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March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 1

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 1

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.

Broken headstones that had been returned to the Cemetery
Broken headstones that had been returned to the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

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.

The Rapoport Monument, on one side a sign of the uprising, on the other, a view of the inevitable death they went to
The Rapoport Monument, on one side a sign of the uprising, on the other, a view of the inevitable death they went to

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.

Day 2 – Majdanek >>

London to Auschwitz, Day 20: Rest Day in Prague to visit Terezin Concentration Camp

London to Auschwitz, Day 20: Rest Day in Prague to visit Terezin Concentration Camp

Less than an hour drive from Prague was a concentration camp for the Jews and other prisoners of the Nazi regime. The Nazi’s expelled the 7,000 Czechs from the town in November 1941 and took over the fortress that was built in 1780 to use as a prison. They also created another larger ghetto in the main town for the Jews to be sent.

Gavrilo Princip, the one who assassinated Franz Ferdinand in 1914 kicking off WWI was a prisoner of the smaller camp here.

Star of David Memorial outside of the Terezin Camp
Star of David Memorial outside of the Terezin Camp

Approximately 180,000 people passed through this transit camp before being sent to one of the extermination camps such as Auschwitz where I will be next Wednesday. It is estimated that 40,000 of the prisoners perished here due to malnourishment and awful living conditions. The rest were sent on to be killed at the extermination camps. They were also forced to work whilst there were inmates waiting for transit.

"Work will set you free" above the entrance to the camp
“Work will set you free” above the entrance to the camp

The sign at the entrance to all of the camps reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “Work will set you free”.

At the smaller camp in the fortress there were just 7,000 at one time but no where near the space to house them all. 90 would share a room of three rows of bunk beds packed in together. No pillows or duvets, just hard wood slats and barely enough space to lie still.

During the winter it gets very cold here: temperatures dropping to -20 degrees Celsius, yet new inmates again would be left out naked in the cold for potentially hours until being given their one thin uniform to wear. They would hand over all their possessions that would be sold or taken by the guards.

Roll call was another part of daily life here as it was in Flossenberg and other camps. One story mentions a punishment, an “Appel”, of the inmates having to stand in roll call for 19 hours straight where 600 died from the cold conditions.

One sink was there for a room of 90 inmates, but no tap and only a small bowl of reused water
One sink was there for a room of 90 inmates, but no tap and only a small bowl of reused water

Inside the room for 90 people was one toilet (normally a bucket) and a small bowl of water that would rarely get replaced. Hygiene was therefore a serious problem with many contracting disgusting diseases and dying from them. The prisoners only had one set of clothes that were never washed – just rarely disinfected. There were no medical treatments to any inmates who got sick.

There were also punishment rooms where people would be sent to stand until the next transport to an extermination camp. Sometimes this would be days or even weeks. There was almost no chance of survival as if you sat down the guards were to take you out and shoot you. These rooms had no light, no toilet, no food. Even if you survived here you would be sent to extermination.

The shower room where 100 people had 10 minutes to shower and only the first 400 got warm water before being shoved outside in the cold to change
The shower room where 100 people had 10 minutes to shower and only the first 400 got warm water before being shoved outside in the cold to change

Occasionally there was a chance for a shower whereby the prisoners would wait in line outside for hours in order to get 10 minutes inside a crowded shower with water that was likely not heated. They would disinfect their clothes whilst showering leaving them damp; after they would have to put these clothes on outside whilst still damp and no doubt cold.

The capacity for cremation was 180 a day, but they couldn’t keep up with the number of bodies they had so they had to start burying them out in the fields past the walls.

The nicer washroom that were only presented to the red cross to show the world how good the conditions were but nver actually used and so still in tact
The nicer washroom that were only presented to the red cross to show the world how good the conditions were but nver actually used and so still in tact

The Red Cross got a chance to visit later in the war and were shown a brand new wash room that was separately created as propaganda; it was never actually used by the inmates. Other propaganda films of the Jewish ghetto showed people playing football and having a good time with the idea that they were governing themselves.

A memorial sculpture that was created by a victims family member
A memorial sculpture that was created by a victims family member

Part of the camp had some conker trees which are dropping at this time of year. The guide informed us of this and made sure we didn’t walk under it should anyone get hit in the head. This is an exact piece of health and safety that we have today that we take for granted that just wasn’t even comprehensible in these camps. This is just one example that makes the idea of these harsh conditions so overwhelming to me personally.

The swimming pool that was just outside the prison and used by the gestapo and their families, but it was used as propaganda to show the world that the inmates had a good time
The swimming pool that was just outside the prison and used by the gestapo and their families, but it was used as propaganda to show the world that the inmates had a good time

Another piece of propaganda was a swimming pool and tennis court that the soldiers were allowed to use but of course the inmates were never allowed to even see it. Yet the world was told they were able to use it.

A survivor returned to the camp years ago and told of his story. He was a vet that helped to look after the Gestapo dogs; he managed to eat some of the meat dog food as they didn’t get meat in the camp. This allowed him to survive as the food was totally impossible to survive off. To save costs the Nazi gave bread that was flour mixed with sawdust.

The castle of Theresienstadt has over 55km of tunnels to help the residents of the fortress escape should there be an attack. These were closed off by the Nazi's for fear of exactly that.
The castle of Theresienstadt has over 55km of tunnels to help the residents of the fortress escape should there be an attack. These were closed off by the Nazi’s for fear of exactly that.

Finally we walked through some of the escape tunnels that were closed off during the Nazi occupation. These tunnels were an incredible feat of infrastructure in the 1700s. Recently 2 Danish students jumped the barriers and tried to explore the tunnels but got lost. It took 120 people 20 hours to find them and get them out safely. There are over 55 kilometres of paths to take down there. Coming out of them we arrived at the shooting range where the Nazi’s would gun down political prisoners sent to execution and stocks where Jews would be sent.

I read in the news today that there are several Nazi supporting activists in the world still. The idea that anti-semitism is all in the past is definitely not true.

Tomorrow will see a proper rest day for me so don’t expect another post until Sunday! Shabbat Shalom.

DAY 22, PRAGUE TO ÚSTÍ NAD ORLICÍ, 155KM TODAY, 1935KM TOTAL >>