A March of the Living Participant’s Reflection on Identity

This is a personal post shared directly by Ms. Cliona Campbell, a 22 year-old Irish Jewish girl living in Dublin, Ireland who’s participated in this year’s March – which included the very first Irish delegation ever!

As a Jew, the Holocaust has always raised countless questions for me. I have been taught to believe in a God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Yet in the wake of the Holocaust these words seem to lose all meaning. How can I believe that God’s powers are limitless when He did nothing to intervene? How can I understand that his presence is universal when places of such cruelty existed?  How can I accept that He is all-knowing without Him being at best apathetic and at worst complicit? After receiving a succession of unsatisfying answers from various Rabbis, I decided to seize the opportunity to partake in an Irish delegation of young Jewish adults on an educational trip to Poland where we would join thousands of others in commemorating those who perished in the Holocaust.

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The first Irish group to participate in March of the Living

Our group landed in Warsaw airport and as we made our way towards immigration I was astonished to find the entire hall packed with Israelis clad in military and police uniforms. A smile spread across my face; after almost two years of not being in Israel I was once again surrounded by the familiar chatter of Hebrew. One bearded police officer clasped large sefer torah scrolls to his chest, the most valued article of Jewish worship containing the five books of Moses. There was something distinctly triumphant about the entire scene. Here we were, thousands of Jews from all over the world streaming into Poland, not in cattle cars as many of our ancestors once had, but strong and healthy and free.

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Cliona Campbell (on Right, holding an Irish flag)

I didn’t know what to expect from the gas chambers. Built with thick reinforced concrete and a low roof, we first entered the changing area before stepping into an adjoining room from which we could see into the gas chamber. Although it was dark, it was still possible to see the cobalt blue stains on the ceiling left by zyklon B gas. Its heavy door had been swung open for visitors, and as I ran my fingers along its cold steel I wondered how many hands had clawed desperately at its surface as victims were plunged into darkness. We made our way towards the crematoria, raindrops splashing on our heads. The layout was clinical and efficient; rows of brick structures with steel doors into which metal stretchers slid.

Outside we could see a large hill with a dome-like structure at its peak. It was only when we ascended its steps that we realised it was in fact a huge mausoleum, inside which a vast heap of ashes of the dead were piled in a huge mound. The sheer scale of it dumbfounded me. Nobody knew what to say, and so, after a moment of shocked silence, it was suggested that we recite Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. The Kaddish never mentions the fact that anyone has died, or even vaguely touches upon the issue of death. Instead it extolls God’s praise and calls Him to bring peace to the entire world. Yet for me, the Kaddish is exemplary of one of the most beautiful facets of Judaism; its practicality. Judaism recognizes that the recitation of the Kaddish is not for those who have already departed, but for the mourners who have been left behind. It seeks to console and uplift those grieving and offer a glimmer of hope amid desperate circumstances.

At dinner that evening I was put sitting beside the man who would turn out to be the greatest character of our entire trip. Ernst Verduin was a Dutch Holocaust survivor who had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943 and upon arrival had narrowly escaped the gas chamber by switching lines. At 16 years old, he had watched throngs of people march to their deaths and yet, sitting beside me now, he was easily the most charming and friendly person at our table. He was deeply interested in everyone’s personal stories and whenever he would catch my eye he would give me a mischievous wink.

On Friday we did a walking tour of the Jewish quarter of Krakow, visiting a litany of synagogues including the Rema Synagogue and its adjoining graveyard. One girl asked why it was that stones were placed on graves and not flowers which we, all coming from predominantly Christian countries, were accustomed to. Our guide replied that flowers could be seen as an indication of wealthy and status, creating a sense of class distinction among the dead. However, a humble stone doesn’t exude an air of pretentiousness. Instead it serves as a statement of your true purpose for visiting that grave; to pay your respects to the dead.

On Friday night, the eve of Shabbat, we were buzzing with excitement as darkness crept over Krakow and we made our way towards the synagogue decked out in our Shabbat best. As we all milled into the building, the atmosphere was electric. There was hardly a place to stand as I went upstairs to the women’s section where there was a balcony overlooking the men’s area. Joyous Shabbat songs erupted below us, reverberating throughout the entire synagogue. We clapped our hands and slapped our palms against the wooden balcony, singing along loudly and swelling with pride as we watched those below us. The men began to do the hora, linking arms as they danced in a wild frenzy of delight. The circle grew as men continued to join their ecstatic dancing. I watched as Ernst, the elderly survivor from our group, approached the rapturous jubilation and was immediately immersed into their euphoric hub. As he stood amid their joyful celebration and the words of ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ (The People of Israel Live) filled the air, the most beautiful smile spread across his face and tears of happiness chorused down his cheeks. Only later did we learn that this had been the very first Shabbat service in this 86 year old survivor’s life.

Since various activities such as using transport or electricity or handling money are forbidden on Shabbat, we walked to a hotel the next day where we gathered in an upstairs room. A frail old woman entered and introduced herself as Renee Salt, a Holocaust survivor. She narrated her compelling story to us and in a subsequent questions and answers session I eventually plucked up the courage to ask her the question I so desperately sought an answer for.

“Did you ever feel as if God had abandoned you?” She paused thoughtfully for a moment before replying.

“After the Holocaust, many people did not believe in God. But I believe that without God, I would not be here today. I felt His presence on many occasions and witnessed His miracles. When we first arrived in Auschwitz, we had to give away all of our valuables. If you didn’t  you were shot on the spot. My father wore a ring which was embedded into his finger, and no matter how hard he tried to ply it off, it wouldn’t budge. A Nazi officer spotted the ring and demanded that he hand it over. When he realized that it would not come off despite his desperate efforts, the officer instructed a soldier to fetch a hack saw to cut off the finger. And no sooner had he gone to fetch it did the ring, which had been welded deep in his flesh, slip from around his finger as if it was a few sizes too big.”

I listened intently, and the story was indeed remarkable, but I couldn’t help but wonder why God, with His power to perform such miracles, could not save the other six million Jews. I decided not to say this aloud. This woman had suffered horrific trauma in her life. She told us how Nazis had allowed a bull to storm the camp, leaving her mother with horrific facial injuries from which she died a slow and painful death. If this was her way of dealing with all she has gone through, who was I to deny her this small comfort?

The last question elicited perhaps the most profound answer. Renee was asked what we should take away from hearing her experiences. She did not give us the typical answer to remember her story or pass it on. She didn’t wish for a continuation of the pain and grief she had endured. Instead she instructed us to always be tolerant. She said that intolerance and greed had caused the Holocaust, so whether someone was black, white or yellow, always be kind to one another because we all have to live in this world together.

The following day, we embarked on our journey to Auschwitz. It felt surreal to walk beneath the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign; the ‘b’ of ‘Arbeit’ intentionally upturned by the Jews forced to craft it in a small act of resistance. I was surprised how, of all places, I felt the presence of the dead the least in Auschwitz. The camp was orderly and museum-like. Death was presented to us in neat glass cases. Guides led groups of headphone clad tourists as they snapped photographs of various sites of interest. I felt as if the entire camp had been transformed into something marketable to the general public. However, one aspect of the tour which really struck a chord with me was a display of tonnes upon tonnes of hair shorn from female victims. While most was matted and unrecognizable  I saw resting on one heap a single lock of golden blonde hair, like that of a young girl.

On our final day in Poland, 11,000 Jews from all over the world gathered to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau to retrace the steps millions before us had taken to their deaths. But as our flags billowed in the wind and the sun appeared for the first time in the entire trip, we all knew in our hearts this this walk was no longer the March of Death. It was the March of the Living.

Cliona.

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The Author, Cliona Campbell