For the third year, March of the Living and Maccabi GB’s ongoing partnership provided a number of young professionals with the life changing opportunity of taking part in March of the Living 2017. This partnership’s mission is to challenge a new generation of young British Jews with one of the most significant events of Jewish history – the Holocaust. Through visiting many of the key places where events took place and sharing these experiences with Holocaust survivors who joined the trip, it also aims to create memories, leading to a revitalised commitment to Judaism, Israel and the Jewish People.
March of the Living is unique in its approach to visiting Poland, in that rather than just visiting the camps and seeing the death and destruction, it explores the rich and diverse Jewish history spanning 1000 years in Poland, because it is impossible to understand what was lost until we understand what was there before.
This year, three members of staff from Maccabi GB joined March of the Living UK on its largest delegation to date, and took part in the march. Below is a summary of their experience.
The day began with a visit to the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, where we visited the gravestones of a number of Jewish pioneers at the forefront of trying to shape Jewish life in Poland, culturally, religiously and politically. One such extraordinary individual was Janusz Korczak, a pioneer in education who set up the orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. He spearheaded the idea that children have their own agencies and are not simply the result of education given to them by adults. When given a choice to live, Korczak chose to follow his orphans into Treblinka because he did not want them to die alone or afraid, carrying out his demand for action even in his final moments. This monument stands in the cemetery, depicting him and ‘his children’ to honour his memory.
Next, we visited the Polin museum, which documents 1000 years of Polish Jewish history (the once largest Jewish community in the world) that preceded the Holocaust. The museum is in the centre of Warsaw and faces the monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, which is located in the middle of the square, where the Jews would have been rounded up by the Nazis. Polin contains eight galleries, starting from the first Jewish settlers in Poland in the 10th century and finishing with the post-war years, showing the revival of a small but dynamic Jewish community in Poland today. Here is a unique reconstruction of magnificent ceiling and Bimah of a 17th century wooden synagogue that was once located in Gwoździec.
We then visited the remaining wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, which was established in October 1940, and spanned an 11-mile radius. There were half a million Jews in Warsaw at the time, which made up 30% of the city's population, who were confined to 2.4% of the city's area. This meant severe overcrowding, leading to disease and the death of 4000-5000 Jews each month. We learned of the vibrant cultural Jewish life that continued in the Ghetto, despite such horrific circumstances. An uprising took place on the 19 April 1943, spearheaded by the youth in which 750 Jews used a small supply of weapons that had been smuggled into the ghetto to fight back against the Nazis. Although the Jews held out for nearly a month, the Germans slowly crushed the resistance. The Ghetto was liquidated on the eve of Pesach in 1943, where most Jews were sent to Majdanek, Poniatowa and Treblinka.
We spent the evening at the Warsaw JCC, where we heard from some young Jewish Poles about Jewish life in Warsaw today. They spoke of the revival of Jewish life both culturally and religiously and how their community is growing; they have over 500 members at the JCC and are hearing from new people every day who want to find out more about their heritage. They welcome anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent, as that was Hitler’s classification for defining a Jew during the Holocaust.