FOUR DECADES after the end of World War II, a group of Jewish educators and leaders from North America and Israel had the vision to bring together Holocaust survivors with Jewish students on a pilgrimage of hope in which participants would solemnly observe Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration and death camp, and then one week later celebrate Independence Day in Jerusalem, the capital of reborn Israel.
While not conceived to become an annual event, that initial March of the Living in the spring of 1988 proved to be so successful in its educational impact that organizers over time expanded the program.
Now an annual event with twin programs targeting both Jewish high school students – The March of the Living – and gentile college and university students – The March of Remembrance and Hope – the core mission remains the same: an educational pilgrimage combining visits to sites of Nazi Germany’s genocide in occupied Poland.
Each spring the March of the Living and its sister program the March of Remembrance and Hope take participants on a wrenching emotional roller-coaster. On Nissan 17, according to Judaism’s lunar calendar, the participants in The March of the Living solemnly observe Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day at Auschwitz. One week later, on Iyar 5, they celebrate Independence Day in Israel. This year’s odyssey, taking place May 2 to 16, includes contingents from Chile to Japan. Most, but not all, participants are Jewish. The March of Remembrance and Hope primarily targets university and college students of all faiths, combines a trip to Germany and Poland in the latter part of the spring.
Since the first March of the Living 28 years ago, more than 220,000 participants from 52 countries have marched down the three-kilometer railroad siding leading from Auschwitz – which was a concentration camp where prisoners were worked to oblivion – to Birkenau, which was a death factory equipped with gas chambers and crematoria on an industrial scale.
Together the participants study the history of the Holocaust, and examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate. Many are wrapped in Israel’s blue and white flag. All cry.
Shivering in the spiritual chill of the Polish countryside around the city of Oswiecim – the location of Auschwitz-Birkenau – the participants undergo a catharsis when they arrive in Israel’s balmy spring sunshine to see a country exploding in raucous celebration of its independence in 1948, three short years after the end of the Holocaust.
From death to life, from imprisonment to freedom, from cold to warmth, the experience is indelible.
While originally designed for Jewish college and university students, and focusing on the Holocaust, the program has been widened in recent years. Today the MOTL includes program content celebrating Jewish life in prewar Poland, dialogue with Polish students, meetings with Polish Righteous Among the Nations, and connecting with the contemporary Polish Jewish community.
As well, in 2001 the original MOTL has been expanded to include the March of Remembrance and Hope (MRH), which is designed for university and college students of all religions and backgrounds. This program, which also takes place in May, today includes a two-day visit to Germany, before the five-day Poland portion of the trip. The MRH teaches students of various religious and ethnic backgrounds about the dangers of intolerance through the study of the Holocaust and other World War II genocides, and to promote better relations among people of diverse cultures. Like the March of the Living, the MRH has relied upon Holocaust survivors to provide firsthand testimony.
Research on the MOTL and MRH has shown that they have had a great impact on those who go, affecting their outlook on life, their values, charitable giving, career choices, and much more. For Jewish participants, that commitment includes strengthening Jewish identity and practice, and becoming involved in their local Jewish communities, they have returned to their home country with a greater commitment to Israel, and to remembering the Holocaust.
Some March of the Living alumni have channeled their angst to contribute to society at large. They have become activists in assisting the homeless, combating the genocide in Darfur, volunteering at home or abroad in various worthy humanitarian efforts, and working diligently to combat prejudice and hatred of every kind.
Why has this program been so effective – aside from the professionalism and dedication of the staff and volunteers involved in it? Until now, the Diaspora Jewish and Israeli youth, and non-Jewish students participating in that solemn pilgrimage have been accompanied by aging Holocaust survivors whose firsthand testimony made the sacred task of bearing witness straightforward. Returning with Holocaust survivors to the very places where their personal tragedies unfolded is deeply emotional. The students walk through the camps, and see the cities and towns that were once vibrant communities through the eyes of witnesses.
Bill Glied, a survivor who joined the 2009 MOTL, poignantly spoke of his hope for the impact of the March on those born decades after the events.
“There is a unique and noble custom in the Jewish religion. We go to the cemetery and find the graves of our loved ones. Then we take a small stone and place it on the tombstone to say, ‘We are here. We haven’t forgotten you. We love you. We remember you.’ “In Auschwitz there are no tombstones. All those who perished here – my mother, my sister, my whole family – they have no monuments. But all of you who are standing here today, you are the little stones, and you are saying, ‘We are here. We haven’t forgotten you. We love you.’” But now the generation of survivors is coming to its end. At some not-so-future point, there will be no Holocaust survivors joining the pilgrimage of teenagers and young people.
Can the March’s searing psychological impact be sustained without actually encountering a survivor? Recognizing that just as there are no longer veterans of World War I still alive, soon no one will be left who lived through the long dark night of Nazi persecution, in 2014 the March of the Living’s organizers commissioned a book of testimony to stand in lieu of personal memories. Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations, written by Eli Rubenstein, is that book.
Published in 2015 by Toronto’s Second Story Press, the book is distributed to every English- speaking MOTL participant. Filled with haunting poetry and jarring photos, Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations documents the odyssey of students, Holocaust survivors, teachers, governmental, communal and religious leaders as they first visit the concentration/ death camps and sites of prewar Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe, and then tour Israel.
In compiling content for the book, Rubenstein cherry-picked the MOL archives for the extraordinarily poignant pictures snapped by professional photographers who were part of the MOL team as well as those taken by participants.
He combined them with the poems of the young participants, and added sections to provide a historical underpinning to explain the events that led to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.
Rubenstein believes that the underlying message of the book is a positive one, despite the grisly historic event that is at its core.
“This book is about hope and making the world a better place. It’s not about hate or revenge. The aim is to heal,” he said.
The handsome coffee table volume, if one can call use such a term to describe such horror, comes with all of bells and whistles of today’s interactive technology. Unlike conventional printed books, which contain information in the text and images on the pages themselves, almost all of the images of the Holocaust survivors in the book and some of the WWII liberators and Righteous Among the Nations have a hidden QR code embedded in the page. Using a free app called Digimarc, readers can simply wave their smart phone over the page, and are thereby electronically taken to the actual testimony of the March of the Living Digital Archives Project http:// molarchiveproject.com/ or the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education (formerly Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation). The foundation, funded by Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg of Schindler’s List fame, conducted nearly 52,000 video testimonies between 1994 and 1999, and currently has more than 53,000 testimonies.
Those testimonies are supplemented by the March of the Living Digital Archive Project, which was begun in 2013.Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations
was printed in a first edition of 7,500 copies. A second edition is now being prepared, and the book is being translated into German, Spanish, French and Hebrew, said Rubenstein.
In a unique touch, the book opens with a message from Pope Francis, who expresses his support for March of the Living. In that, he was following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, who also supported the MOL initiatives of remembrance, Rubenstein said.
Witness grew out of an acclaimed threemonth exhibit in 2014 on the March of the Living that was displayed at the United Nations in New York. Titled “When You Listen to a Witness, You Become a Witness”, the exhibit – and the book – includes photographs, documents and writings devoted to the history of the March of the Living, as well archival photos of deportation and mass murder from the Holocaust period.
Can such a volume, with the imprimatur of the Vatican, achieve its historic mission? Can Witness’s digital watermarks leading to a video archive of survivors’ recorded firsthand testimony stand in for live people? If Anne Frank is perhaps the most recognized of the more than six million Jewish victims, Elie Wiesel is the most famous of the survivors.
Wiesel is optimistic that when the last Holocaust witnesses have gone to their eternal reward, that their memory will be carried on, thanks to the March of the Living.
In a 2012 media interview, the 87-year-old Nobel Laureate said: “I’ve given my life to the principle and the ideal of memory, and remembrance [of the Holocaust]. I know that my generation of course is a kind of endangered species. We are fewer and fewer. But on the other hand… I think the children will be our successors. Not only that, I’m a teacher.
I speak [to] my students, I do believe [that] to listen to a witness is to become a witness in turn. So, look, my generation has become a witness, has been a witness, and now the question of course is — very often I think about [this] — one day the last survivor will be gone.
I don’t want to be that one. Because the idea to be the last, with all the memories, and all the spoken and unspoken ideas, and words, I don’t want to be that one.”
Wiesel disputes that the second and third generations have an obligation to carry the torch of memory.
“I would call it privilege. It’s the young generation’s privilege to be able to say, ‘Don’t worry, we shall be here, to speak about you and for you.’” Without survivors joining the March of the Living and without their immediate, firsthand insights, will participants become the living testimony for future generations that organizers hope for? The answer will doubtless be revealed with the passage of time.
Reviewing Witness, human rights activist and former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, quotes Judy Weissenberg Cohen, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, feminist and social activist who settled in Canada after WWII. In an eloquent piece called, “The Last Time I Saw my Mother”, Weissenberg Cohen encourages – rather pleads – with her students to help heal the wounds of the past, by striving to create a better world today.
On a March of the Living trip in 1997, she relateed to the students about the last time she saw her mother, on the selection ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, as a young teenage girl in 1944: “I never had a chance to say goodbye to my mother. We didn’t know we had to say goodbye.
I am an old woman today and I never made peace with the fact that I never had that last hug and kiss.” She paused, then continued.
“They say, ‘When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.’ I am only asking you to work for a world where nobody will have to live with memories like mine ever again. Please heal the world.”
Time will tell if Weissenberg Cohen’s heartfelt plea, “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness,” is more than wishful thinking.
The 28th March of the Living will take place on May 5th. The live stream of the main ceremony can be seen at: http://motl.org/livestream/