BOSTON — Chair of New England Friends of the March of the Living Irv Kempner has led dozens of delegations to Poland and Israel, and believes the trips are a key factor in conveying the span of the Holocaust’s reach. After this year’s gathering was cancelled due to COVID-19, Kempner’s organization decided to hold a virtual tribute set for this Wednesday evening, September 9.
“We bring students to Poland and Israel so they can understand the scope of what it means to lose such a large part of our family in the Holocaust,” said Kempner, a retired vice president at Gillette. In 2018, he co-authored a book about his father, David Kempner, and the destroyed Jewish community of Kalisz, Poland.
When Kempner is with thousands of young adults at Auschwitz-Birkenau each spring, he makes a comparison so participants can grasp the scope of the Holocaust. Kempner tells students that a crowd of their size — some 14,000 people — was “processed” in a single day of operations at Auschwitz-Birkenau. During the Holocaust, a million Jews were murdered in several gas chamber-crematoria complexes built for the largest German Nazi death camp in occupied Poland.
In 32 years, 260,000 participants from 52 countries have participated in the two-week March of the Living journey through Poland and Israel. But this spring, the familiar sight of thousands of young Jews with Israeli flags marching between Auschwitz and Birkenau did not take place, nor did participants fly to Israel from Krakow and Warsaw.
Called “Voices from the Past… Lessons for the Future,” the virtual event will showcase past marches and honor two remarkable advocates for Holocaust memory. The Friends will present the first Stephan Ross Excellence in Holocaust Education Award, named for the creator of the New England Holocaust Memorial, to Sidney Handler, a lifelong advocate for Holocaust memory.
When Kempner’s board discussed holding a New England regional event to replace this spring’s cancelled March, they initially considered an in-person tribute dinner. As the pandemic dragged on, however, they realized a virtual gathering had greater potential.
According to Kempner, the free and open program on September 9 could be “more impactful” than a typical March of the Living — especially for viewers not able to travel to Poland and Israel.
Holocaust survivor Handler is among the two men honored at the event. During WWII, Handler was imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto, and most of his relatives were murdered in Lithuania’s Ponary Forest, just outside the city. In a series of massacres, 70,000 Jews were shot over large pits. Later, prisoners were forced to exhume and burn the corpses.
Since establishing himself in Boston after the war, Handler has brought groups to visit Holocaust sites in Lithuania and Poland. Back home, he befriended the late Stephan (Steve) Ross, another survivor, who is likewise honored at the evening. Twenty-five years ago, Ross was the driving force behind creating the New England Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston.
Several years before his death in February, Ross helped produce a film based on his life. Called “Etched in Glass,” the film follows Ross from surviving ten concentration camps to his subsequent career mentoring at-risk youth in Boston. One of the students Ross mentored was Boston’s current mayor, Marty Walsh, who will give remarks about Ross for the tribute.
“People who have known both Sidney and Steve will speak and explain how they devoted their lives to preserving the memory of their families and the six million victims,” said Kempner, who hopes at least “several thousand” people will watch the program.
There is still hope the March of the Living can take place in spring 2021, said Kempner. However, the gathering might be smaller than past years due to pandemic travel restrictions and fundraising challenges.
When asked what he hoped March of the Living participants take away from the program each year, Kempner spoke about the importance of civic engagement. In Nazi Germany, he said, Jews were ostracized from society and stripped of legal protections. In a sense, the Holocaust was made legal beforehand, he said.
“The students have to be engaged in public life,” said Kempner. “This way, they can make sure it never happens again.”