As our plane left Krakow after five days touring Jewish Poland, having just completed the ‘March of the Living’, I was consumed by two thoughts. 

First, how close the epicentre of Hitler’s annihilation of European Jewry is to the UK. 

Second, how well Hannah Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann – ‘the banality of evil’ – captures the entire Nazi endeavour.

Once people are dehumanised by totalitarian regimes, they become mere cogs in a huge machine, and can be persuaded to commit any crime – even genocide – without compunction.

Since a brief visit to Auschwitz years ago, my interest in a longer, in-depth trip had been piqued by my campus rabbis who had returned from previous Marches of the Living with rave reviews.  I was particularly attracted to a trip that combines in-depth visits to key Holocaust sites with exploring centuries of Jewish life in Poland.  It is tempting to focus exclusively on the ‘Final Solution’ and forget a diverse and mostly happy millennium of Jewish contribution to Polish society, but the trip successfully melded the two.

I am grateful that we were able to stop at the Belzec extermination camp close to the Ukrainian border.  Of the sites we visited, I found the small, ghastly camp, where around 500,000 Jews were murdered in just a few months, the most distressing and unforgettable.  This was complemented by extraordinary survivor-testimonies and personal contributions from other participants.

I loved the Warsaw Polin Museum, which beautifully portrays pre-war Polish Jewish life.  Our non-Jewish guide was excellent, reflecting a growing interest in Jewish life and the Holocaust across a swathe of Polish society.  This phenomenon was repeated at Auschwitz, where our non-Jewish guide delivered a passionate and personalised exposition of the grim exhibitions.  I was also delighted to visit the Krakow Jewish Community Centre, where remarkable leadership and foresight have created the impossible – vibrant, functional Jewish life built on the ashes of annihilation, with ‘new’ Jews constantly crawling out of the woodwork.

The March– which was scheduled for Yom HaShoah – attracted 11,000 people from across the globe.  Although it takes less than an hour to walk slowly from Auschwitz to Birkenau, logistics mean that there’s a lot of hanging around, with people lunching and chatting right inside the concentration camp – irreverent, but not inappropriate given the unusual nature of the day.  I welcomed the chance to talk to other participants as we prepared to march.  Remarkably, the event was led by the President of Poland marching side-by-side with Israel’s President Rivlin.

It was a remarkable experience, albeit filled with contradictions and complexities.  I was moved to see thousands of young Jews walking out of Auschwitz, passing beneath the iconic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign, a poignant inversion of its original purpose.  There was much singing, and, as we entered Birkenau, music while the concluding ceremony began.

At Birkenau, far from view, are the ruins of the crematoria where innumerable Jews ended their horrific journeys.  100 metres away, we were treated to a display of Jewish vitality, hope and confidence in our own future.  Survivor testimony and readings were interspersed by contributions from musicians and singers, giving the (overlong) ceremony the feel of a rock concert.  But the event was defined by President Rivlin and former Chief Rabbi Lau, both of whom reminded their Polish hosts that despite recent attempts to legislate otherwise, some Poles collaborated with the Nazis to implement the Holocaust and subsequent massacres.

I shall be left with the gravelly voice of Rabbi Lau leading Minchah over the microphone at the end of a trip that requires much time to process.  Billed as ‘an experience you’ll never forget’, March of the Living met and exceeded expectations.

  • Harvey Belovski is senior rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue and CEO of University Jewish Chaplaincy