail looking toward the future.

Working in conjunction with the Polish government and the March of the Living, an educational program that shuttles 6,000 students to Poland and then Israel in a demonstration of the persecution and independence that marked Jewish history during the 20th century, the AJCommittee is implementing a program to acquaint students with present-day Poland before leaving on the trip.

The goal, the AJCommittee says, is to show how much Poland has changed since the Holocaust and contribute to greater understanding and cooperation in the future.

“The focus was never on Poland today,” said Cheryl Fishbein, an AJCommittee board member and the vice president of the New York Board of Education. “It was always on pre-Holocaust,” she said. “We wanted to show a different face to Jews coming to Poland.”

This year, three Polish officials representing Polish and Jewish interests met with students from the New York area before the trip begins April 29. to discuss present-day issues involving Jews and anti-Semitism in Poland.

It is a program that, according to its creators and the Polish government, that the March of the Living itinerary has lacked for too long.

More than 200 students from New York are participating in this year’s march. Students fly to Poland and tour the remnants of concentration camps and Jewish cities. Students from around the world then gather to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, as a symbolic gesture to the more than a million Jews who were gassed there.

The trip culminates with a celebration of Jewish independence as the students are flown to Israel.

“MOL is a problem for some Poles because the trip only sees one side of Poland,” said Deborah Sklar, director of international programs in the New York chapter of the AJCommittee, and creator of the new initiative.

“I had a feeling the whole idea of March of the Living is to show Poland is nothing but concentration camps,” said Piotr Kadlcik, vice president of the Jewish Congregations in Poland, an umbrella group.

Once in Poland, MOL directors hope to coordinate interactive activities between students on the trip and Polish teens to further enhance the trip.

“It’s a good idea to come in contact with the Polish people more,” said Emily Goldstein, a junior at Hunter College High School who attended the conference. Now, she says, “I’ll try and be more open-minded.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of suspicion,” said Fishbein of the attitudes with which students are embarking on the trip. There’s the impression the “Poles are raised on their mothers’ milk to be anti-Semitic.”

But, said Fishbein, “if you can get to the point where you can show mutual respect — that’s an important lesson.”

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