In 2016, two Maccabi GB staff members took part in March of the Living; this is an excerpt from their travel blog:
Today was a very long and intense day. We met all the other bus participants at the airport at 5:30 am and arrived in Warsaw, Poland at lunch time. Our first visit was to the remaining wall of the famous Warsaw Ghetto. Our bus educator told us how Warsaw’s pre-war Jewish population of nearly 400,000 Jews made up approximately one-third of the city’s total. In October 1939, the German occupiers, enacted anti-Jewish measures such as the wearing of a Jewish star; the construction of the ghetto walls began soon after. Over thirty percent of the city’s population was ordered to confine themselves into a ghetto measuring only two square miles, along with other Jews deported from Western Europe. German and Polish police guarded its gates and a Jewish militia was formed to police the inside. More than half a million people were living inside the ghetto, but community life flourished despite the horrendous living conditions. Schools, Yeshivot, hospitals, and orphanages were established and over 150 publications were printed and distributed within the ghetto. Despite this, thousands of Jews died from mass illness such as typhoid and hunger and the streets were filled with corpses.
In the summer of 1942, about 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to the death camp of Treblinka. Stories of the atrocities that were taking place in Treblinka found their way back to the ghetto and this inspired some surviving Jews to form an uprising. On April 19, 1943, seven hundred and fifty fighters fought the heavily armed and well-trained German army, using a small supply of weapons that had been smuggled into the ghetto. The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month, but eventually the revolt ended and the Germans slowly crushed the resistance. Out of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to camps.
The single wall that remains today has become a memorial site for those who lived there and perished at the hands of the Nazis. It is surrounded by residential housing that would have been there at the time of the ghetto, which sparked interesting conversations about the Polish bystanders of the war and how they would have seen the ghetto from the outside.
In the afternoon we went to visit Polin, the first and only museum dedicated to restoring the memory of the thousand-year history of Polish Jews; the museum celebrates the once largest Jewish community in the world that was almost entirely destroyed during the Holocaust. There are eight main galleries, which include interactive installations and paintings, as well as virtual testimonies, which have been created by more than 120 scholars and curators. One particularly striking item is a replica of the roof and ceiling of a 17th-century Gwoździec synagogue.
The museum is located in the centre of Warsaw and faces the monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, which is located in the middle of the square. This is where the Jews would have been rounded up before being deported. We had some interesting discussions about the museum exhibits and about the scale of culture and history that had been lost in the Holocaust.
Finally, towards the end of the first day, we visited the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw; this was just outside the ghetto walls and was the final resting place of many heroic and brave individuals. We stopped at a number of gravestones to hear of the stories of those who rested there, such as that of Janusz Korczak who was the director of the Jewish orphanage in the ghetto. He chose to accompany the children he cared for when they were deported and a monument stands in the cemetery, depicting him and ‘his children’ to honour his memory. Our educator told us of the many children who became couriers and smugglers, escaping the ghetto at night and hiding in between gravestones to bring in food and weapons.
By this point we are tired, dazed and full of questions; we will only get a few hours’ sleep tonight before another long day tomorrow, where we will visit Majdanek extermination camp, which we know will be an overwhelming and emotional experience.
The second day of the trip began with a visit to a small town called Kazimierz Dolney; a town whose population was 60% Jewish before the war. Jews and Poles had lived there together for centuries and traditions (such as Challah bread) have remained until today. Needless to say, the Jews of the village were all deported to Concentration Camps.
In the afternoon, we visited Majdanek extermination camp, which was a stark, raw, indescribable experience. The visit began with seeing the gas chambers, followed by a two hour walk through the camp. It is very difficult to describe how the room full of shoes and bunk beds contrasted against the sunny sky, green grass and wild deer that were running through the adjacent fields. We often think of these camps in black and white, however the reality of what it must have been like is now even more daunting. The visit finished with the crematoria and a large monument; a mausoleum which hosts the ashes of over 18,000 Jews who died there.
We then moved on to a place of joy; a Chassidic yeshiva founded in 1930 in Lublin. We heard of the amazing story behind it, and learnt a short piece of text in the chavruta fashion.
In the evening, we listened to Renee, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, who told her story with incredible strength, and inspired us - in her own words - to live our lives to the fullest.
The third day of our trip is just as moving as the previous two; visiting these treacherous places has a huge impact on the individuals and the group as a whole; we are bonding and learning how each individual internalises and experiences the learning in a different way.
In the morning we visited Belzec, a Death Camp where over 600,000 Jews from over 200 communities were simply brought to die. Belzec was only operational for 10 months in 1942-43 and was a symbol of the success of Nazi policy. The camp was closed and destroyed in June 1943 and unlike many of the other camps, nothing remains there. Even the mass graves were dug up and reduced to ash leaving no trace of the millenary tradition of Polish Jewry. Today, Belzec is a huge monument, with black rubble, encircled by the names of all the towns from which the Jews were deported. It is a truly powerful memorial.
Later in the afternoon, we visited a site of mass murder of Poles and Jews in a forest, close to Krakow. We recited Kaddish with one of our guests, a Holocaust survivor called Arek, in front of a mass grave of Jewish Children. This was followed by a group conversation about the role of perpetrators, where we read excerpts from Browning’s book ‘Ordinary Men’ and analysed the process which took normal police men to becoming mass-murderers. Through a series of psychological experiments, scientists have attempted to explain this transition, with no clear conclusion. Today, we cannot understand how so many Germans became killers and perpetrated these hideous crimes.
That night, we arrived at Krakow and paid a visit to the Jewish Community Centre, where we listened to another survivor, Eve, and then met young members and volunteers from the JCC. The evening had a clear message: the Holocaust erased Jewish life in Krakow, but today, a strong, passionate revival of culture, learning and tradition is a testimony to the message of 'Am Israel Chai'.
Today we started our tour at the Krakow ghetto, where in 1942, 15,000 Jews were forced relocate to abandoning their homes and belongings and moving to a poor area south of the river. We heard of the many stories of defiance that took place within the Krakow ghetto, which only survived until its liquidation, in 1943.
Before lunch we left for the first visit of Auschwitz-Birkenau. With huge trepidation and anxiety, we arrived at Auschwitz I, a well preserved concentration and death camp; we walked through the lines of barbed wire and through the famous gate, with the writing ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’- ‘work sets you free’. With 28 barracks still standing, the museum in Auschwitz I tells the story of the people that went through the camp, from the first prisoners of war; Russians, Poles, Slavs, to the over 1 million Jews who perished there, and at Auschwitz II – Birkenau. With entire rooms full of shoes, brushes, pots, hair; the museum only represents a miniscule part of the unfathomable tragedy that took place here. Barrack after barrack, standing tall at two stories high, we saw the bunk beds, latrines, washrooms, prisons. We saw the room where Zyclon B was first tested and where for the first time it was scientifically proven, that it would take 7.5kg of this chemical to effectively murder 2,000 Jews in approximately 15 minutes. At the end of the museum, stands the only remaining gas chamber and crematorium.
Auschwitz II - Birkenau is very different. We walk through the ‘gates of hell’, the famous long building with train tracks that disappear into the distance. Where Auschwitz I was a labour camp, Birkenau was a death camp for Jews only. Everything here was built to be a systematic, calculated, perfectly planned killing machine, able to murder over 6,000 Jews in every gas chamber. Over 1.2 million Jews were killed here.
The trains would stop on the tracks, men on the left, women and children on the right. Everybody went through a selection by Mengele, the camp's doctor. The elderly and children were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Jews who were strong enough to work, or to be experimented on, were sent to the ‘Sauna’, a sterilizing facility at the far end of the camp. Here, Jews were stripped of all their belongings, clothing, hair and names; they were washed, sterilized and tattooed with a number. This number would be their only defining symbol going forward.
The ones that passed the selection, were forced to work for over 12 hours a day, surviving on a diet of just 1000 calories per day. Living conditions were atrocious; there was no sanitation, no heating, no clean water or clothing. Very few Jews survived and upon liberation on January 27th 1945, only 7,000 people were left. The others had been sent on death marches and had ended up in other camps; most died along the way.
Before we left Auschwitz II - Birkenau, we had a short, self-organised Tekkes (Memorial Service), where we read a few poems, recited ‘El Maleh' Rahamim’ and the Shema, and then lit a memorial candle, while reflecting on our experiences. Each person experiences Auschwitz in a different way, this is why it is so important to visit, learn, and educate others. Tomorrow afternoon, we will come back to Auschwitz for The March of the Living. It will bring together over 11,000 Jews and non-Jews to march from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II - Birkenau, remembering the millions who perished; It will be a celebration of Jewish Life, while remembering the message of ‘Never Again’.
On the last day of the trip we took part in the March of the Living, the culmination of our journey. It was a surreal experience, evoking mixed emotions within our group.
At midday, we were taken to the barracks of Auschwitz I, the meeting point for all the participants to begin the march. It felt strange returning back, as we had been there only the day before; however, unlike the sombreness of our previous visit, we arrived to a scene that resembled a teenager’s summer camp. There were thousands of people milling around on the paths and grass areas between the barracks; singing, chanting and waving flags to represent their respective countries or organisations. People were smiling, happy to be there and proud to represent the more than one million people, men, women, and children, who were murdered in that place.
After waiting around for over an hour, we finally set off on the three kilometre march. We walked under the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign once again, mingling with other groups, talking to strangers and trading MOTL merchandise with Jews from all over the world. A mixture of sunshine and light showers set the tone for the mixed emotions that the march and the following ceremony will arouse in the participants. Chants of ‘Am Israel Chai’ were sung loudly and proudly by the marchers; people were taking pictures and mingling with strangers and friends.
We arrived at Auschwitz II – Birkenau and were greeted by music on the loudspeakers. Thousands of marchers made their way into the camp, alongside the train tracks we had seen the day before. This time, Israeli flags were everywhere, candles and letters all over the tracks. The sun broke through the clouds, casting a light over the camp, highlighting the sheer number of people who had gathered. The ceremony had already started and lasted for around two hours, with speeches from survivors, the families of survivors, the Israeli Justice Minister and a number of other high profile personalities. The ceremony concluded with the lighting of six huge flames, and the singing of the Hatikva, which was sung in unison loudly by 11,000 people. The message that prevailed was ‘never again’.
On the way back to the hotel, we shared our thoughts about the ceremony and the week we spent together, travelling through Poland. Young adults from all walks of life, a historian, a lawyer, youth workers, community workers, doctors and photographers, all contributed their personal learning, to that of the group, and all agreed with the importance of passing on the message, educating and sharing our experience with others.
We thanked the Holocaust survivors who joined us through the trip for making the whole experience so much more meaningful. We thanked them for sharing their stories so fearlessly and courageously, and promised that we would tell everyone about what we learnt from them.
It is clear from the March of the Living that it doesn’t matter how much you read, how much you study, or even how many films and documentaries you watch on the topic of the Holocaust. Without visiting the sites it is nearly impossible to comprehend the scale of the tragedy that took place.
Mourning the six million Jews and other victims of the Nazi atrocities is not enough; it is not sufficient to honour their memories. Seeing the towns where they lived and were taken from, the rich culture and history that was left behind, the barracks where they slept, the hair that was shaved off their head, the shoes that were taken off their feet and the gas chambers where they were murdered, contributes only a small amount to understanding the immense scale of loss and tragedy that befell our people 71 years ago. Never have I felt more proud to be Jewish and to declare the words ‘Am Israel Chai’.