Towards the end of World War II , when Germany’s military force was collapsing, the Allied armies closed in on the Nazi concentration camps. The Soviets approached from the East, and the British & Americans from the West. The Germans began frantically to move the prisoners out of the camps and take them to be used as forced labourers in camps inside Germany. Prisoners were first taken by train and then by foot on “Death Marches”, as they became known.
44 years later, a different kind of march was established – March of the Living – in which every year, thousands of participants from across the globe march down the same 1.8 mile path leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau – on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Ha’Shoah) – as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust.
This year, I was lucky to be a part of the March of the Living UK delegation, on the Youth Movement bus. This was my third time in Poland, but my first time with a non-Israeli group. I really did not know what to expect and how I would connect to it, because the trips I had to Poland from Israel were so powerful in helping me shape my Identity as a Jewish Israeli. My previous trips – as I experienced them – were a lot more Israel-focused, and I was wondering what it would be like this time, with a UK delegation, and what place Israel would have in our discussions. This time around, Israel was always in the background rather than the forefront of our conversations. I was happy to be able to strengthen my connection to the Holocaust from a different point of view, and engage in an experience where I spent my time with other youth movement members.
In the four days leading up to the march we visited different sites and learned about the role of youth movements before and during the Holocaust. We heard the amazing and inspiring stories of people like Mordecai Anielewicz – leader of ŻOB (the Jewish fighting organisation) and commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Zivia Lubetkin – one of the founders of the ŻOB who led a group of fighters through the sewers of Warsaw in the final days of the ghetto uprising, and Roza Robota – one of the main organisers of an operation to smuggle explosives for use by members of the Sonderkommando (Jewish forced-labor unit of concentration camp prisoners) in the 1944 revolt at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. All of these people had a few things in common. They were all young people who refused to accept the reality as it was and decided to take action, to lead their communities to stand up and fight. They were all part of youth movements. Being a part of a youth movement gave a lot of them the strength to carry on. Years later, Zivia Lubetkin said:
“What gave us this moral strength? We were able to endure the life in the ghetto because we knew that we were a collective, a movement… This is the real secret of the Movement’s strength. The Movement always knew how to demand everything from its members. The Movement’s goal has always been to educate a new kind of man, capable of enduring the most adverse conditions and difficult times while standing up for the emancipation of our people, of the Jew, of mankind. It was our Movement education which gave us the strength to endure”.
This week has strengthened and confirmed my beliefs in the importance of youth movements then and now. Youth movements have always been a counter-culture, a source for informal education, and a platform for change. Youth movements provide their members with life skills such as leadership, social awareness and activism. With that being said, it also made me wonder if that is still the case with youth movements today. As Youth Movements educators we have to always ask ourselves- are we doing enough? Are we educating our chanichim to be socially aware? And if so, what about activism? Once we have identified the problem, what are we doing about it? It is our responsibility to educate our chanichim to fight indifference, racism and injustice, and not to be bystanders. And in order for us to do this, first we have to be all of those things ourselves. We must be the change we want to see in the world.
The same goes for educating about the Shoah itself. It is in our hands as educators to keep the story, their story, alive. And again, we have to be active about it. It is not enough to “never forget”. We have to actively REMEMBER. One of our decisions as FZY movement team, coming back from this week in Poland, is to strengthen our Holocaust education programmes for our members.
I came back from this week prouder than ever to be a part of a youth movement and a part of the Jewish community in the UK, and I strongly recommend anyone, not only from a youth movement, to go on March of the Living and help keep the story alive.