In the fourth year of our partnership with March of the Living UK, a group of Maccabi GB staff members and young professionals participated in the trip. Each day of the trip was filled with tours to various sites that were significant to Polish Jewry over the past one thousand years and to the many people who suffered at the hand of the Nazis during the Holocaust. With the guidance of the excellent educators and holocaust survivors, we were able to learn, experience and discuss a plethora of themes. The themes of the conversations really helped to form connections between each site, with discussions facilitated by our wonderful educator Miryam Holtzman, who provided superb knowledge and expertise throughout the trip.
Day One: Modern Jewish Dilemma
The first stop on the trip was the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. We visited a number of gravestones belonging to influential members of Polish Jewish society, one of whom was Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof’s, the creator of the Esperanto language. Here we talked about nationalism and religion and whether either one was more important. Esperanto is just one example of how members of the Jewish religion adapted and integrated into their communities whilst developing their Jewish identity. We had various discussions in the cemetery, which brought us to the conclusion that being able to adapt is one of the necessities for keeping a Jewish community afloat and unite us during times of persecution. As we meandered through the overgrown cemetery in conversation about symbolism, affluence and ethics, we stopped overlooking a mass grave where people who died in the Warsaw ghetto were buried. Yvie Curtis, Maccabi GB’s youth engagement manager, read an emotional, thought provoking passage that allowed us to empathise with those suffering inside the ghetto. This was a vital first destination for us, as it beautifully framed our understanding of how vibrant Jewish life in Poland was throughout the thousand years prior to Nazi persecution.
Our next stop was to the Polin Musuem; established in 2013 and located in the heart of Warsaw. The exhibitions in the museum took us on a journey through one thousand years of vibrant Jewish history, which helped to build a picture in our minds of what Jewish life looked like and the relationship between the religious and secular communities. The highlight of the museum was seeing a reconstruction of the stunning ceiling and bimah that was originally located in Gwozdziec, now Ukraine.
Afterwards, we walked around the area where the Warsaw Ghetto was, where 30% of the population was constricted to 2.3% of the city’s land. We learned about the terrible conditions in which people were forced to live but also about the courageous acts of resistance that occurred despite the dire circumstances. Visiting the site of Mila-18 and hearing the inspirational story of the Warsaw Uprising was incredibly moving.
That evening, the members of the young professional bus were lucky to have the opportunity to visit the Warsaw JCC where we had the chance to sit with young Jewish people living in Poland today and have interesting discussions about the differences and similarities in our expression of Jewish identity. Many young Jewish people living in Poland do not find out about their Jewish heritage until around the age of 10 or 11 as it is something that is often concealed. It was really interesting to talk to these students and gain a greater understanding of what it is like to be Jewish in Poland today.
Day Two: The Nazi Code
The theme of the second day was Nazi code of conduct; looking at the complexities, intricacies and unique workings of the Nazi regime. We travelled to Lublin in the morning where we walked around a once affluent area, home to many key commanders and Nazi headquarters. We discussed the hierarchical nature of the Nazi party, and the strong levels of competition that was instilled into the different factions of the party including the SS, the SA and the SD.
In the afternoon we travelled to Majdanek, our first difficult visit to a death camp. This was one of the six death camps built by the Nazis and was left in almost pristine condition when it was liberated by the soviets in 1944. In eerie and bleak conditions, we walked around the barracks and ended our visit in the crematorium which was very upsetting to see it still intact. In one of the barracks we saw the bunks where the inmates would have slept and Agnes, the Holocaust survivor who accompanied our bus, shared her story of her time sleeping in the barracks. Hearing her story, made what we were seeing incredibly vivid. The exact number of people who died in Majdanek is unknown but it is thought to be in the region of 50,000-300,000 people, mainly Jewish. Seeing the close proximity of civilian houses to the camp led to an interesting conversation about the act of a bystander. We felt motivated and invigorated after this conversation to act upon issues and stand up for others even if they are not part of our own community. Upon arrival in the hotel, we had an evening processing session which provided an opportunity for us to discuss our thoughts and feelings from the day and try to digest the heavy content.
Day Three: The making and breaking of communities
We started the morning of the third day by visiting Belzec, one of three purpose built death camps of the Reinhard Operation, alongside Treblinka and Sobibor. Unlike Majdenk, Belzec was completely destroyed, and in its place is a poignant memorial. We had a chance to walk through the memorial on our own in silence, a very powerful and moving experience as the walls rose up on either side. We were met with the rest of the UK delegation and survivor Harry Olmer. Harry’s mother, grandmother and sisters sadly all perished in Belzec and we paused to say Kaddish for them, and Harry lit candles in their memory.
After, we visited the mass graves in the forest of Tarnow. Our bus member Amy sang a chilling but beautiful rendition of a song in Yiddish by the children’s grave. Here we took a moment to light our Yellow Candles in memory of an individual who died in the Holocaust. This project, newly managed by Maccabi GB, partnered with March of the Living UK so every participant was given a candle to light.
We then travelled to Krakow, our final destination on the trip. We walked around the old Jewish quarter of Krakow which felt refreshing and hopeful, as a resurgence of vibrant Jewish life was evident. We visited a beautiful synagogue where we had an interesting discussion about the viability of Judaism as a religion if it does not adapt to the changing times of society.
Later in the hotel, we heard from Harry Olmer who shared his unimaginable story of his experience during the Holocaust. It was very special hearing this story in an intimate setting of just our bus group. The conversations and experiences we had leading up to now made this story even more poignant.
Day Four: The making and breaking of people
The fourth day of the trip was undoubtedly the hardest of the trip with a harrowing visit to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau where at least 1.1 million prisoners died. The day began with a powerful talk from Arek Hersh, an Auschwitz survivor in one the bunks. Hearing first hand of his experience was incredibly emotional and his observation that when he was there, there was not a single blade of grass, made his story all the more chilling and poignant. We visited the area which was nicknamed ‘Canada’ where the confiscated belongings of the prisoners were taken. We heard about the unbelievable acts of bravery of inmates smuggling items from ‘Canada’ in order to improve the everyday lives of their fellow campmates.
In the afternoon we travelled to Auschwitz I, where many of the buildings have now been converted into a museum. Hearing about the atrocities committed by those such as Mengele, Himmler and Rudolf Hess was difficult to comprehend. The day ended at one of the gas chambers that was not destroyed by the Nazis due to their attempt at concealment.
This day was incredibly difficult, but also a pivotal moment for our already supportive group. That evening, we met with the rest of the UK delegation in the Jewish Quarter for a Yom Hashoah ceremony. The atmosphere was positive and uplifting, which was necessary after such a heavy day. We heard from March of the Living UK founder Scott Saunders, along with other speakers, which were beautifully broken up by musical interventions from members of the RSY Netzer Youth Movement. Alongside the survivors we lit a Yellow Candle each in memory of an individual.
Day Five: Resistance and Uprising
The theme of the last day was resistance and uprising and before heading back to Auschwitz we walked around Krakow hearing amazing stories of uprisings that occurred within the Ghetto. One story that stuck out to us was of members belonging to a youth movement in the ghettos who rallied together to create an explosion, killing 11 Nazis in a café. These stories left us thinking of the extremes people were, arguably, forced to take and left us feeling inspired by the demonstrations of selflessness and comradery.
The last day of the trip coincided with Yom Hashoah and was an incredibly special day. We were joined by 11,000 other people from around the world to walk from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II-Birkenau; The March of the Living. A particularly touching and emotional moment we all felt occurred at the beginning of the march where the Maccabi GB Delegation were brought to march just behind the survivors due to our encouragement to get people to sing. Many people from the different delegations joined in, uniting us even more. As we saw the gates of Auschwitz ahead, we all sang ‘Od Yavosh Shalom Eleinu’ as we walked through. It was then met with silence, allowing each person to reflect on the many people who had not been able to walk out free. The march ended with a ceremony with inspirational speakers from all over the world. We felt proud of our Jewish heritage and meeting so many other Jewish people from around the world filled the void from the previous days with hope, laughter and community. We had our last processing session that evening where we wrote letters and commitments to ourselves to revisit in a years’ time. Pausing for a moment’s reflection allowed us to think about what we had learnt and what we were going to take away from this trip with us.
To conclude it is important to say that our experience of MOTL continues after we leave Poland. The physical and emotional journey we took part in, perfectly set us up for deep, thought-provoking conversations. Whether or not you start with an understanding the importance of the trip, you certainly leave not only with a wealth of knowledge from the incredible educators, but a depth of empathy and emotion from spending time listening to the people who survived the holocaust. Learning about the cultivated and well seasoned structures the Nazis put in place heightened the already important messages of resistance, upstanding, community, hope and education. The March in itself, is a stark realisation of the magnitude of the Holocaust; with 11,000 people taking part, the sea of blue shirts marching between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, only highlights the unimaginable experience of those who died during the Holocaust. A trip like March of the Living stresses the dangers of dehumanisation, the tearing apart communities and trading humanity for hate.
The work we do at Maccabi GB and through our Streetwise and Stand Up! projects is an integral part of many schools’ education on Antisemitism and discrimination. This educational trip allowed us to learn, experience and develop an in-depth understanding of the history of Polish Jewry and the Holocaust; as a result, we believe that our programmes and presentations will be deeply enhanced, allowing us to convey to our students the lessons we have learnt on March of the Living.