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Survivors, liberators look back

Participants in Poland for the 2004 March of the Living walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  (Ryan Blau/March of the Living Canada )

Participants in Poland for the 2004 March of the Living walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day. (Ryan Blau/March of the Living Canada )

NEW YORK, April 20 (JTA) — On Jan. 18, 1945, 16-year-old Jerry Stein was taken out of Auschwitz and put on a forced death march to the nearby town of Gleiwitz. There, Stein recalls, he was stuffed into an open-air train car along with thousands of other Jewish prisoners and the train was sent off, as the Nazis hunted for another camp in which to house them. It was a full week before the inmates were unloaded at the Dora camp in Nordhausen, Germany. “We were on the open-wagon train without food for a week — back and forth, back and forth being pushed around,” recalls Stein, now 76, who had spent almost a year living at Auschwitz and working as a bricklayer in a factory outside Buna. “It was snowing. We were catching the snow. That was our sustenance, our food.” “By the time we got there,” he adds, “80 percent of the people on the trains were dead.” Jan. 18, 1945, was the last time Stein had seen Auschwitz — until now. In early May, along with his two daughters and a son, Stein will return to the site of his incarceration — where his brothers, sisters and parents died — as a participant in the March of the Living. Since 1988, the march has brought Jewish teenagers to Poland on Holocaust Remembrance Day to march from Auschwitz to nearby Birkenau, where prisoners actually were gassed, followed quickly by a trip to Israel to mark the Jewish state’s Memorial Day and Independence Day. Because this year marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, some 18,000 people will be taking part, more than twice as many as last year’s 8,000. Organizers say the program will be the largest-ever Holocaust memorial ceremony. In addition, this year’s trip has been opened to groups that have not been included before. Adults, multicultural groups, university students and young professionals are among the new participants. “I think the fact that I will be in a place with my father, where he had such an incredibly traumatic experience — and not just him — I think that will be a very enlightening experience,” says Sharon Schild, Stein’s 50-year-old daughter. “There is no way that it is possible for children of survivors to go through life without it having affected us.” Participants will be coming from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Panama, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia-Montenegro, South Africa, Slovakia, Turkey, Ukraine, United States and Uzbekistan. Among many groups attending will be the Anti-Defamation League, Dor Chadash and a contingent of Catholic educators. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to be there, as are the presidents of Poland and Hungary, the chief rabbis of Israel, the Canadian justice minister, legislators from France, Germany and Israel and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. As a young soldier in the field artillery unit of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, Harry Katz entered Dachau just behind the American artillery, shortly after the camp was liberated in late April of 1945. “We saw the crematoria and the barracks and the buildings and the firing-squad walls,” recalls Katz, who is now 80. “It was difficult, emotional. What can I tell you?” Because he spoke fluent Yiddish — he’d studied in a Brooklyn yeshiva before the war — Katz soon was posted as a translator working on interrogating German POWs. “It was an experience questioning them, hearing their stories, trying to weed out those who were really part of the SS or the SA,” Nazi storm troopers, he says. Katz will be going to Poland with the march, along with his son, Joel, and his 18-year-old granddaughter, Lauren. “I feel it’s important to me to pass on the feelings and the expressions to my children and my grand-daughter and her peers and friends,” Katz says. “Hopefully they will remember and be aware what in humanity went on, and what man can do to man. We hope to God it won’t happen again.” Joel Katz, 47, says he’s learned this lesson. As the march’s New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio coordinator, he’s visited Auschwitz seven times. “As the survivors who joined me in the past said, We’re dying and you are the next generation of survivors. You are the only ones who will have the hands-on and direct opportunity to confront the deniers, ” he says. And this is an opportunity he is pleased to be giving to his daughter, a senior in high school, who says that as she prepares to go off to college, this trip will be a “good eye opener.” “I hear all these stories from my grandfather. It’ll be cool for him to actually show me everything,” she says. “Once I get home, it’ll be great to be able to share what I’ve learned with my father and grandfather — and they’ll be able to understand what I went through because I went though it with them.” “I’m so proud of” my grandfather, she adds. “It’ll be great to be with all these teenagers and say, ‘That was my grandfather who did that.’ ” Once they get to Israel, the Katz trio is planning a trip to the Tiberias grave site of Harry’s father. “We’re going to be, for all intents and purposes, four generations standing together,” Joel Katz says. “If that’s not what Judaism and legacy and masoret,” or tradition, “are all about…” David Machlis, March of the Living’s vice chairman, says the effort to bring such a large contingent to Poland this year stems from three sources: the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camps, a rise in worldwide anti-Semitism and the aging of the survivor population. “Bearing witness through the eyes of the survivor has a great impact,” he says. “It is incumbent on us to expose as many people as possible to a Holocaust education experience” while the survivors “are still available, still strong enough.” Because Auschwitz cannot now accommodate the large number of buses it would require to bring all 18,000 participants to the site, some will be arriving by train — along a portion of the same tracks used by the Nazis to ship inmates to their deaths. The difference this time, Joel Katz says, is that participants will be riding out of the camp on the same tracks. “During the Holocaust, no Jew ever traveled away from Auschwitz on a train,” he says, although some did survive the camp. Returning to the camp, says former prisoner Stein, will be “very emotional.” “It’s important for me to go back,” he adds. “Whether I’m nervous or not — when I get there I’ll know how it feels. I’m anxious to go. Especially with my children.”