Four years ago, my daughter and I traveled to Poland as part of March of the Living. She, a junior at the time, was one of twenty high school students and I was a chaperone from that year’s Atlanta contingent.
The trip takes place annually; leaving immediately after Passover. Highlighted site visits include the cities of Warsaw, Krakow, and Lublin; a few small villages; memorials and concentration camps. The climax of the program is “the March” itself; a one-and-a-quarter mile walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau that commemorates the “Death March,” which prisoners made from the work camps to the extermination camps. The “March of the Living” shows – with the thousands of teens who show up yearly from all over the world – that Hitler did not succeed in breaking the spirit or obliterating the people of the Jewish faith.
Growing up as a child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I learned first-hand accounts of simple, ordinary people who did extraordinarily brave things to overcome unimaginable hardships, dealt with seemingly insurmountable challenges, and managed to stay alive and perpetuate their values and beliefs. However, no family story, class at school, or movie in a theatre succeeded in creating the indelible impact that came with my own personal and up-close encounter with the concentration and death camps that were built by the Nazis in Eastern Europe. While I respect and admire the fortitude of the survivors, it’s impossible to fathom the horrors that befell those who perished…
Standing with my daughter (and son’s girlfriend) in a gas chamber in Auschwitz, we heard the anguished cries of the people whose claw marks are still visible on the stone walls. Walking through barracks in Birkenau, we felt the terror of the tortured twins on whom experiments were performed. Going through the crematorium at Majdanek, we smelled the remnants of burnt flesh that permeated the wooden walls. Then, staring at the enormous, remaining mound of human ash and bones, we sobbed over the innocent millions who disappeared because of ethnic, cultural, and religious differences that gave rise to hate.
It was from these experiences, more than any others, that I realized the importance of teaching and practicing the universal goal of fighting the ignorance, indifference, racism, injustice, and prejudice that are expressed against those who are perceived to be intellectually, socially, culturally, or religiously “different.” But, from a Jewish perspective, I know the necessity of developing and promoting confident Jewish identities in our children and grandchildren.
Even four years later, the images of Poland haunt me. I remain shocked by the methodical and calculating ways that governments – even today – coldly approach the task of annihilating innocent groups of people. I am in disbelief that, given the abundance of evidence, anyone could deny that the Holocaust happened. But mostly, I am distraught over and fearful of the continued acts of terrorism, violence, and anti-Semitism against Jews in Israel and around the world — even today.
The observance of the Holocaust Remembrance Day is next week. It is a time to pay tribute to the courage and quiet inner strength of those who survived, and to mourn those who died. For me, doing so secures my own link in a chain that connects me to a family and a people, and to a past and a future.