Margaret joined the largest ever British delegation to March of the Living of nearly 300 participants across 9 buses. The group were privileged to be joined by 8 survivors. This was the first year it included a group of senior British faith leaders, and here is her experience of the emotional trip to Poland:
It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it was one of the most powerful and extraordinary experiences of my life.
Three Jews, four Christians, three Muslims, a Hindu and a gluten free Sikh went on a bus. Bus H, which we took to mean the ‘holy’ bus, journeyed through Poland on March of the Living UK culminating in the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom HaShoah. It was an incredible privilege to join this emotionally and physically gruelling journey.
The days were filled with visiting sites of unimaginable horror, learning unbelievable facts, exploring difficult questions and asking ourselves how we could find faith in the face of such great evil.
Our inspirational educator, Richard Verber, invited us to include others in our journey so we followed the path of 12-year-old Halina Birenbaum from the Warsaw Ghetto and Umshlagplatz to Majdanek and then on to Auschwitz.
Standing in the places that Halina stood, with one of us reading excerpts from her written accounts, took us deep into the lived experience. How could survivors such as Halina and Arek Hersch, who travelled with us, find the strength and resilience to survive such unspeakable horrors?
I will never forget sitting at Arek’s feet on the floor of one of the barracks at Birkenau as he told his story with quiet dignity.
He told of sleeping ten men to a wooden bunk as he walked over to point one out. His description of arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau as he rolled up his sleeve to reveal his tattoo was chilling and compelling.
Arek told us that not a single blade of grass was left amidst the mud, the greyness of this place of great absence, suffering and death.
As we walked through the camp, I picked a blade of grass and was reminded of the contrasts we faced as we returned to cosy, hotel rooms with our stomachs full.
Visiting Markowa reminded us that there were people who found the strength and courage to resist.
Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and their six children were murdered for hiding Jews in their home. In the museum, I was moved to see Jozef Ulma’s Bible open at the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’ which was underlined. This sign that the self-sacrifice of the Ulma family was inspired by their Christian faith brought me some strange comfort and solace.
It also made me want to ask more questions about the complex role of the Roman Catholic church in Poland.
As we approached the Buczyna forest in Zbylitowska Gora, we read from ‘Ordinary Men’ by Christopher Browning.
We walked into the forest asking how these ‘middle-aged family men of working-and lower-middle-class background from the city of Hamburg’ were able to round up Jews and take them into the forest and shoot them.
I recalled the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures.
The hard question I had to face was, however much I hoped that I would refuse and do the right thing, there is a deep fear that I would not have been able to resist the pressure to do what I was told.
One challenging discussion took place after we stood around the children’s mass grave in the forest where the Israeli flag had been placed around the edges.
I felt uncomfortable with the use of a country flag in this way but, as I listened to my sisters and brothers express their desire to use this flag to symbolise the huge significance of the safety of land, home and family for those who have lost so much, it helped me to understand.
We also explored the role of forgiveness which I found difficult because, as a Christian, forgiveness is central to my relationship with God and neighbour and I find it hard to accept that forgiveness (not forgetting and not failing to punish) is an impossible goal.
There were no easy answers, but, in some mysterious way through our shared experience, prayers and scripture, my faith was strengthened as we searched together for meaning and for God in the face of the horror of the Holocaust.
Our journey reminded me of the importance of remembrance so that ‘Never Again’ is a shared goal. It has powerfully called me to renew my commitment not to be a bystander in the face of prejudice of any kind.
As people of faith, we must resist those who seek to hijack faith for their own warped aims and stand together for our shared values of love, respect, compassion, justice and mercy.
- The Reverend Margaret Cave is Team Rector of the Church of England East Greenwich Team Ministry.
- Find out more and register your interest for 2020’s journey via www.marchoftheliving.org.uk