At a Beverly Hills hotel last Tuesday, retired Sergeant Rick Carrier retold how he stumbled upon Buchenwald, one of Hitler's largest concentration camps, at the end of World War II.
He was scouring the captured territories for engineering supplies abandoned by the Germans when a priest told Carrier of a nearby SS prison. When he drove a jeep up to the wrought-iron gates of Buchenwald, he was shocked at what he saw: "I was a battle-hardened soldier but I never never ever witnessed anything as horrible as this. Walking skeletons, bleeding fingers clutching at the rusty barbed wire. Sunken eyes staring at me, filled with puss and tears."
The next day, Carrier led an armored tank back to the camp and blew the main gate off. Soon after that, hundreds of soldiers arrived to safely liberate the prisoners.
As Carrier told his story at a gala hosted by March of the Living International, an educational program that takes Jewish students to Poland and Israel to learn about the Holocaust, he was joined by Irving Roth, a survivor of Buchenwald, who told Carrier, "I was there on the day that you opened the gates and saved countless lives. Thank you. Thank you very much for saving us."
The 87-year-old sergeant responded with the vigor: "I would do it again in a moment!"
With the number of Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans dwindling - most like Carrier are in their 80s or 90s - March of the Living aims to teach a new generation of Jews the history of their people. Every spring for the past 25 years, March of the Living brings hundreds of Jewish teens to Poland to trek about 2 miles with Holocaust survivors from Auschwitz to the connected camp of Brikenau. They then head to Israel to celebrate Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) and Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day).
On the trek, Holocaust survivors share their personal stories while walking on the same ground where those events took place. This year, for the first time, the marchers will be joined by WWII veterans like Carrier.
Max Webb, a 95-year-old survivor of the Holocaust who was honored at the event for his work in giving generously to Jewish and non-Jewish institutions, believes in the importance of passing down his generation's experience to younger generations.
"The Jewish people have been slaughtered, have been in the chambers, have been gassed," said Webb, "I hope that [the young Jews] will see it, so that they will bring the message to the future and we will pray to God that what happened under the Hitler regime will never happen again."
Born Menashe Weisbrot on March 2, 1917, Webb survived six death camps and innumerable horrors, including an encounter with Dr. Josef Mengele, the satanic Nazi doctor who tortured and murdered Jews in his depraved medical experiments.
After the war ended, Webb moved from Poland to Los Angeles and became a successful home builder and commercial-property developer. He founded the Max Webb Family Foundation in 1962 with the purpose of giving back to the Jewish community.
He also believes in giving back by passing on stories of the Holocaust. Almost 70 years has passed since WWII ended, and now it's the survivors' grandchildren learning about the Holocaust through the March of the Living.
Hannah Duvivier, a high school senior who attends Jewish school, said she is ready to see the sights she has heard about since childhood: "I learned about the Holocaust my whole life, so going to Poland and then to Israel is the perfect culmination of my Jewish education."
Others have a more personal connection to the event. Talya Schlesinger, 17, went to Poland two years ago, but is going back again this summer: "For me the Holocaust is very real, my grandfather escaped right before the war but all of his family died. Meeting survivors and going there made it very real and very personal."