Learning about the horrors of the Holocaust—the darkest depths of humanity—is never easy, but when it affects you personally, the impact is even more profound.
As a third generation British Jew on both sides, although I had always been aware that distant relatives had been affected by the Holocaust, I never had names to make the connection seem more real.
Last month however, while I was standing in Auschwitz itself, I learnt for the first time from my parents back in the UK, the true story of my family’s loss in that dreadful place. While the story was heartbreakingly sad, conversely it is also one of hope and reconciliation.
All this happened on my fourth consecutive annual trip to Poland as a Bus Leader on March of the Living UK—a position I maintained even after making Aliyah last July. This year, I lead MOTL’s first group of senior British faith leaders. Initially, when I was asked to lead this bus, I was intimidated at the prospect of being responsible for a group of Rabbis, Priests, and other prominent figures from the British Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities. However, this was a unique opportunity, and I believed that as a British Jew now living in Israel, I could bring a unique perspective.
My discovery this year made my visit particularly difficult. However, it was the overwhelmingly compassionate response from my participants that made it one of the most powerful, transformative and memorable experiences of my life.
My mother knew little about her grandfather, other than that he came to the UK from Holland in the 1920s. He had seven siblings, most of whom were always assumed lost in the Shoah. He died when my mother was young and never discussed it with her and neither did her father, who was an only child, and also died before I was born.
My father’s parents too, never spoke to him or his brothers about the Holocaust and since their parents had also been in England during the war, my father had no specific knowledge of relatives to impart.
So, although I had always felt the collective Jewish loss suffered in the Holocaust, on a personal level, I remained — somewhat thankfully — slightly detached from it.
This year however, my mother’s sister came across some new research about our family online, including the names and places of death of some of my late great grandfather’s seven siblings, and their children.
My aunt, who was unaware that I was in Poland, happened to send these names to my mother the morning of the day I visited Auschwitz. My mother then passed them on to me, as I was standing in the crematorium, that afternoon. This discovery inspired my father to log on to his family tree, where he found the recently uploaded names of his relatives who had also perished, and he too emailed them to me. That day, I learned of many of my relatives who died in the Holocaust, whilst standing in the very place where some of them had actually perished.
From never having had any names, I now had several, and for the first time, the Holocaust suddenly felt very, very personal. I was overwhelmed. That night I had very little sleep, and spent hours on the Yad Vashem website, trying to find out more about my family.
The following day was Holocaust Memorial Day, and the actual March of the Living—a truly memorable event which sees 10,000 people from all over the world march the three kilometres from Auschwitz to Birkenau, as a tribute to the millions who perished in the Holocaust.
As our bus approached Auschwitz to begin the march, I handed out placards to my group, on which they could write names of Holocaust victims, to hold while marching in their memory. In contrast to my previous trips, where I never had any names to write, I now had many, and they were personal. One member of the group asked me if she could write one of my family members on her placard, as she was not Jewish and had no names of her own to use.
Five other members from the group, all of different faiths, immediately echoed her request, and suddenly half of my bus was marching with me in memory of my own family, and the millions of other innocent people who lost their lives in the Holocaust. My new interfaith friends united as one to comfort me.
This heart-warming gesture, during an emotional and challenging time for me, demonstrating just how kind, insightful and sensitive (with the perfect dose of inappropriately funny) this group of people was. They showed incredible respect and understanding throughout the trip, creating the safe space necessary to have many difficult conversations and form real friendships.
This remarkable group of people paves the way in the UK for interfaith dialogue, working tirelessly to encourage tolerance and understanding between different religions, communities, and cultures. Exploring one of the most horrific episodes of human existence and suffering together with this group transformed my previously exclusively Jewish Holocaust education experiences in many ways. It changed the way I connect to my past, strengthened my Jewish identity, and deepened my love and appreciation for Israel, my new home. It was a true honour to share this deeply personal experience with them, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
Being with a multi-faith group also helped me to appreciate that even though the Holocaust is a profoundly personal Jewish tragedy, it is a tragedy with universal resonance. Those of all faiths and none can and should help to speak out against insensitive, biased or intolerant words and acts of hatred or exclusion that happen around us, to ensure that the message of ‘never again’ becomes a global reality.
In the memory of my family, and all those who lost their lives, let us pledge to speak for and stand with any person who is oppressed. After all, as Primo Levi said, “It happened, so it can happen again. That is the essence of what we have to say.”
Finally, if you have not yet been on a trip to Poland, I implore you to go on March of the Living. It will change your life.
For details of MOTL, see www.marchofthelivig.org.uk.