BY ERROL CASTENS
HOLLY SPRINGS – Most war memorials are built for the brave fighting men who risked or sacrificed life and limb to protect their causes.
The Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau were obviously not built as memorials, but in the 60 years since their last prisoners were liberated, they have become memorials to the 1.1 million victims who died therein during World War II.
Margaret “Chookie” Prochilo's home in Holly Springs is six decades and 5,000 miles removed from that vortex of suffering and death, but the collective memory of relatives who died there – and a few who lived through it – compelled her to make the pilgrimage to Poland to participate in the 2005 “March of the Living,” commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.
“It was such an amazing trip,” she said last week in her room at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, where she was being treated for symptoms related to late-stage multiple sclerosis.
“Some of the people spoke so beautifully – especially the former chief rabbi for Israel.”
Prochilo, who uses a walker when she can and a wheelchair at other times, said the arduous 16-hour day of the March of the Living may have contributed to her worsening health after her return.
“Even if the trip caused me to be in the hospital, it was worth it,” she said.
It was an event dear to the hearts of friends and relatives, too. Announcing her intentions during the Passover Seder evoked both applause and tears among fellow members and guests of Temple B'nai Israel in Tupelo.
Some members of her uncle Ralph Friedman's family had come to the United States in the early 1900s while others remained in Europe.
“Poland was such a liberal state,” she said. “They were more American' toward religions and beliefs than anywhere else in the world. That's why they had such a high Jewish population, and that's why it was so important for Hitler to put them under his thumb early.”
Being Jewish, many of Friedman's relatives were sent to concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Birkenau, at which more than 1.1 million civilians -a million of them Jews – are estimated to have died or been killed.
“My Uncle Ralph's whole family – everyone that didn't leave before the war was interned, and of those there were only three survivors,” she said. “I went for my Uncle Samson and Aunt Flora. Those were my survivors.”
Prochilo met up with her daughter, Jennifer Lackie, in Warsaw, where Lackie's stepmother is the director of development with the American School of Warsaw. Through her connections, the two were invited to ride on the Israeli embassy's bus to Oswiecim, the town in which Auschwitz and Birkenau are located.
The landscape contrasted greatly with the stark reality of the camps' purpose.
“Poland is so beautiful,” Prochilo said. “Everyone should go there.”
Participants first assembled at Auschwitz.
“It's a reverent atmosphere there,” Lackie said. “In most of the buildings, they ask you to be silent in remembrance of the people that died.”
As volunteers read the names of the camps' victims, the marchers began their two-mile trek from Auschwitz to Birkenau, some stretches of which “were not paved, were barely cobblestoned,” she said.
Even though Lackie and others took turns pushing her wheelchair, it was a grueling ride for Prochilo. A few times, however, she was able to stand with help in order to see the procession of an estimated 20,000 people on the route that was a death march six decades before.
“Most of the mass murders were done in Birkenau,” Prochilo said. “Auschwitz was the work camp. Those who were considered too dangerous were brought on the trains straight into Birkenau, but the ones going from Auschwitz to Birkenau walked the two miles before they were gassed and burned.
“If you weren't strong enough to make it – oh, well, you died on the side of the road, and the crews came along once a day and made a pickup.”
The concentration camp visit deepened Prochilo's appreciation of her Jewish heritage, and Lackie, a member of the Church of Christ, was amazed by how much she had not known about the 20th-century history of her Jewish ancestors and relatives.
March of the Living was not without its internal controversy.
Several post-march speakers emphasized optimistic messages that Prochilo felt denied stark reality.
“I got tired of hearing This is a different world,'” Prochilo said. “Then the ex-chief of the Israeli rabbinical council stood up and said, I'm sorry. It's not a new world.'”
The Jewish spiritual leader insisted that the present world is capable of repeating the Holocaust. As he spoke, photos captured from the camp's Nazi stashes showed on the Jumbotrons the brutality to which prisoners were subjected – hangings, mass graves, parents shot before their children's eyes, families being forcibly separated, and even the belching smokestacks of the crematorium that now sat cold and silent behind him.
“He started talking about what's going on in the world today – Rwanda, Iraq and so on – and how we're not working together,” Lackie said. “The only way the Holocaust will never happen again is if everybody – people in North Mississippi, people across America, people all over the world – will stop persecuting each other. We have to open up our minds and embrace each other.”
Prochilo added, “I'm glad people actually had the nerves or the guts to not go with the flow. We have to leave there and open people's eyes about what happened there.”
As the rabbi finished speaking from that graphic setting, the large screen displayed a terse motto that emphasized the March of the Living's reason for being. It said simply, “NEVER AGAIN.”