By Ben Tinsley
There were overwhelming moments when everything seemed to be just … a bit too much.
Grant Prengler, Jake Prengler and Alexandra Lavi — cousins who attend Yavneh Academy of Dallas — certainly had conflicting emotions when visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka Nazi concentration camps in Poland.
The three 18-year-old cousins were part of a group of nearly 30 students from Yavneh who attended the two-week “2015 March of the Living” in April.
The annual education program is designed to be a deliberate contrast to the deadly World War II death marches that compelled sick and starving inmates and forced labor camp workers to tread hundreds of miles.
The Prengler cousins, whose family lost several members to the horrors of Treblinka, had to sort through many emotions at the sites of the former camps.
“It makes you nauseous thinking about what happened there,” Grant Prengler said.
Jake Prengler, however, had a different feeling.
“I can’t say I really felt sad,” he said. “I felt more happiness that I’m here. I’m happy the Prengler name and the Jewish race can live on.”
Grant Prengler and Jake Prengler’s grandfather, Aaron Prengler, survived the Holocaust, as did Alexandra Levi’s great-grandfather, Sol Prengler.
As many as 14,000 people from 50 countries attended the event this year — a small portion of them Holocaust survivors, although those numbers are dwindling, officials said.
Pam Hochster Fine, coordinator of the Dallas March of the Living, has chaperoned the March 10 times. She said three students from San Antonio joined her student group on the trip, and together they traveled with 155 others to get to the March.
The crowd was slightly larger than usual, possibly because this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Sheer noted.
For Lavi, the march was a revelation.
“This trip brought me closer to my Jewish identity and made me appreciate and understand it,” she said. “From now on, if someone claims the Holocaust didn’t happen, I can say, ‘Yes it did! I was there! I saw the scratches on the walls of the gas chambers. I saw it and I heard about the horrors from people who were there.’ There was something truly special about it — and we experienced it all together.”
In addition to reliving the tragedy, the three cousins also discovered a brand-new family member — the great-granddaughter of one of their great-grandfather’s brothers, who moved to Argentina before World War II started.
Jake Prengler — who will attend the University of Texas in the fall and major in civil engineering — said he basically stumbled across the new cousin, Julia Cohen of Los Angeles, by accident. He had placed a card that said “Prengler” on the tracks at the Birkenau death factory, which Cohen noticed.
“She saw it and talked to me and it turns out her mom was a member of the family,” Jake Prengler said. “We didn’t even know she existed until now.”
While on the March, the three cousins also met the grandson of a dear family friend, Zbyszek Mokicki, the grandson of Vashik Mokicki, one of the men who hid the Prenglers from discovery during the war.
Max Glauben, Holocaust survivor, was there with the Yavneh Academy group and helped provide context to what the students there were seeing.
“He was a great person to have around,” Grant Prengler said. “He was a prisoner at the Majdanek death camp and when we were there he took us to his barracks where he lived for the duration of the war and told the story of his camp the time he was there.”
Glauben has participated in the March of the Living for the past 10 years. He said he has long noticed that Yavneh students take notebooks with them on the March to help write down and quantify their thoughts. Glauben said he is happy to explain matters to the students.
“If those little girls behind me can keep writing and making notes in their little books, then I certainly can help them realize the level of tragedy of the Holocaust,” he said.
Rabbi Meir Tannenbaum of Yavneh Academy of Dallas said Glauben was very helpful to students trying to process such tragedy.
“His personal perspective, his own life story and positive outlook on life can be very inspiring,” he said. “It was a good trip. The kids gained a lot and I know it’s something they will always remember, treasure and take with them.”
The program, initiated in 1988, takes place each year immediately following Passover — or two weeks in April and May. In addition to the United States, marchers come from as far away as Turkey, Panama and New Zealand.
The program, which concludes with the March, involves a week in Poland visiting persecution sites as well as former sites of culture and Jewish life, then continues to Israel, where Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day, is observed and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, is celebrated.
Since 1988, as many as 200,000 marchers from 35 different countries have participated.
Lavi, who is about to graduate from Yavneh and will attend the University of Texas in the fall majoring in communications, said students preparing to go on the March are required to take the History of the Holocaust course in class to learn about the different uprisings and ghettos and death camps of the Holocaust.
“It’s the history itself that gives us the knowledge of what we were going into,” she said. “But there is nothing that can prepare you for what you’re going to see. Taking this class is a refresher course but really, when you get there you have to just … let it happen as you go.”
Lavi said she and her cousins have heard the stories from their family members and know much about the ravages of the Holocaust. But processing it firsthand was difficult, she said.
“While we were there at the death camps, we were all trying to see if we could get a feel for what our families went through — but really, I didn’t know what to feel — how to feel,” she said. “There were so many different emotions throughout the course of the trip. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life processing it, even after I have my own children. How could anyone do this to other people? It’s one of those things you can never fully comprehend.”
Grant Prengler, who will also attend UT next year as a government major, said the trip is bittersweet. His grandfather Aaron Prengler, a Holocaust survivor who came to America with four brothers and his mother, died two months ago.
“I had heard stories about the Holocaust but I didn’t want to go on the March with too many of them in my head, too many expectations,” he said.
Grant Prengler said the journal writing that his class was recommended to practice really helped him process his thoughts while in Poland and Israel.
“Nearly everyone kept a journal,” he said. “It was a really great idea and helped me track my thoughts, what I was feeling at the time. Obviously, remembering the Holocaust is so important and transmitting a lesson we learned to other people and future generations of our family is important. The big picture to me — especially with the recent passing of my grandpa — is that they survived so we could have a better life, work hard and raise families.”