FZY Mazkir, Jack Isaacs, recounts his experience on March of the Living 2023 and the effect it had on him.
Having just returned from the March of the Living trip to Poland, I’ve decided to write some of my thoughts down. There isn’t necessarily a definite place to start when describing the experience that I just had. Unpacking it is a challenge, and I hope this written reflection will help with that process.
We are constantly inundated with numbers and statistics when talking about the Holocaust, the central figure of 6 million, of course, being the headline.
These numbers hit you the hardest when you’re walking around places such as Auschwitz and Birkenau. This is when the feeling is at its most harrowing. The March of the Living programme culminates with “the March” from Auschwitz 1 to Birkenau, concluding with a ceremony at the far end of Birkenau. We experienced this alongside 10,000 other people.
To put this number into perspective, we visited Zbylitowska Góra forest, a site of mass murder for Jews in the Polish town of Tarnów, and the mass graves with 8000-10,000 bodies in them. The space in which the 10,000 participants of the programme were spread across at the ceremony in Birkenau, compared to where the same number of bodies were buried was drastically different.
When you get to visualise everything that you’re being told, the feeling is predominantly one of fright but, in truth, it cannot concisely be explained- as the feelings in and of themselves are just so complex. We walked past the gas chambers at Birkenau and were told how the Nazis committed the mass murder of Jewish people, killing around 1 million Jews across Auschwitz’s camps.
It’s near inconceivable, and I came away from that thinking “The Germans were impressive.” You’ve just read that and are thinking “Jack you’re crazy, how can you say this,” but please hear me out.
Adjectives such as impressive and efficient have positive connotations, it means whatever is happening is carried out well. I certainly do not mean it in a positive light. For me, it’s not the thought of the killing of Jewish people for being Jewish that is the most harrowing, it’s the thought of how the Nazis thought so hard to develop new methods to murder people, I reiterate people, not the vermin or animals that Jewish people were treated as. It’s absolutely abhorrent how these ideas go through research and development and testing to find what they think is the most efficient way to kill innocent human beings.
This deep shock was compounded by walking past Crematorium 2 at Birkenau and approaching a building which was used as a storeroom for Jews. A storeroom for human beings.
Again, the thought of how disturbing that is was completely mind-boggling to me. Why did they have storerooms? Because it wasn’t efficient to gas fewer than a couple of thousand people at a time. Why didn’t they just shoot them already? Because bullets are too expensive to use. The Nazis’ evil, despicable ideology and processes were developed in the same way a supply chain would in a business context. I reiterate, this was done to kill human beings.
Please don’t think I’m crazy, I’m just shocked… disgusted.
I have been fortunate enough to hear the story of the amazing Arek Hersh on 3 occasions. Arek is a Holocaust survivor who survived 4 concentration camps by the age of 15. My previous experiences in Arek’s company came in completely different settings. The first time was at a Friday night dinner at my Rabbi’s house, for the youth of our community, a more intimate and “homely” atmosphere. The second time was at university where he came in to tell his story to students in a lecture theatre. This time it was physically in the place where his story unfolded, in the camp. I may have heard the same testimony 3 times, but I’ve learnt more and more every time. Arek is a gem of the community and a shining light of what it is to have hope.
The change of context from hearing Arek’s story in a lecture theatre to seeing it on the ground impacted my perception deeply. I love life’s stories. Hearing a story from the person who experienced it resonated far more deeply with me than by being told the same story by someone else. In my opinion, these testimonies are so much more impactful and useful than just walking around a museum. Displays behind a glass window accompanied by facts are a reminder of what’s happened, but my learning experience about the Holocaust comes from the survivors. On March of the Living UK, we were lucky enough to have 7 survivors join the delegation with us. On the youth movement bus, we were joined by Agnes Kaposi, who was sent to a labour camp in Austria from her home in Hungary. Having Agnes with us added impactful pieces of information to supplement those of our fantastic educators as we visited the various sites. Let’s hope this wasn’t the last year survivors joined the trip.
I mentioned previously how unpacking this experience was a challenge and one thing I particularly struggled with was the “Americanisation” or Hollywoodization of Holocaust education in Poland. As we walked through the gates of Birkenau at the end of the march, speakers were playing the sound of a train as we followed the track. To me, this detracts from the broader message. Playing the sound of a train doesn’t make the experience more meaningful, it was tacky and made the experience synthetic. Trains have done and still do sound the same on any track in the world, and, in truth, this is not about the trains, it is about the innumerable lives lost.
I will also never understand people who pose for photos to make them more “Instagram-able.” Some people go and take smiling selfies, sit on one of the track beams lying across the track pouting for the camera. I agree people can process things how they feel comfortable doing so, but this felt inappropriate. Additionally, a massive stage with big fancy screens was set up at the other end of the camp. It looked like it could have been a festival. Seeing such a presentation of something with important content take place on a stage of that kind in between crematoriums 2 and 3 at Birkenau just seemed odd, making that element of the trip a challenge for myself and many others. I can only put it down to this “Americanisation”.
It is a very special idea from MOTL UK to have a bus just for the youth movements. The Holocaust provides a part of the history of the Jewish people that has nothing to do with ideology, if you kept kosher or not, were shomer Shabbat or not, followed orthodox or more progressive traditions or not, the Nazis did not differentiate. This means that the shared experience as Jewish youth, the future of our community, hits home even more. Each movement provided the other participants on the bus with a tekkes (memorial ceremony) at each stop along the way. Our ceremony was shared with Noam for our visit to Majdanek and we decided to share the testimony of Helen Schwartz, a survivor of the camp, as well as a poem called Yizkor by Abba Kovner, followed by the memorial prayer, concluded with a minute of silence. Seeing each movement contribute some of the most reflective and meaningful parts of the trip is a moving and special additional element to March of the Living UK.
The day of Zbylitowska Góra and Majdanek was where I felt my heart tighten and felt true sorrow for the first time on the trip. We’d already seen Auschwitz, Birkenau and heard such terrible things but this got me. A testimony of a survivor of the mass shootings was read out in the forest and this really affected me. A mother holding her dead children in her arms. How sickening is that.
Majdanek posed further emotional challenges, in the form of the ovens. We’d seen them in Auschwitz, but the explanation of these particular ovens got to me. The Nazi soldiers in the camp used the heat generated from the burning of Jewish bodies to make sure that they had a nice hot bath or shower in the wintertime for themselves. I’ve worked in a kitchen before and cannot fathom the idea someone would have to put people in ovens, and then get an extended benefit from that. To top that off, the German company that leased the ovens at Majdanek to the Nazis asked for reparations from the Allied forces for damages to their property when the camp was liberated. They wanted financial compensation for leasing a machine that burnt human bodies. Vile.
Returning to the youth movements. Our days of the trip were themed: Day 1 – Jewish Identity, Day 2 - The Making and Breaking of Human Beings, Day 3 - The March, Day 4 - The Making and Breaking of Communities, and Day 5 - Leadership. As the youth movement bus, we had sprinklings of what the youth movements did throughout but Day 5, themed Leadership, brought it all together. We’d seen the sites of shocking events, and heard horrific stories but there we were in Warsaw, the city which had the largest ghetto for Jewish people, learning just how much of an impact movements had then. Inspiring thoughts as to how much of an impact they can continue to have now. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was spearheaded by the youth movements. Defiant acts of resistance were performed by people our age, not for the movement but for the entire Jewish community. Approximately 30% of the Warsaw population were Jewish and they were all shoved into 2.3% of the total geographic area of Warsaw to form the ghetto. To hear that a community in dire straits, aware that they are probably going to be sent to their deaths, could stand up and challenge the aggressors is inspiring. The stories are fascinating and courageous, I’m not going to delve into specifics here but the message to me was clear, what more can we do? Movements are nothing without their members and the impact they can have is immeasurable.
In conclusion, a Poland trip is a challenge. You always feel you’re meant to feel a certain way, almost feeling bad for not shedding a tear. Not crying doesn’t mean you get nothing out of it. In fact, you are told you don’t have to feel a certain way, but your mind acts differently. People were killed because they were Jewish, the Nazis aimed to wipe our people off the face of the Earth, and they failed. The Jewish people have rebuilt and shone bright and there are no words more appropriate than those of Hatikvah, the Hope. This doesn’t diminish anything, we’re a people who bounce back more than anyone else ever before. The important thing is to help make sure that these events never, ever, happen again.