The March of the Living. An event of 11,000 Jews, primarily young teens, retracing the harrowing, final steps of their ancestors from the gates of Auschwitz to Birkeneu. The stated goal of the March for these young people is to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to lead the Jewish people into the future vowing ‘Never Again.’ The procession is led by survivors, elevating it to an emancipatory, symbolic status. Holistically speaking, there seems little to criticize. Thousands of free Jews, from all over the world, reclaiming what would have been their journey to oblivion from the annals of history. Yet, care to go the extra mile in thought, and the short march becomes symptomatic of many issues with how the Holocaust is commemorated.
Firstly, it doesn’t need to be reiterated how deeply personal the Shoah is to the overwhelming majority of Jews. Through education, family and community, it is at the forefront of our consciousness across the diaspora. In fact, speaking more broadly, the cultural veneration of memory is a reality at the heart of both religious/secular Jewish practice. The March of the Living, therefore, should be the perfect personification of this tenet. Arriving en masse at Auschwitz to preserve a place in our collective mindset for what was so brutally taken from us, seems only befitting. But, how it transpires, in my mind, is wholly inappropriate.
To put it bluntly, the blocks of Auschwitz 1 become injected with a carnival atmosphere. The sun is out, the crowds are big, everybody has their packed lunches, the laughs are flowing. Who cares that people are sunbathing ten metres from what was a firing wall?! There are fit girls from LA here and I’m going to do everything to get one of their souvenir bandanas! The unholy rush to exchange official March of the Living merchandise seems callously insensitive, not least to the participating survivors, who patiently wait under the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gates to embark on a torturous journey, reliving their inestimable loss. I was informed flatly by at least two survivors, on our tour around other camps the week before, that they dreaded the March and saw it as a ‘Disneyfication of their loss’. This will always stick with me.
The sycophancy is an unquestionably top-down phenomenon at the event. “Anachnu Poh, Anachnu Poh” (We are here!) are the shouts from certain groups as they strive to be the most proud, the most heard, the most visible. There seems to be an unspoken competition over who can carry the largest Israel flag. Imagine Yom Haatzmaut, in Tel Aviv, but on steroids. One can’t help but feel the March itself should enough to convey the sentiment of Jewish survival in the face of perpetual threat and have Hitler turning in his grave faster than a perfectly spun Chanukkah dreidel. When we as individuals come to define our human emotions in constant conjunction with larger ‘structural’ entities, such as Zionism, it becomes all the more difficult to preserve what should be universal norms, in this case, solemn respect.
In general, discourse and events commemorating the Shoah have always required such a fine balance of emotion. I have attended ceremonies bordering on North Koreanesque public outpours of grief, and of course they can be just as inappropriate. Yet, with its growing reputation, and increased numbers annually, the March of the Living carries a much clearer duty in protecting the memory of those we have lost, the memories of those fortunate to survive, and perhaps most importantly of all, how we, three generations on, can use such occasions to shape our future.