Retiree visits camps to honor 6 million of my relatives

Vladimir Prikupets loves to travel. The San Franciscan has been to more than 30 countries around the world, to Israel three times, to the Olympics five times, to Japan, Korea, Mexico, Paris, to all 15 Russian republics.

Last month, however, he took what he calls the most important trip of his life.

After retiring from his career as a San Francisco civil engineer, Prikupets embarked on a two-week trip to Europe. He skipped the usual tourist sights on this solo sojourn, however, and instead embarked on a voyage through as many concentration camps as possible.

In 14 days, the Odessa-born 63-year-old visited seven concentration camps, as well as the sites of the Warsaw and Prague ghettoes.

Half a century after the camps were liberated, he said, "I wanted to see by myself: What does it mean, `concentration camp'?"

He found much in the train tracks and in the stones visitors leave behind on the tracks as markers; he found much in the empty barracks and in the grim remains of crematoriums. At Birkenau near Auschwitz in Poland, he could almost feel the earth move underneath his feet.

"I felt the land under me, the bodies under me, like a cemetery," says Prikupets.

Although he met many concentration camp survivors along the way, his only constant companion on the journey was his camera, with which he snapped over 4,000 photos along the way. The photos, like the stones he left on the train tracks at Birkenau and the flowers he left on the ground at Dachau, were his way of acknowledging the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust.

While none of Prikupets' Odessa relatives died in concentration camps, still he says, "Six million of my relatives passed away there."

Prikupets left Odessa with his wife, Irina, and daughter Lilia in 1976, and they became one of the first Soviet Jewish families to settle in the Bay Area.

While Prikupets made the concentration camp trip himself, he feels few people other than his wife and survivors could understood his reasons for going.

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy, the whole world…to spend a few thousand dollars. You can spend it in restaurants or on luxury cars, but better to spend in this way," he says.

He also went to Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Maidenek and Ravensbruch.

Having returned from his trip, he now thinks all Jews should visit Jerusalem and at least one concentration camp at some point in their lives. It should be a pilgrimage, he says, in the same way Muslims visit Mecca or Medina.

Traveling to the camps will not only remind people of the cruelty of which the world is capable, Prikupets says, but will also transform the travelers' lives, as it did his.

"Only then can we feel what Germany plus Russia, England, France, the United States did against the Jews. Only then can you really feel, standing inside crematorium, what the world did against the Jews. They did nothing to help the Jews."

Today, "I'm a completely new person," Prikupets reflects. "After this, I said, `Now I can die; I've reached a goal.' I saw something so important in life. It's more important than anything. It's hard to explain. You have to feel it, see it."