“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel

Son of Holocaust survivors helping Jewish teens connect with their heritage

By Paul E. Kandarian Globe Correspondent 


Irv Kempner of Sharon talks with teens during their tour of the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland.

From parents who survived the Holocaust, Irv Kempner, 64, of Sharon, heard firsthand the horrors of 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War II.

Several years ago, Kempner, a retired vice president of sales at Gillette Co., joined March of the Living, an international education program that sends Jewish teenagers from all over the world to Poland and Israel to show them their heritage.

Now he’s helped form a Massachusetts chapter that next year will take youths from the state on the two-week visit, at no cost to them. The nonprofit picks up the tab, and his Kempner Family Foundation will match each donation of $1,000 to the Massachusetts chapter, up to a total of $15,000. The cost is roughly $6,000 per student.

“I went with an adult group from March of the Living in 2005 to Auschwitz and was the only one from Massachusetts,” Kempner said.

“I thought that was crazy. It became my quest to get more people involved.”

Kempner went with a friend, also a son of Holocaust survivors, who urged him to go on a trip with the teens, which he did. “It was great to see kids from different backgrounds and cultures make newfound friends, a newfound community. It had a profound impact on their lives,” he said.

The trip starts after Passover and returns after Israel’s Independence Day, with a week each in Poland and Israel. Since its inception in 1988, March of the Living has taken more than 200,000 teens on the pilgrimage.

When Kempner visited Poland, his mother, whose entire family was executed, gave him names of relatives she’d lost. At a huge Jewish cemetery in Warsaw with 250,000 headstones, he managed to find some.

“I called my mother from a synagogue,” he said. “We cried like babies on the phone. It made the connection for her.” His mother is now 92.

He sees March of the Living as a way to connect Jewish youth with their heritage, get them engaged, involved, and aware of the horrors of the past as a way to avoid repeating it.

“My goal is to help build future leadership,” he said. “If you don’t give them a sense of history, of where they came from, this can happen again.”

For more on March of the Living, write Kempner at irvkempner@gmail.com or visit www.motl.org.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at pkandarian@aol.com.

Credit: The Boston Globe

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