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Never take the emotion out of the Holocaust

The March of the Living program is purposely designed to touch participants' hearts, not just their minds

The International March of the Living is in its 27th year. During those years over 220,000 young people from around the globes have come to Poland to study, reflect, remember and return to their communities to share their personal reaction to facing the past through their experience in the present.

This is the 70th year since the end of the Second World War. With every passing day the number of survivors living among us decreases. Our responsibility is to find the best way to ensure that their story is passed on from generation to generation, not as a piece of abstract history but as part of the story of our people. This year our theme is “every witness becomes witness” as the torch of the survivors is passed to the next generation.

In evaluating the impact of those who participate in the March of the Living and experience first-hand the effect of bearing witness to the witnesses, we find that the transmittal of emotional, educational and compassionate reactions to the events of the past has a deep impact on both the deliverer and the recipient.

Education around the Holocaust should never be dispassionate, it should never be disconnected from feeling. Every year there is a moment during the March of the Living which remains with us, which touches us, which strengthens us and which reaffirms our commitment to the memory of the Holocaust and to act upon its lessons. Those moments whether emotive, analytical or reflective contribute to the educational process. It was Einstein who said, “The only source of knowledge is experience” and Kant who is famously paraphrased as saying, “Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.”

Our in-depth studies show that the best way to truly reach people and expose them to the realities of the Holocaust is via a combination of personal experience, preparation prior to the trip and the testimonies of the survivors themselves, who accompany the participants on their journey. The reflection and processing each evening has proven to be one of the most successful ways to relay the impact and importance of the experiences and serves as the first step in internalizing the events of the past.

The marching on Yom HaShoah from Auschwitz to Birkenau with more than 10,000 Jews and non-Jews alike from around the globe leaves an indelible impression on each participant. The very fact that our ancestors walked this same path embraces the true meaning of memory. This is honest legacy stemming from the intense meaning of the March of the Living experience and is a feeling which can remain with and influence lives forever.

Our goal is not education merely for the sake of education; it is education for the sake of memory and of action, education for the past and the future.

About the Author
Phyllis Greenberg Heideman is president of International March of the Living, the annual international Holocaust education program.