November 19, 2019

The Mensch List: A survivor marches with the living

Sidonia Lax, now 86, survived the Holocaust but won’t let that define her. “I am a thriver,” she said. A stroll through her Sherman Oaks home is proof — her walls overflow with decades of family photos and mementos of her work as a member of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council and other organizations. 

The most striking objects in her family room, however, are a bright red apple and a poster showing her giving a speech. The caption reads, “In 2048, on Israel’s 100th anniversary, Sidonia Lax will be speaking to an entire generation.” When Lax speaks, you cannot doubt it. 

Since 2007, she has literally led the charge of the BJE — Builders of Jewish Education’s March of the Living, which brings high school seniors from all over for a march at the Birkenau concentration camp in Poland and then leads them to Israel for Independence Day. Although the March of the Living has taken place since 1988, Lax put her stamp on it when her grandson (then a senior at Milken Community High School) wrote a letter imploring her to get involved.  

During her first tour, she realized she had the power to make the March even more relatable to the participants. “Until I spoke the sentence, ‘I slept here,’ for the first time, the memory was not real,” Lax recalled recently. “Elie Wiesel said that when you hear a witness, you become a witness. My objective is to be one witness who inspires thousands of other witnesses, who can relay what lessons they learn to others.”

While Lax said she works out every day to be fit enough to make the journey in the spring of each year, she also puts her heart and soul into a scholarship program bearing her name that enables more Jewish teens with limited financial resources to make the life-changing trip. Her ultimate goal with the march participants is to redefine what “Holocaust” means on a collective level.

“I want to shift the paradigm of the word ‘Holocaust’ so it represents life and not death, and how meaningful it can be when you thrive and take charge of it,” Lax continues. “Our visit to Poland is not just intended to show how people died, but how we lived. We had a rich Jewish life and community before the war. I believe you have to touch people before you teach them about something. Therefore, I show them an apple before I tell my story.”

After three months of living in squalor in the Jewish ghetto of Przemysl, then-14-year-old Sidonia’s parents had heard that fresh apples had been smuggled inside. Her father perished as he tried to get his daughter one of those apples. As Lax details this, she points to the apple on her table and then to an artwork that juxtaposes an apple with her concentration camp number and an image of herself at age 14 with her parents.  

Lax said that in sharing her story, she also receives something special back from the kids. “The March has taught me to think like an 18-year-old, because I know what their passions and interests are,” she said. “The experience has rejuvenated me completely, and because of this, I don’t see myself as old. In my opinion, only a fine aged cheese is old. I need to stay well to be there for those kids.”