Walking into the Bełżec Memorial, one of the six death camps established by the Nazis, I was nervous as I led 45 young professionals, from March of the Living UK, down the path into the museum. Suddenly, my new friend Harry Olmer, a survivor from the Holocaust, grabbed my arm and led me to the museum desk. He proceeded to open up a book and pointed directly to a picture of his mother and sister, who were slaughtered right there, on the site where the Memorial now stands.
There are very few moments in my life, if any, that have been more powerful than that. This really drives home the fact that this history is not so far in the past. Here is Harry, a dentist from Hendon, who retired at 86 just last year, just a few hours flight from London (the same distance as Spain) where his family was taken brutally from him.
“To hear a witness, it to become a witness” – Elie Wiesel.
March of the Living UK focuses on education. This year it consisted of 250 people from the UK, and over 10,000 from around the world. The UK delegation has an incredibly mature approach – to present facts, to give an experience and not push a particular agenda. We are aware that individuals have different perspectives, and that each person is entitled to their thoughts, but to not experience the detail of the story is not how the world should operate.
Education, education, education.
The content throughout was vast and full of emotion. We explored life before the War, visiting the Museum of Jewish Life in Warsaw, which described hundreds of years where Jews were mostly OK in this part of Europe, and occasionally thriving. We then saw the Memorials to those holding out until the bitter end in the Warsaw Ghetto, where brave young men tried their best to fight back.
We were audience to moving speeches from Survivors themselves, and visited just a few of the far too many sites of murder, of death, of torment, all stemming from segregation by way of the ghettos.
We visited Majdanek, a death camp that is almost exactly as it stood when it was in operation in the 40s. We were told of the clinical detail and processes the Nazis undertook to perfect the gassing of people, the harvesting of belongings and the cremating of bodies. We saw just a few thousand pairs of shoes that were left behind when the camp was liberated, the rest having been sent back to Germany. Selecting one of the shoes, we tried to imagine who it belonged to and the tragedy that they faced.
We came with an abundance of questions, and no doubt left with many more.
How can something like this happen? How can there be so few held accountable for so many deaths? What should I do now? What can I do now?
And of course, the unanswerable and torturous question of “What would I have done?“.
We asked Harry his opinion of Germans now, and with a shrug, he responded “people are people, and we have to accept them for who they are”. This comes from a man who was ripped from his family, transferred from work camp to work camp under terrible conditions with death all around, and somehow he survived the whole War.
March of the Living is not there to inflict depression, nor leave your eyes streaming with tears. There were of course emotional moments, however through education and experience comes the opportunity to open your eyes to some of the most incomprehensible things.
Auschwitz, a site I have visited more than 10 times now, always has something new that gets you. This time, I walked with a member from our group to the actual barrack that ‘housed’ his grandmother. It was located on a side of Auschwitz-Birkenau that I had never even walked to because it was so far away. There was a bunker, still standing, with rows and rows of bunks, essentially where this man’s grandmother would have slept. I started to process that this was where people actually were; not just a picture from a book, not just something from history, but something people we know experienced.
At the end of the day, we always have to come back to our current day reality.
Three members from our group stayed on and joined me in experiencing the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow. A community that is enjoying life and continuing to grow, a prime example that no matter the past, we must keep going.
We witnessed survivors still in the community. Pani Zosia, a member who had little/no Jewish identity throughout communism, delivered the D’var Torah to the Friday night contingent of 100 people. Mundek also sang Yiddish songs that, with the exception of the last few years at the JCC, have not been heard in this area for over 70 years. Now, the whole community is familiar enough with them to join in.
At the end of our six days, I asked Harry what had kept him going throughout his ordeal, but the question had never entered his mind. Harry had to keep going, he had to do whatever it took to get through, just because.
This week with March of the Living was the most valuable week of education and reflection; much more meaningful than a holiday anywhere else. Next year you should join.