This year’s delegation of March of the Living (MOTL) UK marked a sombre moment in post-war history. Poignantly, it might be the last time those travelling to the major sites of the Shoah are accompanied by survivors. In fact, the UK delegation was the only one to have survivors with them. It raises questions about how Holocaust education and remembrance will be impacted in the future.
This was my second March of the Living and as we walked through Auschwitz-Birkenau I felt a sense of shock when I realised I had become slightly desensitised as I stood on those infamous train tracks, looking upon the rubble of the gas chambers and crematoriums. We have all spoken about ‘the six million’ before but it is a number impossible to visualise. However, looking at two tonnes of human hair, hundreds of thousands of shoes, glasses, suitcases, pots, and pans, housed in the barracks of Auschwitz I, something in me broke. It is the closest you can get to comprehending that each life was murderously stolen – and yet it is still not enough. As I stood there looking at people from around the world pouring over the Book of Names, desperately searching for ones they might recognise, I felt a wave of pain and resolve. Tragically, there will never be enough time and it is also impossible to learn about every victim of the Holocaust. But there, in one of the darkest places on earth, Jews and allies had gathered at their own volition, to bear witness.
The trip itself was much more than a visit to Auschwitz.The itinerary of the programme was expertly organised to educate about the whole gamut of the Nazis’ cruelty in the Holocaust. We visited the sites of ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz, and Krakow, small spaces where hundreds of thousands were imprisoned. We read testimonies of life under such hardship, where hundreds of thousands perished in the appalling conditions. We learnt of brave acts of defiance – including armed resistance – of those who against all odds found the strength to fight.
We also visited sites of mass graves in various forests. These ‘killing pits’ are so striking today as the memorials marking these acts of such evil, sit against the backdrop of peaceful, idyllic nature. At one site, we heard the testimony of Mala Tribich. Her strength and composure was remarkable as she stood where her mother and sister were shot. On my previous delegation I had visited Majdanek, a death and concentration camp, and Belzec, an extermination camp.
This year, we visited Treblinka, an extermination camp active from July 1942 to October 1943, where up to 925,000 Jews were slaughtered. Unlike Majdanek, which was left largely intact, Belzec and Treblinka are now memorial sites, as the physical evidence of the camps existence were entirely erased by the Nazi regime. The few testimonies we have were left by the few who managed to escape or survive as Sonderkommandos (Jews who were forced to help operate the Nazi camp system), those like Treblinka survivor Hershl Sperling. The Nazis’ double victimisation of Jews, by forcing some of them to be a part of the process in the deaths of their people, was a new aspect of evil I had not really contemplated enough previously and chilled me to my core.
The visit culminated with a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a network of camps, including the infamous base camp, Auschwitz I, with the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign at its entrance, and Birkenau, Auschwitz II, the largest of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps.
In total, 1.3 million were deported there from 1940-45, 1.1 million of whom were Jews, of whom 90 per cent perished in the gas chambers. The ‘March of the Living’, was a walk from Auschwitz I to Birkenau, led by our incredible survivors. It is an indescribable feeling to be part of a group of Jews walking freely in and out of Auschwitz. It didn’t matter what our religious observance was, nor our education, occupation, or politics. As we marched, it was clearer than ever. We are one people.
Each person who visits a site of the Holocaust, listens to a survivor, reads a testimony, educates themselves – becomes a witness. All of us became witnesses with a duty to pass on the torch to the next generation, to ensure we never forget each of the six million. The Jewish people survived; we are here.