(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
KRAKOW – It’s a strange experience to come to Krakow on the eve of Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day. There is a juxtaposition between being in the country where more Jews died in the Holocaust than all the other countries put together, where Jewish life was once so varied and vibrant – and the national mourning, including the siren that brings Israel to a standstill.
Still, a concert in Krakow’s Philharmonic Hall with some 700 people and an appearance by Dudu Fisher seems appropriate.
This year’s March of the Living is set to focus on three aspects: the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps; that the youth, both Jewish and non-Jewish, be exposed to the stories of survival and be encouraged to teach it to their contemporaries; and that all of this is taking place against the backdrop of one of the worst years on record for incidents of European anti-Semitism.
Around 11,000 participants are expected to take part in Thursday’s march – a 3.5-km. walk from the gates of Auschwitz to the extermination camp of Birkenau. An almost evensplit of Jews and non-Jews, representing 45 countries – including Panama, Brazil, Argentina, the US and the UK – young and old will set out together.
For the first time a high-ranking delegation from Austria is set to take part, represented by among others Education Minister Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek.
Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who survived Buchenwald and whose father died in Treblinka, will be one of those leading the march.
Walking the streets of Krakow, it is difficult to fathom that 67,000 people were once crammed into the city’s ghetto, in a space about the size of Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa. Just 16 streets, packed with the hustle and bustle of life, ordinary people confined in an extraordinary place and time. Ambling in the Jewish Quarter, where “Jewish” restaurants exist – serving kosher-style food – one tries to imagine the sounds and smells, though the Jews have long since gone, never to return.
Interviewing two Canadian Holocaust survivors, both now residents of Toronto, it became clear that there was a common theme between their two stories: the will to live.
Martin Baranek was born in Poland in 1930 and was sent to Birkenau in July 1944. Having survived some of the most difficult times, as the approaching Red Army caused the Nazis and their collaborators to increase their brutality, Baranek was sent on a death march in January 1945. He was taken to Mauthausen and from there to Gunskirchen in Austria, where he was liberated in May 1945.
His story, however, does not end there. Taken by the British to Italy, he made his way to Atlit, south of Haifa, via a Displaced Persons camp in Cyprus and fought with the Palmah in the Negev during the War of Independence. Miraculously, he was reunited with his mother in 1949, after she had made inquiries through the Red Cross and found that he was in alive and well.
Baranek married and built a family with five children (four sons, one of whom died, and a daughter) and nine grandchildren. The three generations of his family will be represented on Thursday’s march. He has been asked to sign up for the march in 2016, but noted that, at his age, “You don’t buy green bananas!” Max Eisen was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929. He, too, was sent to Birkenau, though his maternal family was murdered in Majdanek. Initially surviving with the help of his father and an uncle, Eisen felt that he would not have made it beyond the first night without family support.
By July 1944, however, he was alone – the separation from his father being particularly traumatic – as he was snatched away with barely any time for a goodbye. Before he was taken, Eisen’s father had blessed his son, imploring him to “bear witness.”
Eisen was also the beneficiary of that all too rare occurrence in those days – simple human kindness. Having been savagely beaten by an SS guard, Eisen was in a hospital ward after having had surgery. But a prisoner staying too long in one of those wards was soon killed. Dr. Orzeszko, a Polish political prisoner who had performed the operation, took pity on Eisen and told their captors that he was an operating room orderly, thereby saving his life.
Eisen was liberated from Melk, a satellite camp of Mathausen, in May 1945 by an all-black American tank unit. He said it was a “day that he would never forget.”
Only three of around 60 of Eisen’s family members survived the European inferno, but his two sons produced two granddaughters and now three great-grandchildren.
Both of these survivors are in demand by high school and college students, military departments, and even NATO. They are dismayed that anti-Semitism seems to have regenerated and become virulent in Europe once more. But they see the March of the Living as a crucial riposte, and for as long as they can they will continue to strive to teach younger generations about the dangers of giving in to hate.