By Nicola Strauther
The March of the Living is an international educational programme, which brings Jewish people from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – to march three kilometres from Auschwitz to Birkenau – the largest concentration camp complex built during World War II and the Holocaust. The march took place this year between 28 April – 3 May 2018.
After an incredibly emotional and exhausting five days, I now feel ready to put pen to paper (in a sense) and write down my reflections on this year’s March of the Living in Warsaw, Poland.
On arrival at Warsaw airport, our feet had barely touched the floor before we went straight to Warsaw’s main Jewish cemetery. This cemetery was the final resting place of the great and good of Polish Jewry. We heard incredible stories of people like Adam Czerniaków (30 November 1880 – 23 July 1942) – head of the Warsaw Ghetto Jewish Council. Czerniaków committed suicide when asked by the Nazis to arrange deportation lists. This led to discussion about the actions of others at that time such as Rumkowski and the choices these people were being faced with during that time.
The afternoon was spent at the Polin Museum, which displays exhibitions and artefacts from Jewish history in Poland from the last 1000 years. Galleries of this museum explained how the surviving 10% of Polish Jews dealt with the aftermath of the Holocaust and how those affected picked up their shattered lives and attempted to rebuild them. Incredible video footage of desecrated Torah scrolls being buried by survivors and futile attempts to find family members feature in some of displays at the museum.
That evening we were joined by the current British Ambassador to Poland – Jonathan Knott. Knott’s appearance sparked lively debate between survivors, trip delegates and Knott himself on the subject of current Polish laws on Poland’s role in the Holocaust.
Day 2 of the March began early, with a visit to other key sites in Warsaw. We spent some time at the remaining sections of the Ghetto wall, the Umschlagplatz and the site where the Ghetto uprising in 1943 started. The bravery of these men and women, whilst hearing about deportations to Treblinka to fight against the might of the Nazi occupying forces, was astounding. Of course, the other story of bravery that must be shared in that place is that of Janusz Korczak and his children. Despite being given the option to step off that train to Treblinka, Korczak accompanied his children all the way to the death camp.
The next site we visited was Majdanek. When I discovered that the site of this death camp was on the edge of the suburbs of Lubin, I was incredibly shocked. This place was not like some of the other camps, hidden away in the woods: Majdanek is very much in plain sight of the locals. It was a chilling and eerie place, not bustling with tourists like Auschwitz can be on certain days, but instead quiet and moving. The gas chamber still remains at the site today, along with the crematoria and a huge monument containing the ashes of many, many victims of the death camp.
The day ended at Lublin’s former Yeshiva. Here we embraced the purpose of a Yeshiva and as a group dissected a section of the Talmud, which discusses if it was right to risk your own life to save others. An issue we would revisit later in the trip as we visited a site related to those declared Righteous amongst the Nations.
Another early start as we set off for Belzec death camp where over 430,000 people were murdered between March and December 1942: a huge number in such a short space of time. Members of our group shared with us stories of what happened to their own families at the awful site. This was one of the operation Reinhard camps: unlike Auschwitz, the only purpose of this camp was extermination.
The next site we visited was, for me, personally, the hardest: Zbilatowska Gora forest. Here we were told about how the Nazis separated parents from children, how the children were brought to this forest and killed in the most unimaginable ways. Saying Kaddish at the mass grave of 800 babies and young children was too much. I thought about my own children and the deep desire we have to protect them from any harm: that was cruelly taken away from so many. This day, this place, will stay with me forever.
We then made our way to Krakow and the following day, we set off for Auschwitz. This was to be my fifth visit to Auschwitz, but I wasn’t yet aware how different this visit would be. I was there learning more about the horrors of Auschwitz Birkenau with people who had suffered here. People who had family members they had never met because of the inhumane cruelty of this place. We were very privileged to be joined by survivors Arie Shilansky, Ivor Perl, Arek Hersh, Mala Tribich, Harry Olmer and Eve Kugler. The bravery shown by these survivors to revisit this place and share their story, was unbelievable. I had also been asked by another survivor, Sue Pearson, to find her mother’s name at Auschwitz: whilst her name was there, her mother, like so many others in this huge book had the words ‘death unknown’ written after her name. We also took part in the Yellow Candle project: a project which remembers whole families that were wiped out, whom have no one left to remember them.
We marked the beginning of Yom Hashoah with a ceremony at the Galicia Museum. We heard from Sir Eric Pickles and also from March of the Living UK founder, Scott Saunders, both of whom do some incredible work in Holocaust Education. The survivors lit candles as we remembered the 6 million victims of the Holocaust.
The march itself was an incredible day – moving and uplifting: thousands of Jewish people from all over the world were united at Auschwitz, wrapped in Israeli flags, singing songs as an act of defiance against everything the Nazis hoped this place would achieve. Remarkably, the event was led by the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, who marched side-by-side with Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin.
President Rivlin spoke first and reminded people that, despite the recently-passed laws in Poland, Polish people did, in many cases, collaborate with the Nazis. President Duda responded to this point by stating that Poland has the most citizens honored as the Righteous at Yad Veshem. The juxtaposition in Birkenau of being sat mere meters away from where innumerable Jews were murdered and listening to Rabbi Lau leading Minchah on such a sunny afternoon was not lost on me.
I will remember this visit for the rest of my life. It was an emotional roller-coaster: from sitting in Zbilatowska Gora forest and wondering what kind of world I have brought my children into, to marching shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other people in a joint voice of ‘never forget’ and ‘never again’, culminating in the commitment to make this world a much better place – safe from all forms of prejudice and discrimination.
About the guest editor
Nicola is one of our educators for Yorkshire and Humberside and joined The Anne Frank Trust UK in May 2017. Prior to this she worked with the trust in her capacity as a History Teacher in Rotherham. Nicola has a keen interest in Holocaust Education and has worked closely with The National Holocaust Centre, The Centre for Holocaust Education at UCL, completing their Beacon Schools programme and their MA module in Holocaust Education.