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Open Letter to March of the Living Educators, Leaders and Chaperones

If you don't know just how transformative your educational work can be, let me tell you how the experience changed me
Jewish youth from all over the world participate in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland on April 11, 2018(Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Jewish youth from all over the world participate in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland on April 11, 2018(Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Dear Friend,

We never actually met, but you probably already know me.

I am the kid in the blue jacket who did not really want to go on the March of the Living but ended up applying to the program to appease my parents. I am the kid who dozed off during the pre-trip preparatory sessions about remembrance, tradition and the importance of community. I am the kid who was politely “asked” to leave the Jewish day school system in grade 3 (with good reason in retrospect), and I was the loud teenager who didn’t really care very much about anything except perhaps the score of whatever game was on TV or chatting up the girl sitting next to me.

All of that changed in the spring of 1992, when I landed in Poland as a participant on the March of the Living.

27 years later, I can still tell you who I sat next to on what bus ride, I can tell you the names of my chaperones, the educators, the rabbi (who would become my lifelong friend and mentor) and the hotels that we slept in.

I can tell you exactly how devastated I felt when the Holocaust survivor accompanying us that year, the late Peter Kleinmann, told us the story of the last time he saw his mother and sisters, when they were separated upon arrival in Auschwitz. I can tell you the sickness I felt in my stomach when Peter told us the story about the “selection” — the last time he saw his father. I will never forget the pain I felt when Peter told us about his last encounter before liberation at the Flossenburg concentration camp in February of 1945.

At that point, as Peter explained to us, he was a Musulman – a walking skeleton and he was sent to a section of the camp that was the last stop before imminent extermination. By a stroke of fate, he came face-to-face with his brother, a Schreiber (who, because he spoke six languages, was a scribe) in the camp. Peter’s brother was assigned to process his death. Peter was unrecognizable to him and when he identified himself to his brother, his brother fainted in disbelief. When he awoke, he told Peter that he was in a line of people who would be sent to the gas chambers the following day. Using his privilege as a camp functionary, Peter’s brother had received permission from an SS officer to remove Peter from the line on the condition that he replace Peter’s spot with someone else. I will never forget the agony in Peter’s face when he told us of the pain that he lived with waking up every morning knowing that someone else had to die so that he could live.

I also remember standing in a former study hall (in 1992 — a Polish medical college) that was once the crown jewel of Polish yeshivot. Our educator and spiritual leader, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, explained to us that the concept of “Daf Yomi” a novel and popular form of rigorous daily Talmud study was conceived of in that very same study hall. Sadly, we also learned about the day that the Nazis ransacked the yeshiva and burned its famed library. At that time, I had no sense of what a yeshiva was like. I had no appreciation for the Talmud and I certainly had no idea what “Daf Yomi” was. It was a profoundly empty feeling. I had no meaningful understanding of the sacred books that the Nazis hated so much and sought to destroy. Then and there — I promised myself that I would never feel that emptiness again.

I also remember the pride and excitement that I felt the moment when our flight made that last turn into the final approach to Ben Gurion airport – a feeling that 27 years later and after countless flights, never grows old.

I remember what it felt like to mourn with Israel on Yom Hazikaron, to celebrate with her and her citizens on Yom Haatzmaut and I remember the exuberation of standing on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport and welcoming an airplane full of new Olim from the former Soviet Union.

I am forever indebted to that anonymous donor who helped make my participation on the 1992 March of Living possible. I am forever grateful to my chaperones, to the educators and to the leaders who took a chance by giving me a chance.

My March of the Living experience came full circle in 2015 when I stood alongside 230 students, Holocaust survivors, educators and my co-chaperones on the March of the Living. We stood in the same yeshiva where I stood some 23 years earlier – only this time – I was the teacher and I was completing a tractate of the Talmud with two of my co-chaperones. I could not help to feel the spirit of the late Peter Kleinmann smiling down on me in satisfaction knowing that the chain of remembrance and continuity remains unbroken.

That circle closed a little tighter in 2017 when I, together with Amy Brownstein, my co-chair of the Montreal March of the Living delegation that year, along with almost 300 students, Holocaust survivors and chaperones, stood in the center of Szczybreszcyn, Poland. We stood on the very same ground where, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 1939, the Nazis burned all of this Shtetl’s Torah Scrolls. Only this time, we were completing a new Torah scroll dedicated in honor of the 42 Holocaust survivors who have accompanied the Montreal March of the Living delegations between the years 1990 and 2017. Every student participant inscribed a letter in the Torah scroll and the last 10 letters were inscribed by the 10 Holocaust survivors accompanying our journey that year. We then unrolled the scroll and used the Torah for the first time to celebrate the bar mitzvah of one of the survivors accompanying us who never had the opportunity to celebrate his bar mitzvah as a child.

If you are fortunate enough to count Holocaust survivors among your March of the Living delegations — honor their presence. Cherish every minute of every day with them, cherish the bus rides, the walks and the discussions with them. Remember to also cherish the lifelong friendships that you will forge with your co-chaperones as well as the meaningful interactions that you will have with the participants under your care. Above all, appreciate the amazing opportunity that you have been given to leave an indelible mark on the future of your respective communities.

After the long bus rides, the sleep deprivation, the tight schedules and the short tempers – you may be left feeling that the participants may not be “getting” it. You may be tempted to feel that they are not processing or they do not appreciate the profundity of it all. If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. However, for most, the real impact of the March of the Living may not be immediate. The sense of the experience may only come to bear years later, at a funeral, in a synagogue, on campus, in a boardroom, under a chuppah or when holding a child for the very first time. The profundity of the two weeks that you are about to embark on and the experiences and memories that you are about to facilitate — will resonate for a lifetime.

Just prior to my departure for the 1992 March of the Living, all participants that year received a letter from Stanley Plotnick, the chair of the 1992 Montreal March of the Living delegation. The letter concluded with the following words: “Your commitment to the March of the Living and your willingness to ensure its success, is most gratifying for those of us who believe in the possibilities which an experience such as the March unfolds.”

Those words rang true 27 years ago and they continue to ring true today. Your commitment, as chaperones, educators and leaders, is indeed most gratifying for those of us who believe in the possibilities that the March of the Living unfolds….especially to those who have experienced it firsthand.

About the Author
Lawrence Witt is a labor, employment and human rights lawyer with the pan-Canadian firm Miller Thomson LLP. In 2017, Lawrence was co-chair of the Montreal March of the Living Delegation comprising of 250 participants accompanied by 10 Holocaust survivors. Lawrence is also a Wexner Heritage Fellow (class of 2019). In the early 1990's, Lawrence studied at Yeshivat Machon Meir in Jerusalem and he subsequently served in the IDF as a lone soldier in the Armored Corps.
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