Thursday, as people around the world observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, more than 10,000 high school students will solemnly march from the gates of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland to the barracks of Birkenau, tracing the nearly 2-mile path of the estimated 1.3 million people who were imprisoned there.
The students will hear testimony from both Holocaust survivors and camp liberators, some of whom will be reunited for the first time.
One of those teenagers is Naomi Eisenberg, 15, a sophomore at Newton South High School.
Though her mother is a rabbi and her family’s history is rife with stories of persecution (her mother’s family escaped Russia’s pogroms, and members of her father’s family died in the Holocaust), it was a childhood interest in books such as “Number the Stars” that led her to explore her Jewish identity and, most recently, to the 25th annual March of the Living.
“I realized I’m a reflection of all these girls in the stories,” said Eisenberg. “The only difference was their Judaism was pinpointed and they were persecuted because of it.”
‘I don’t think this trip is about death. It’s about starting a new cycle. ’
The March of the Living is an annual program that gathers high school students from around the world for a week of intensive education and touring in Poland followed by a week in Israel, with its aim to impart the lessons of the Holocaust, celebrate the history and survival of Jews, and instill a passion for social justice.
An estimated 11,000 people will go this year, according to march organizers. And for the first time, organizers reached out to concentration camp liberators so survivors can meet the men who helped save lives.
During the ceremony at Birkenau, a part of Auschwitz that was established as an extermination camp, Rick Carrier, 87, and Irving Roth, 82, will speak.
On April 10, 1945, Carrier was the first US Army soldier to arrive at the Buchenwald death camp near Weimar, Germany. It was his 20th birthday.
A reconnaissance engineer expecting to find a stone quarry and saw mill, Carrier instead found a scene that surpassed even the horrors of D-day in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, both of which he survived: imprisoned people who were barely able to walk and could only speak in moans.
“They were living skeletons with skin on them and their eyes were huge. Huge dark eyes,” said Carrier, of New York. “I was absolutely frozen in my tracks.”
The next day, the Army took control of the camp, liberating 21,000 prisoners, including more than 900 children, one of whom was 14-year-old Roth.
Carrier was reunited with Roth several weeks ago in an emotional meeting that the Army veteran said opened up more memories of Buchenwald.
“I remembered the point when we got the children out of the cage,” he said. “Can you imagine 900 kids in a cage?”
It’s testimony like this that March of the Living organizers say is incomparable, and changes the course of young people’s lives.
When the students “visit the camps they do indeed becomes witnesses to the witnesses,” said David Machlis, vice chairman of the organization. “I know it sounds like a cliche but the number of people who tell us [the march] changed their lives is enormous.”
But learning firsthand from those witnesses is an opportunity that is dwindling. Most survivors and liberators are in their 80s and 90s. There are 46,000 Holocaust survivors registered in the United States, and every year, 10 to 15 percent of them die, according to March of the Living.
Eisenberg, a three-season runner for Newton South who is also in the school’s literary magazine club and teaches Hebrew school, said she sees the trip as a way not only to honor the dead, but also to celebrate the possibilities that come with survival.
“I don’t think this trip is about death. It’s about starting a new cycle,” she said. “We’re transmuting something that was so catastrophic and devastating into something beautiful.”
Eisenberg said this attitude mirrors how her family has interacted with the deaths and persecution in its history. “We haven’t grown up in the ferment of the loss,” she said.
When Eisenberg returns from the trip, she’ll give a presentation at Temple Israel of Boston, where her mother, Elaine Zecher, is a rabbi.
Eisenberg’s father, David M. Eisenberg, said the March of the Living offers his daughter a chance to be with others who are committed to improving the world.
“In this domain of recognizing inhumanity or injustice, it becomes a muscle that you can flex through life,” he said.
According to Machlis, March of the Living surveys consistently show that participants — about three-quarters of whom are Jewish — go on to start and lead social justice organizations in college and later in life.
Carrier said he will focus his talk on how the young people at the ceremony in Germany should return home and harness the powers of social media and technology to stop oppression.
“I feel that liberating the ones in the concentration camp was a first step,” said Carrier. “I am going to ask them to pick up the dirt and say, ‘That’s not dirt. Those are the ashes of the dead.’ If you imprint yourself with that, you’ll know that you cannot under any circumstances allow it to happen again.’ ”
Megan McKee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.