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March of the Living 2015

March of the Living 2015

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.

Harry and the group at Belzec
Harry and the group at Belzec

“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.

Shoes found at the camps after liberation
Shoes found at the camps after liberation

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.

Walking on the actual March
Walking on the actual March

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.

Auschwitz with the Chief Rabbi, Harry Olmer and Rabbi Gideon Sylvester
Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Chief Rabbi, Harry Olmer and Rabbi Gideon Sylvester

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.

March of the Living 2014 (The March) – UK Group – Day 6

March of the Living 2014 (The March) – UK Group – Day 6

Finally we took part in the March today in order to commemorate and remember the losses of the Holocaust; and just as importantly to show the world that we are still here. Just a short 3km walk from Auschwitz 1 to Birkenau with 12,000 other people, mostly Jews, was an incredible sight.

Walking through the gates of Auschwitz 1
Walking through the gates of Auschwitz 1

Many of the survivors completed the walk too which was amazing. Their determination, despite their age, to complete this act is a sure sign of revenge. To stand where the Nazis had tried to kill them just 70 years ago, but now freely walking out of the camp at the end of the day.

I am extremely glad that in our closing processing session that everyone seemed to get something out of the trip. They learnt something that will stick with them forever and will hopefully encourage their friends, family, and even strangers to go on a trip. It truly is valuable to visit and I encourage the reader, if they haven’t been yet, to try and make the journey. For those that have, remember your journey and how important it was.

The Ceremony at Birkenau
The Ceremony at Birkenau

We need to learn these lessons, and there is no better way to reinforce them by setting aside some time in your life to remember.

<< Day 5 – Auschwitz and Birkenau

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 5

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 5

Today we visited Auschwitz. This was my fourth visit to this camp but for many in my group it was their first. The expectations were set for this place to be the most intense on our trip and for many it was, including myself.

A lot of visitors exclaim how unbelievable it is, you can’t truly think that anyone would take part in such hideous crimes. A holocaust survivor on our tour mentioned that “this was the gas chamber I entered and managed to walk out of alive because of pure luck”.

Entrance to Auschwitz with the phrase: Arbeit Macht Frei - work will make you free (with the sadistic meaning of death)
Entrance to Auschwitz with the phrase: Arbeit Macht Frei – work will make you free (with the sadistic meaning of death)

Many people have asked why I keep coming back to a place like this. For me, I am still searching for some meaning in this horrible period of history. I find that each time I go, despite everything still being unbelievable, it becomes more believably unbelievable – if that makes any sense at all.

I genuinely can’t understand how the German Nazis could complete these disgusting actions, but I become less surprised by new revelations. The period of visiting gives me a time to reflect on my own life and inspires me to make sure I make the most of the opportunities I have.

One story that stands out from history, a survivor who documented his account fully after the liberation in many books for which he won many awards. However he succumb to his emotional wounds and killed himself in 1951. This idea than not only were people murdered in the camps mercilessly, but, should someone be lucky enough to survive, the damage lasted a lifetime.

This gave me an even deeper respect for the survivors, especially the ones I have met on this trip. I can only imagine giving up in their situation, and yet here they are today, walking beside us, teaching a new generation. This is an inspiration.

Gas chamber 2 at Auschwitz
Gas chamber 2 at Auschwitz

I noticed whilst walking through the gas chamber another group that seemed to be speed touring through the whole camp without much explanation of what they were witnessing and why they were there. Without a decent explanation of the site and no time for “processing” the overwhelming information, there is little meaning. The visit needs to be taken seriously.

There is much controversy over school children visiting from Poland, Germany and Israel for example. Suggesting that they could be too young at 15/16 to properly understand; in practise many kids will be messing around/not paying attention to the details and they may miss quite a lot. However, this age is the latest age that you have a state education to enforce everyone to visit. It is much better to get them to visit than to simply hope they will when they are older.

<< Day 4 – Shabbat in Kraków with survivors stories and the JCC     Day 6 – The March >>

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 3

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 3

Another incredibly intense day seeing so much history in such a short space of time.

Bełżec was the first death camp set up during the Nazi regime, close to the border with Ukraine. It was constructed in the middle of a huge forest, surrounded by tightly packed Nazi planted trees and with an extra layer of leaves on top to hide it from aerial view.

Unfortunately again this place has a sense that the Nazis won here. They closed down the camp, dismantled it and hid all evidence well before the war ended. They had killed all the Jews they wanted in this area and got away with it. Hundreds of thousands of them. They proved that their Final Solution could be accomplished. The next step for them was to bring in Jews and other undesirables from further afield to larger camps like Auschwitz.

The view of chaos from the top of Bełżec
The view of “chaos” from the top of the Bełżec memorial

Fortunately Rudolf Reder was one of less than a handful of survivors and has the best reported testimony. Backed up by workers testimonies this really was a tragic site.

Interestingly, none of these death camps were actually set up in Germany, all of them in Poland. This was shown to be completely deliberate, to try to push the German Nazi war crimes away by a physical distance to try to absolve themselves from responsibility should anyone find out at the time of even after the war. When they realised they were about to lose the war, they tried to hide all evidence – e.g. by blowing up the gas chambers at Auschwitz whilst escaping.

Unfortunately their idea of pushing away the blame also seems to have succeeded today; it is common to blame and hate all the Polish, when actually very many of the Poles were victims too. There were many collaborators, but also many opponents and righteous. Anger is better served to the intolerant, the anti-semitic, of which we know there are still far too many worldwide.

Train tracks from Treblinka put on display at Bełżec
Train tracks from Treblinka put on display at Bełżec

Moving on, we stopped at another rebuilt synagogue in a small town called Łańcut. The town population, mostly Jewish before the war, was completely erased here; to zero. As we entered, we had the most incredibly moving sight of some Israelli kids (probably late teenagers) singing loudly, screaming at the top of their voices. Their energy was felt from before we entered. We were hit with the same feeling of strength in the knowledge that we are still here today. Together we are still singing.

A long drive across the country to Kraków saw us stop just past Tarnów in a normal forest. Another, unfortunately familiar, merciless mass killing site exists here in a public park. 10,000 people, many of whom are Jews or just ordinary Poles are commemorated here. In one day, 1800 Jews were taken here and shot. One by one with a bullet to the top of the spine, the base of the neck, as trained on a dummy by a local doctor. Children first. The mothers were then walked past their slaughtered children before also being killed. Finally the husbands would walk past both piles to the same fate.

Another merciless execution site in the forests
Another merciless execution site in the forests

Nothing like this is excusable in any way yet no-one was punished for this site after the war despite the knowledge of who did it.

We solemnly made it to Kraków for a Shabbat service. Deeply meaningful and moving given the past few days. A welcome break to the historical sites and a great chance to reflect. After dinner, our processing session saw the most incredible comments from my group. The young-adults, all between 20 and 35, opened up with passionate personal stories about their family history and what it means to them to be standing where their grandparents or great-grandparents once were.

The first time I visited Auschwitz I felt an overwhelming need to return to London and convince my friends to go. Excuses were given: it’s too far, I can’t leave work, I don’t want to be upset. So far I have failed, almost none of my friends have visited since my initial trip because of my inspiration. I undertook a bike ride from London to Auschwitz in order to document it; this was my way to try and educate my friends who have not been.

I had a very powerful realisation in this processing session. The 30 or so people in my group; the ones who I met in Warsaw airport on Wednesday; those who I have had many a lengthy and deep conversation with; those who stood next to me as we have said Kaddish far too many times; those who visited and experienced Majdanek and Bełżec with me and felt the strength of our presence at these sites: these are my new friends. I can no longer feel that I am alone in my experience, because now I have many new friends who have visited with me.

<< Day 2 – Majdanek         Day 4 – Shabbat in Kraków with survivors stories and the JCC >>

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 2

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 2

Today was a very long and difficult day. We visited the Majdanek death camp which was the most moving place I have been to.

To many of the group, it was their first visit to any sort of physical camp of this nature. Initial reactions from the main memorial overlooking the whole camp was that it was a lot smaller than they thought it would be. Several hours of walking later, they realised how big it actually was.

The camp sits in the middle of a field overlooked by a large monument. The camp always sat in an open area and on the top edge of a hill that can be seen for miles in all directions. The victims at the time walked the short distance from the drop off point to the front gates. The purpose of the camp was solely as a solution to the Jewish Problem by means of death. The majority of those arriving would not leave the first building. The initial gas chambers were just inside the gate because the Nazis wanted to get rid of them immediately. All women, children and the elderly were, without mercy, sent to their deaths here – after being shaved and undressed, humiliated for the SS soldiers to see as they poured cyclone-b into the chamber.

The Large Monument Overlooking Majdanek
The Large Monument Overlooking Majdanek

The crematorium is almost a thirty minute walk away at the other end of the camp, up the hill if you go directly. Inmates were forced to push their deceased comrades in carts up this hill for burning.

Currently the camp resides with many buildings surrounding it close by. Supposedly a lot of these buildings were not there at the time, but several accounts recall many being able to see the camp from houses.

Majdanek has a sad and horrible end. It feels as if the Nazis really won in this place. Many hundreds of thousands were killed here and when there were just 18,000 Jews left in the camp with no plans to bring anymore, they took them out to a hill and shot them all. This act was very common in many places in this part of the world, but it means to me that the Nazis were done here. They had killed the Jews they wanted to and this was the final Jewish torment.

The Crematorium
The Crematorium

Following this event in November 43, the camp was used as a POW camp by the Nazis.

A large mound of human ash is left as the final reminder. We said Kaddish (a memorial prayer) together in the group and reflected on this place. Extremely emotional.

The Pile of Ashes and the Crematorium
The Pile of Ashes and the Crematorium

To end the day we visited a rebuilt synagogue in Zamość. A town that was half Jewish before the war and only 3 now identify themselves as Jewish. Far too familiar a story in this part of the world. The synagogue will not be used for formal services, but will exist as a reminder of what was here before.

We finished with our “processing” discussion which was very interesting. Everyone always takes a different thing from their visit, some feel angry at the Poles, some feel confused by the whole thing. The overwhelming theme that I think we all agree on is the value of visiting here. To stand next to a place where “they” tried to extinguish Jewish life. Standing here is an act, an act to say fuck you to the ideals of the Nazi regime. We are still here.

<< Day 1 – Warsaw Ghetto and Uprising            Day 3 – Bełżec >>

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 >>