March of the Living is an annual commemorative walk from Auschwitz 1 to Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland. It’s main purpose (in my view) is to show the world that we (“the Jews”) are still here. The much longer death marches took place in 1945 when the Nazis knew the Russians were close; the purpose then was to remove the Jews from the death camps. Many died on these marches and we march to show that we are still here.
The march has been going for more than 25 years now and this is the 5th Year there has been an official UK delegation, of which there are 200 of us. This trip is not just about the walk, but a week trip to educate the participants about the holocaust as we tour Poland’s historical sites, from the Warsaw ghetto down past Lublin to Majdanek, on to Bełżec and ending in Auschwitz after a visit to Kraków.
Since I have been living in Katowice, Poland for 6 months now I only had to make a short haul internal flight to Warsaw to meet the group. Keen, I got there at 9am and greeted the first groups that came through. A mixture of novices to the holocaust, to people who had even been on the trip before many times.
A strange moment occurred, still in the airport, when a man with a security lanyard came to our group and tried to usher us upstairs and outside. An unfortunate situation with a mainly Jewish group visiting Poland for the purpose of Holocaust learning, being ordered sternly by a foreigner. I (and many others in our group) immediately questioned his credentials as he seemed keen on ushering just the March of the Living Group and not anyone else. He responded with: “it’s an emergency, please go outside”. I, along with many, stood our ground and waited for a proper authority who seemed to suggest we go to the coaches anyway.
Half an hour later, still waiting for my coach group to come through baggage reclaim, there was a realisation of whatever emergency there was and the whole airport was shut down. No-one moving in or out, and the group I was waiting for was still in baggage reclaim. An unfortunate situation but after some patience (and two hours) we continued our journey to the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.
The cemetery is filled with many famous Jewish people from before and during the war. The man Korczak ran an orphanage who was given a free pass to leave Poland, but wanted to stay with his children. He was forced to march to his death with them. The man, Zamenhof, who created the language Esperanto to try and alleviate the issues with poor communication is also buried here. There are many more stories, but unfortunately a mass grave is left to commemorate the memory of so many who couldn’t be buried because of space.
We went on to visit a part of the Jewish Ghetto wall and learnt of the stories of the uprising in the ghetto. Following a walking path around where the old ghetto used to be, we saw where the Jews, who knew their fate, decided to stand up and fight back, giving their lives to the uprising in the hope to get some revenge on the inevitable.
We finished with the monument outside of the Museum of Jewish Life, in front of the two sided Rapoport sculpture. We had an interesting discussion about whether it was right to have a memorial day on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, or on the 27th April, the anniversary of the Ghetto uprising in Warsaw.
One represents commemorating the death from the period, e.g. in death camps like Auschwitz; the other representing the fighting spirit of the uprising attempts, e.g. the Warsaw uprising. I contributed to the discussion, saying that there is a time for both and we must not forget the importance of either.
After dinner and “processing” (where we talk about our experiences from the day) I had a good one-on-one chat with the survivor who accompanies our group – Eve. She reminded me there is no quantity to suffering; I reminded her that the most valuable thing that one can do is to educate others, as she is so rightly doing. We thanked each other and wished each other a good night sleep ahead of a long journey to Majdanek tomorrow.