Tending to the liberators

Tending to the liberators

March of Living honors vets, with N.J. doctor in tow

U.S. Army veterans who helped to liberate concentration camps as World War II ended light the flames honoring the Six Million. The event took place in the former Birkenau concentration camp as part of the 2012 March of the Living commemoration on April 19, which was Yom Hashoah. Courtesy David Arbit

Englewood resident Dr. David Arbit has spent much of his adult life hearing about the Shoah.

“My father-in-law is a survivor,” says the physician, who practices in Fair Lawn. “At every bar- or bat mitzvah, he would get up and speak about his experiences.”

Now, however, Arbit can add many more firsthand accounts to those he already knows. As the physician designated by the March of the Living program to accompany this year’s honorees – some 16 former U.S. servicemen who were among the first to arrive at Europe’s many concentration camps during World War II – the doctor says he now has both new information and detailed verification of his father-in-law’s stories.

Arbit said he had never thought about going to Poland until “several weeks ago, when I was called by David Machlis,” vice chairman of the march and a neighbor of Arbit’s. “He got my name from Rabbi [Zev] Reichman,” religious leader of Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue.

Machlis, he said, decided to feature the liberators during this year’s program. The march, an educational initiative founded in 1988, brings thousands of Jewish teens from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The teens then go on to Israel to observe Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut.

The liberators – only about half of whom were Jewish – were invited not just as honorees, but “to relate their stories to the thousands of youths who were participating in this year’s march,” said Arbit. During one event, “Each of the liberators took a seat and were surrounded by dozens of young people….It was cold and windy, but [they] were treated like rock stars and clearly enjoyed their status.”

Explaining why he was invited, Arbit said that most of the former servicemen are now in their late 80s, so “the organizers of the trip wanted to have an American doctor to travel with the group and look over these honored octogenarians.”

Prior to leaving, he reviewed the ex-servicemen’s medical records, requesting additional information where needed.

“They were from all over the country,” he said. “They each had to be cleared by their own doctors.”

Then he began gathering supplies. The equipment came in handy, he said, noting that one honoree skinned his knee at the airport, while another later injured his elbow.

“They’re 80,” he said. “They can fall.”

The doctor said he asked himself several questions, including: “What medications does one take as the traveling doctor? What sort of illnesses might I be called upon to treat? Under what circumstances would I have to call upon the local Polish medical authorities?

“With the help of my office, I amassed enough medication samples and bandages, sugar monitors and blood pressure cuffs, epi-pens and flashlights, that I felt able to tackle any outpatient medical problem. I even borrowed a defibrillator from my office with the sincere hope that it was going to stay sealed in its package.”

On the whole, he said, he was impressed by the liberators’ fortitude.

“As we walked down many stairs, climbed into buses with our hand luggage, and tramped up the steep aluminum steps into the aircraft, it became clear that this was a strong group of travelers with more determination and toughness compared to other people their age. I didn’t hear any complaining about anything. Imagine that, an El Al flight with no one complaining about anything.”

Arbit said he was most impressed – and amazed – by the commonality of the stories told by both the survivors and the liberators.

“I’ve heard this over and over,” he said. “For the first 20 or 30 years, neither the survivors nor the liberators were interested in talking about what they saw. It was so horrible. Another commonality is that [each groups] says they’ll always remember the smell, the stench” of the camps. One liberator told Arbit that when he has accidentally burned himself – for example, at a barbecue – “It brought back terrible memories.”

“Another shocker is that when we would meet up with liberators and survivors, [both groups] told stories about the days of liberation with complete accuracy from both sides,” said the physician. “For 25 years my father-in-law told the story of his liberation from Buchenwald, saying how the Americans showed up on April 10 and then came back on April 11.”

During the march, he said, liberator Rick Carrier told his own story, confirming the precise dates and the details remembered by Arbit’s father-in-law.

“It was the same story,” said Arbit. “Here are people who never met, but have the same details, like the clocktower that was shot out at a certain hour.”

“Certain memories are indelible,” he said. “To have memories for 67 years that are verifiable is an amazing concept – and an argument against Holocaust deniers.”

Arbit said that while the ghettos and camps are being maintained in a respectful manner, the town of Krakow has commercialized visits to Shoah sites.

“It’s become a tourist phenomenon,” he said, noting that visitors can drive around in golf carts to look at the camps. “It injects a lot of money into the Polish economy,” he noted. “I have mixed feelings about that.”

Still, he said, the March of the Living remains an important program because “It takes [the Shoah] out of books and makes it more real.” Even more, he said, “Ending the trip in Israel is a great thing to do. Judaism is not just about the Holocaust.”

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