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Reflections from March of the Living 2024

In May 2024, Ashely, Jodie, Karl and Mohammed took part in the March of the Living trip and ceremony. Please see some of the group’s reflections below:


Ashley


Being part of March of the Living UK was an extraordinary journey. The word "journey" is deliberate, as Scott Saunders, the MOTL UK founder and chair, emphasised during our orientation that this trip would be an individual journey for each of us.


It was a journey through the mass slaughter of our Jewish ancestors; a journey to remember the unique, heart-wrenching stories of individuals rather than simply the six million; a journey to learn about the thousand years of rich and vibrant Jewish life in Poland before the Shoah; and a journey to witness how the Jewish community in Poland, particularly in Krakow, has risen from the ashes of destruction to build a bright future.


I was exceptionally fortunate to share this journey with an incredible group of people, including a Jewish studies teacher, second-generation survivor and Royal Marine veterans. We viewed our experiences through each other's lenses, enriching our understanding.

Ashley, Mohammed, Jodie & Karl

The greatest privilege was to be among and hear from Shoah survivors. Their stories were both heartbreaking and inspiring. We owe them a profound debt for returning to the scenes of unimaginable horror to ensure we never forget.


This message is a journey I will continue. I am committed, through my organisation, my friends, my family, and everyone I meet, to ensure that we never forget and that we pledge "never again." No matter how difficult things may seem, we must strive to live as proud and strong Jewish people, combating all forms of prejudice and discrimination wherever we encounter them. These are not just words; this must be a commitment we uphold, especially when our sacred survivors will at some point no longer be with us.


Karl


Upon arriving in Warsaw, our first stop in was to the Jewish cemetery. Whilst walking through the enormous grounds where over 250,000 Jews are buried, we stopped at a number of different graves to discuss those commemorated by the gravestones and what they represented. 


One of the graves we stopped at was that of Marek Edelman, leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and Bundist, a party centring on Judaism, socialism, and the Yiddish language. For me, Edelman represents rebellion, a theme that can be traced consistently throughout the history of our people. Edelman was a rebel in his ideological and political persuasions but more so in his role as ghetto upriser, inspiring Jews to fight back against the Nazis when any rebellion at all seemed outside the realms of possibility. 


The last grave we visited was that of Adam Czerniaków, who was appointed the head of the Judenrat, the Jewish council instituted in Ghettos by the Nazis to control and regulate the population in the Warsaw Ghetto. Here we faced a dilemma, as our tour guide told us how Czerniaków was tasked with managing the movement of Jews from the Ghetto to the umschlagplatz where they were due to be deported to concentration camps. As the numbers of deportees became overwhelming for Czerniaków, who knew what fait awaited these Jews, he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule. As we heard Czerniaków’s story, the group struggled to contend with this impossible choice. This was when Alfred Garwood, the survivor accompanying us shared his thoughts. Alfred spoke about how we couldn’t possibly understand the dilemmas Czerniaków faced. Instantly it dawned on me that I had judged Czerniaków and his actions prematurely.


How could I even begin to imagine the choices he made to survive, our ‘desire to live’, as Alfred put it, is incomprehensible. As I write this now it seems blatant that the choices made by those facing the relentless persecution of the Nazis are inconceivable to me. This morning however, I needed reminding that every choice we make is dependent on the world in which we are making those choices and in Czerniaków’s world, what choice did he really have? The idea of choiceless choices was reflected back through many testimonies we heard throughout the trip.


Mohammed


On Friday, we visited Belzec extermination camp. Belzec operated between March-December 1942, during which time over 450,000 Jews were murdered there. After the camp ceased to function, the Nazis destroyed the facilities there. The modern memorial site is created out of the rubble. Even at first site, Belzec made a profound impression on the group. The average life expectancy upon arriving at Belzec was just 90 minutes.


The group walked through the memorial. The path had a sloped downward effect, giving a sense of being swallowed up by the ground. At the end, the names of the murdered were engraved into the wall. As we walked around the site, looking at the dates and towns named all around, representing the destruction of the Jewish communities in those places, many of us felt overwhelmed with emotion.

We then left for Markowa. There, we visited a museum that is dedicated to the Ulma Family, who bravely hid and sheltered 8 Jewish people for over a year, at enormous risk to their own lives. Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were awarded the Righteous Among the Nations Medal by Yad Vashem Institute in Israel postmortem in 1995. This is the first museum devoted entirely to non-Jewish Poles who saved Jews during the war.


Historical records indicate that over 7,000 non-Jewish individuals within Poland courageously aided their Jewish compatriots, recognizing the imperative to offer support despite overwhelming obstacles. The museum serves as a custodian of historical events pertaining to the Jewish and other Polish communities in this region.


The group reconvened in front of the museum to deliberate on the actions required to provide shelter and save lives during a time of such upheaval and danger.

 

Jodie


On Yom Hashoah, the March of the Living UK delegation joined thousands of people marching from Auschwitz 1 to Auschwitz 2, Birkenau. The March itself was a powerful display of Jewish unity, pride, and steadfastness in the face of discrimination. We were privileged to hear from Holocaust survivors, survivors of the October 7th atrocities, and families of hostages during the international ceremony at Birkenau.


Walking out of the camp, singing am Yisrael chai at such a meaningful time in the Jewish story was an especially impactful moment. March of the Living is a week I will never forget, and has inspired me to pass on the testimonies of those who can no longer do so.

 


 

 

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