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High Life / A WEEKLY FORUM FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS : Taking History's Painful Path : Tour: March of the Living takes Jewish students through the ashes of the Holocaust in Poland into the open arms of Israel.


As Joel Mann held hands with fellow Jewish teen-agers, marching 5,000 strong on a historical path that had been tread by so many before him, he felt a surge of power and hope that made the entire journey worthwhile.

Mann, a 17-year-old senior from Pacifica High in Garden Grove, and the other Jewish youths were participating in the March of the Living, a trek that every other year goes through the ashes of the Holocaust in Poland into the open arms of Israel.

The March of the Living, with headquarters in New York and Florida, organizes the actual march, prepares study guides for participants, and takes care of details such as security and food--flown in from Israel during this year's march, which took place in the spring.

"I felt that nothing could defeat us, that we were on a mission and we were there for all of the people who had died," Mann said.

Mann's participation was through a local B'nai B'rith Youth Organization. Each participating community selected students and planned individual itineraries, although everyone got together for the march and for certain other services.

Sandy Andron, a teacher in Florida for the past 30 years, has been involved in coordinating the March of the Living since 1988.

"It's sort of like the difference between studying French in class and going to France," he said of the program. "It's one thing to study about the Holocaust, it's another to stand in one of the camps where it happened. The emotional level is much higher in the latter, and it gives a different perspective."

The tour is meant to give the students a view of the concentration camps where the Nazis systematically murdered more than 6 million Jews. The youth organization itinerary Mann followed began in the Warsaw Ghetto, then went to Treblinka and Auschwitz. After that came the march, which took him from Auschwitz to Birkenau. From there, Mann visited Krakow and the Maidanek camp before flying to Israel, where his group celebrated Remembrance Day for all veterans and soldiers killed in action.

Barb Reissman, the youth organization southwest regional director, said students prepared for the trip with the understanding that they would help to educate others upon their return.

"Part of the reason they were going was so they could come back and educate other Jewish youths, other people in our community, and especially the non-Jewish community," Reissman said.

Preparations were arduous, involving frequent sessions in which the students discussed what they would encounter. "We were not only dealing with the education of each youth," Reissman said, "but we were also dealing with their emotional needs, to make sure that the kids were prepared to go on the March of the Living."

El Dorado junior Alex Hallgarten, 16, who also participated in the march, said: "They can't really prepare you until you've actually seen it; going to a country where you know you're not wanted is a hard thing to take. But I think they did the best they could."

It was odd, both teens agreed, to see some of what they had read so much about. "It was like going back in time," Hallgarten said. "It shows what a strong background we have, and it makes me proud to be Jewish."

In Krakow, the group visited the only active synagogue in Poland.

"We were kind of tired," Mann said, "and all of a sudden, we started singing. Then we started dancing in the streets of Krakow, where 50 years ago people were shot for that kind of thing. It was amazing."

Emotionally, the tour group felt drained many times: as they stood in the gas chambers where their ancestors had been murdered, when they saw shoes, hair and bones of the victims.

And then there was Maidanek, the most preserved of the concentration camps.

"Through the barbed wire at Maidanek, you could see someone's garden and house right there. But people said they didn't know about what was happening. How could they not have smelled the stench and heard the cries?" said Mann, shaking his head.

Hallgarten couldn't believe the staggering numbers that passed through the camps.

"At one point (he saw in the Maidanek camp) millions of pairs of shoes, belonging to 800,000 people," he said, "It's a shock that takes awhile to sink in. The (march participants) would be happy and singing on the bus ride to the camps, then silent or crying on the way back."

After they saw the horrors of Maidanek, the group was flown to Israel.

"It was like a peaceful riot," Hallgarten said of the frenzied celebration on Israeli Independence Day. "Everyone is dancing and singing. They have these little plastic hammers that you hit people on the head with, then they say thank you in Hebrew."

Overall, the trip was more than a journey through time; it was a valuable lesson that ran the emotional gamut and solidified the heritage of 5,000 teen-agers.

Mann realized the role he will play in the future of his Jewish community.

"I came the closest to living (the Holocaust) by being there, hearing the stories, and feeling what I felt," he said. "The Holocaust survivors are getting old, and after them, who's going to retell the story?"

Trisha Ginsburg, a senior at Los Alamitos High School, is a regular contributor to High Life.

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