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New Lenox teen joins March of the Living in Poland

Event is part of Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Amanda Marrazzo, Special to the Chicago Tribune
April 19, 2012

Brianna Kramer on Sunday left for a trip she hopes will bring her closer to her ancestry and deeper into her newfound Jewish faith.

The New Lenox 17-year-old will join an estimated 10,000 peers in Poland on Thursday for the 25th anniversary of the so-called March of the Living, part of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The youths, who hail from 35 countries, will gather for a symbolic march from the Auschwitz to the Birkenau concentration camps. This year, organizers say, participants will be joined by Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans who liberated the camps, as well as their descendants.

The journey promises to be eye-opening for Kramer, a junior at Chicago's Morgan Park Academy and one of at least two Chicago-area teens involved. Kramer, whose father is Jewish and mother is Catholic, formally converted to Judaism six months ago, said her father, Bart.

"I think the meaning is to really figure out where I came from and what connection I have to Judaism," Kramer said before she left. "The opportunity presented itself, and it is really a once in a lifetime trip."

The annual youth-oriented trip, which also includes visits to museums and other historical and cultural sites, is open to high school students of all faiths. Many participants, including Kramer, will then fly to Israel to celebrate Israeli Independence Day.

Organizers say each passing year adds urgency to the mission because there are fewer people today who lived through World War II.

March organizers say there are only about 46,000 known Holocaust survivors remaining in the United States. Each year, 10 to 15 percent of the survivor population dies, as do their liberators.

"Once the survivors and their liberators are no longer among us, Holocaust deniers will become even more emboldened to propagate their hate-filled lies. Liberators are among our most relevant and credible witnesses. When our students listen to a witness, they become a witness and are superbly equipped to carry the message forward to future generations," Shmuel Rosenman, March of the Living chairman, said in a news release.

Kramer, a member of BBYO, formerly known by its full name, B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, also hopes the trip brings her more insight about her late great-great-aunt, Margeurite Farkas.

Farkas, who died 13 years ago, escaped Auschwitz with her sister and wrote a book about her Holocaust experience, "Go Live For Us."

"I'm really excited ... to see what she saw," Kramer said. "I know Poland will be really emotional for everyone. I'm going just to feel that connection. When we go to Israel it will be a lot more happy, and (we will be) celebrating our lives."

Kramer, who hopes one day to work for the United Nations, even left behind her cellphone, hoping to "absorb as much as I can" with few distractions. After she returns, she plans to give a presentation to her schoolmates about the trip.

"I'm excited to do that and promote awareness and let people see a little bit of that (history)," she said.

Kramer's mother, Colleen, said she'd like to see her daughter return with greater insights about the world. "I hope that she understands that the world is a bigger place than just what's in front of her," she said.

Kramer's parents said they supported their daughter's conversion to Judaism.

"We never pushed the kids into any specific religion," Bart Kramer said. "She (converted) more through her own personal identification and her friendships and her own seeking it out."

Stacy Heller of the Great Midwest Region BBYO worked on the 2008 march. Her late grandparents were Holocaust survivors.

"Seeing what they saw, being where they were, the fact they survived it ... and sharing their stories made it more powerful," she said.

Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune

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