Report from the March of the Living 18-Apr-12

Report from the March of the Living

Greetings from Krakow, Poland. I am here with a group of our teens for this remarkable event, bringing together 10,000 participants from all over the world. You can read more from www.motl.org. Aliza Aitchison, Gabriela Fine and Danielle Lerner from Beth David are attending with a delegation from Silicon Valley, sharing a bus with groups from Tucson, Las Vegas, and San Diego. Here is my diary for the past few days:

March of the Living, Monday 4-16-12

April 15-16: The day regain inauspiciously.
The first flight of our trip was delayed for two hours. Fortunately Ruth Zaltzman, the head of our trip, had left a long layover time in Chicago, so no harm done. We met up with the kids from San Diego, Tucson, and Las Vegas and their staff members with whom we will share our bus. They seemed like nice kids and that impression was confirmed throughout the day.

We arrived in Warsaw around 9:30 AM as did all our luggage (no small thing!). We met our guides, a Polish man named Teddy and an Israeli woman named Gila who works for Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Teddy’s job seems to be to smooth things over, deal with the locals, and help navigate around, while Gila is as an educator and guide, helping the kids understand the meaning of what they are seeing. The day then began.

Our first stop was the Warsaw Cemetery, which goes back 200 years. It includes many memorials to those who died in the ghetto and in the uprising. There is a moving statue of Janusz Korzcak, the beloved educator who chose to go on the transport with the children from his orphanage rather than escape. (Picture right:)

We then were taken to an undistinguished apartment block. We went into its courtyard to find a fragment of the ghetto wall. It was a powerful reminder that the Nazis cordoned off half a million Jews in the center of Warsaw. They could see the city going about its daily life, but they were trapped behind those high brick walls.

At every stop Gila emphasized how the Jews and their Judenrat leadership lived in extremis and were faced with terrible suffering and impossible decisions.

We then were taken to a memorial on the site of the Umschlagplatz (collection point), where the Jews were assembled for deportation to Treblinka. The memorial includes a wall with many names on them, familiar Jewish names that remind us that they were our family.

Finally, we visited the Nozyk Synagogue, which has been revived as a place of worship— a little ray of light and Jewish persistence.

Here is one thought I had toward the end of the day:

At the Warsaw cemetery, there are retaining walls made of stone fragments. It seems like a metaphor for the Warsaw experience. This was once a vibrant community, diverse and creative. Now there are only fragments left. Bits of the ghetto walls wedged in, surrounded by banal apartment blocks. A mound and a monument bearing witness to the courageous address of Mila 18. A monument to the Umschlagplatz where the Jews were mustered for death. Broken stone stele in a circle, marking the anonymous mass graves that necessity required to bury the ghetto dead of starvation and disease. The Jews who survived, scattered over the world, their voices of testimony fading as death takes the aging remnant of child survivors. Fragments to serve as memorials, reminders and warnings.

After dinner in a hotel we took our bus to Bialystok for our overnight.

One last thought: when we arrived, the kids were divided into small groups to process the day. The prompt was, “What did you bring with you to this trip.” Many of these young people come from families of survivors. One girl mentioned her great-grandparents, who are still alive. They were thoughtful and seemed committed to having this intense experience.

March of the Living, Tuesday, April 17th, Bialystok-Lublin

Today our first stop was the memorial to the great synagogue of Bialystok. It was destroyed when the Nazis rounded up two thousand Jews, trapped them inside, and burned it down. All that remains is the skeleton of the dome.

Then we rode to Tykocin, known to jews as Ticktin, a genuine shtetl, though today without Jews. It is notable for its large synagogue right by the former market square where many Jews earned their livelihood, well preserved, which is now a museum. We met up with a group from Greensboro, North Carolina and the Reform Rabbi from the group told a story about people dancing during the holocaust which led into the kids all dancing and singing, bringing life to this dead synagogue The group had a father and son who were musicians (father on clarinet and son on violin), which added to the freilach atmosphere.

From there we went to the Tykocin forest, site of a terrible massacre. We went to the mass graves, lit candles, and said El Maleh and Kaddish. The young violinist played a composition of his which was incredibly beautiful and moving.

One of the features of each day is that each participant was asked to do a presentation on a topic, and the kids have been quite conscientious and well-spoken.

Then it was onto Treblinka. This was a death camp where in the space of 13 months 870,000 Jews were murdered. The Nazis razed the camp, but the Polish government built an eloquent memorial, delineating the geography of the camp. There are rough carved stones commemorating the countries of origin of those who died, and the centerpiece is a large sculpture standing where the gas chambers were, representing the packed bodies of the dead. This is surrounded by 17,000 stones commemorating all the communities of origin of those slain in the camp.

Here we held a commemorative ritual, led by some of the kids and the two rabbis with our group, and once again said Kaddish and El Maleh.

Once again the kids shared great feelings and insights at the breakout sessions that night. I was particularly moved by their reactions to another groups of teens we encountered at Treblinka. They were not taking the experience seriously, and our youth were offended. It really showed how seriously they are taking this experience.

March of the Living, April 18: Lublin and Majdanek

We got up early today so that we could get to Majdanek as it opened. The first thing that struck us is how close it is to Lublin. It took about ten minutes to get there. Unlike other camps, it is surrounded by development, and was even 70 years ago it was close in. This is because it originated as a prisoner of war camp for Russian soldiers captured in the fighting after Hitler broke the Ribbentroff-Molotov Treaty and the eastern front war began. It became a concentration camp primarily for Jews.

This was an intense day. We spent three hours there. In Warsaw, there is little left of the Ghetto, and at Treblinka, the original camp was obliterated. The memorial built in its place is eloquent and ties the lineaments of the camp, but it is still an abstraction. Majdanek is the real thing, vast and grim–barracks, barbed wire, guard towers, gas chambers and crematoria intact.

You enter by a large, dramatic memorial sculpture. The installation is set up so that you walk through an artificial canyon. You enter by means of a ramp, descending easily. You exit by steep stairs. This mimics the reality of the camps–easy to a enter, thanks to German efficiency; difficult to leave–alive.

We have all seen pictures of the camps. The reality is emotionally powerful because it is concrete; there in front of you. The first gas chamber was smaller than I expected, and yet they packed it with hundreds of people. It was a moment for tears and desolation to be confronted by the raw fact of this terrible place. We saw how these buildings were built for maximum efficiency–factories of death.

Our guide Gila helped us understand what we were seeing with the testimony of one survivor of Majdanek, Helena Birnbaum. At every stage she had kids read from Helena’s memoir describing her journey into this branch of the Holocaust Kingdom. It turned in incomprehensible numbers into a human reality.

We have had the benefit of having with us Bill Kugelman, a survivor who lives in Tucson. He added his plain-spoken dose of reality. He talked about living in hunger and fear, and the daily struggle for survival. He has also provided the dramatic end to our memorial rituals by sounding the shofar.

At the end we walked up stairs to a large dome covering the Mountain of Ashes, the remnant of the largest crematorium. It carries the inscription,”Our destiny is a warning to you.” At this place we had a small memorial service, arranged by Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, led by the students. I had the honor to chant the El Maleh Rachamim.

From there we went to the site of the famous yeshiva of Lublin, now restored. This was the elite yeshiva founded by Rabbi Meir Shapira, who established the Daf Yomi program. I was asked to teach some Torah there, and after that the kids sang and danced. It seemed that they needed to affirm life after their encounter with so much death. Am Yisrael chai!

Now we are in Krakow, and tomorrow is the Yom Hashoah and the march itself, from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Our group has been chosen to lead the march!