The following is an unpublished article I wrote about the March of the Living I joined exactly five years ago. Since Israel’s Independence Day is coming up in less than a month and this year is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is only appropriate for me to include the article here:
Many of the areas we visited in Poland as part of the March of the Living were practically deserted. Two of the concentration camps had green grass growing all around. Polish children were riding their bicycles across the camp, seemingly unaware that they were riding on thousands of decomposed corpses. I had hoped there was more to Poland than its recent shameful history, but while the tour guides kept reminding us that Poles were as much victims of the Holocaust as were the Jews, the freshly spray-painted swastikas on bus stations we walked by came as a harsh reminder that anti-Semitism is alive and well.
On Yom Hashoah, the yearly Holocaust Memorial Day (early May), we saw the familiar fences with the barbed wire, the rusted train tracks and the front gate with the sign “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free). But unlike all the films I’ve seen, these images were in color. We were in Auschwitz and we were Jews but we were in no danger. We left Auschwitz alive and well, just as we had entered it.
The actual march took place that same day. It was a three-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau, as a stark contrast to the Nazi Death Marches that took the Jews from Birkenau to Auschwitz. Our Partnership 2000 contingent of approximately 40 students joined others from around the world. We were 7,000 Jewish students, paying tribute to the victims, as well as to the survivors who joined us.
As we walked, I looked ahead and saw a sea of people wearing the official MOL blue jackets with the Star of David on the back, carrying Israeli flags. I looked behind me and saw the same scene – lines of people walking hand in hand in absolute silence, stretching back to the vanishing point. I was overwhelmed to witness and expose such pride and solidarity in a land where our grandparents once bore those same symbols, the Stars of David, as signs of shame.
Despite this emotionally-charged walk, the shock was yet to come. The next day, we visited the Belzec death camp that operated from 1942-1943. Its front gate was black and rusted. The camp seemed small because of the various trees and bushes that had grown up around it in the last 60 years. A monument depicting two people with no faces, tall, thin and as dark as the front gate, stood in the middle. There were flies everywhere so that we had to cover our faces with our jackets. But when we left the camp, we were still not rid of them. Our bus driver left the bus door open and all the flies joined the ride. The flies, the terrifying figures of the monument, and the charcoal-colored gates created a morbid atmosphere that was only made worse by the tour guide’s historical account of the events inside the camp.
“In this camp, you didn’t have selection,” explained Tali Nates, the South African tour guide. “If you came here, you came to die. There were nine gas chambers. In one, they could have killed 1,000 people. Six hundred thousand people died here. Five survived. Out of them, three did not survive the war, one was killed after the war. One survivor from this camp. One.”
Later that day, we visited Majdanek, an enormous camp that stretched out as far as the eye could see and that had been left mostly intact. The tour guides said it would take only 24 hours to get it working again. The crematoriums were still there. A huge pile of ashes was collected in a dome in the middle of the camp. The ditches that served as mass graves were still visible. There were countless barracks; a few bore a sign that read “Bat und Desinfektion.”
“What is this sign saying?” asked Nates. “Bath and disinfection. What do you think? Do you trust this sign? So in our language, what we know and what you already learned so much before, this is not an innocent sign.” Majdanek was the first camp where we visited an actual gas chamber. The shower heads in the gas chamber were old and corroded; in a display window sat empty cans of Cyclone B. The walls were discolored and, in some areas, there were vertical lines that seemed to have been carved into the wall. Rumor goes, said the tour guides, that these were scratches made by the victims as they were being gassed. Time seemed to stand as we held our breath for fear that the shower heads would go off again.
“I got a chance to walk into that gas chamber today, and I got a chance to walk out,” said Matthew Abramsky, one of the participants, in a meeting following the visit.
The March of the Living has been held since 1988, except for a couple of years when it was cancelled due to security reasons. This year marks 60 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and the program will once again unite young Jews from across the world to show that “Am Israel chai,” “The people of Israel live on.”
*The photo below is a picture of what the Star of David in the back of the blue jackets look like. It is the MOL logo. To learn more about the MOL, visit http://www.motl.org/