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    Three leave on journey into darkness

    A death camp survivor and two members of her family will visit Poland, then have a more uplifting stay in Israel.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001

    ST. PETERSBURG -- This week, three generations of the Baras family begin a journey into the past.

    Dr. David Baras, his teenage daughter Lauren and his mother, Viola, left Monday for the Nazi concentration camps of Majdanek, Treblinka, Birkenau and Auschwitz. For David and Lauren Baras, this is their first encounter with the notorious camps.

    For Viola Baras, a Czechoslovakian-born Jew, it will not.

    At 15, she was interned in Auschwitz with her mother and sister. She was made to sort the false teeth, shoes, dresses and other belongings of fellow prisoners who were put to death in the gas chambers. Haunting her still is the dead infant she found secreted in its mother's clothes.

    Yet, Mrs. Baras, now 73, and living in Tamarac, is going back. Her reason is granddaughter Lauren.

    "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't go. She asked me," Mrs. Baras said.

    As they anticipate the journey, mother, son and granddaughter are characterizing the journey to Poland as a victorious return. As they see it, Mrs. Baras not only survived to bear witness to the atrocities she and others suffered, but she is taking her descendants back to the place where she faced death daily.

    That gives her courage, she says.

    "I'll be with my granddaughter and my son," said Mrs. Baras, mother of three other sons and eight grandchildren.

    For Lauren, 16, who is being raised in an interfaith home -- her mother and sister are Roman Catholic -- her Jewish heritage is important.

    "I feel like it's my responsibility to really know the history of my grandmother and not just for myself. The (Holocaust) survivors are dying. To continue the story is so important," said Lauren, who has decided to adopt Judaism. "Selfishly, I think it's definitely going to enhance who I am," she said during an interview at her family's Bahama Shores home.

    "I think it's just going to give me much more of a purpose. Really, I think I'm going to realize what I have and more of where I want to go."

    Her father volunteers as a docent at the Florida Holocaust Museum, at 55 Fifth St. S, and is chairman of its Generations After group, whose members are children and grandchildren of survivors and refugees. At first, he had not been enthusiastic about going on the trip. But he changed his mind after completing the Holocaust museum's docent training program.

    "Now I had all these facts. I could tie in the information from my mom and my grandmother. Now it started to make sense and then the Holocaust Museum said you really ought to consider this trip. You would really put all the pieces together," Baras said.

    A preview of an exhibit that will formally open next Sunday also helped convince Baras that he had made the right decision. Women of Ravensbruck: Portraits of Courage focuses on the experiences of the women who were held in Ravensbruck, the concentration camp 50 miles outside Berlin, where Baras' mother was taken after Auschwitz.

    The preview "filled in even more gaps," Baras said. "Now I understood how my mom got from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck. That exhibition has a special significance to me, because my mom, her sister and my grandmother were at that camp."

    The Barases' journey is organized by March of the Living, a program through which thousands of Jewish high school students from around the world travel to Poland and Israel to learn about the Holocaust and connect with their heritage.

    On Thursday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the teenagers and their chaperones will march silently from Auschwitz to the gas chambers at Birkenau, retracing the final steps of the concentration camp victims. It is for this emotional walk, the March of the Living, that the program is named.

    After Poland, participants will travel to Israel, where they will celebrate that country's Independence Day, tour biblical sites and visit Israeli families.

    Lauren is one of five Tampa Bay area high school students participating in the March of the Living program this year.

    Viola Baras, her mother and sister had been imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau until January 1945, when they were transferred to Ravensbruck.

    After the war, the three returned to their hometown. Her father, who had been sent to Buchenwald, was not there.

    "We went every day to the train station to ask about my father," Mrs. Baras recalls. "In August, we saw my mother kissing somebody. We didn't recognize him, because he had lost all of his teeth. Only two families came back, so we were very fortunate."

    But many other family members perished.

    Mrs. Baras came to the United States on Dec. 21, 1948, and married her husband, Sidney, in 1950. The couple owned a poultry farm in New York. Three of their four sons became doctors. One trained to be a pharmacist and now owns a photography studio.

    Dr. Baras speaks proudly of his parents, both of whom survived the horrors of being Jewish in World War II Europe.

    "They are very, very hopeful," he said. "They have every reason in the world to be hateful, spiteful."

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