Hatred of Jews and Israel is the same, chairman of the March of the Living says

When we look around the world today we see that our work is not yet done, says Dr. Shmuel Rosenman.

April 16, 2015 10:47
March of the Living

‘Never again shall we be silent when innocent people are being slaughtered.’ Shmuel Rosenman addresses the March of the Living. (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)

OVER THE last 27 years, the March of the Living has brought together more than 200,000 participants to walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Each year, these marchers commemorate more than a million people – the vast majority of them Jewish men, women, and children – who were murdered in the death camp. This year, the program will include 10,000 students and adults, Jews and non-Jews, from more than 40 countries. It will also commemorate the 70th anniversary to the end of the Second World War.

“Seventy years ago, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz,” says Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, who has served as chairman for the March of the Living since 1988. “But for most of this camp’s inmates, they were too late.”

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Only a few thousand frail and starving prisoners were still alive, he says, calling Auschwitz-Birkenau the largest site of mass murder in the world. He adds that all across Europe, the same scene was repeated, with allied troops coming across scores of concentration camps filled with the few who had managed to survive the brutality of the Nazis.

“On this march we insist that never again shall we be silent when innocent people are being slaughtered,” says Rosenman. “Whether they are our brothers and sisters, or members of any other nation, race or religion, never again shall we [be] indifferent to the suffering others. Never again shall we be ‘too late’ in hearing the cry of the downtrodden.

And yet we look around the world today and see that our work is not yet done.”

Rosenman considers the march and its surrounding events an international educational program, bringing young people and adults from all over the world together to learn about the history of the Holocaust and Jewish life in Poland.

“The participants take the actual steps of the march of death,” explains Rosenman. “The actual route which countless numbers of Nazi victims were forced to take on their way to the gas chambers or other concentration camps. This time, however, there’s a difference. It’s the march of the living – during which participants will affirm that intolerance no longer has a place in our world.”

According to Rosenman, who received his doctorate in education administration from Penn State University, and today teaches economic and health policy at Bar-Ilan University and Ashkelon Academic College, the program has several goals.

First is to pay tribute to the courage of those who survived the Holocaust and rebuilt their lives despite the haunting memories of the past. Participants are thus the bearers of their memories – the witnesses for the witnesses.

Second, to never again allow for the unchecked rise of anti-Semitism or other kinds of discrimination against a single racial group. Third, tikkun olam – the Jewish concept of improving the world – which is meant to remind students of the responsibility to be a light unto the nations and reach out to people of all cultures. And fourth, to enter into history by visiting Eastern Europe.

Young students, says Rosenman, take part in this commemorative act demonstrating to the world that the death of 6 million Jews has been marked and will never be forgotten by the Jewish people.

“The March of the Living has two parts,” he continues. “One week in Poland, and one week in Israel. The idea is to go from destruction to rebirth – to understand the importance of the existence of Israel as the spiritual center and homeland of the Jewish people.”

This conveys what Rosenman says is the lesson that Jewish people will never again allow themselves to be defenseless. And he suggests it develops love for the people of Israel and an appreciation of the hardships and sacrifices endured by the citizens on behalf of their country. All this, he says, gives a better understanding of from destruction to rebirth.

“Despite the destruction of the Holocaust, the Jews never gave up their belief in building a better tomorrow,” he adds. “Rather, they rose up against all odds and established the State of Israel – the hope and future of the Jewish people.”

Participants in the March of the Living prepare in many sessions and study groups ahead of the program in order to be able to grasp their experience. And one of the most important elements of the program is that groups are accompanied by Holocaust survivors who tell their own firsthand experiences.

Rosenman believes that March of the Living alumni go back to their homes and become ambassadors on campuses, schools, and communities – telling stories from their personal experience in Poland and Israel.

A follow-up survey conducted by the organization has found that more than 80 percent of Jewish participants said their sense of Jewish identity and motivation to participate in activities within the Jewish community increased after the program. Virtually all respondents – 95% – felt that the March of the Living left them well prepared to counter the claims of Holocaust deniers. And 91% agreed that the confronting of anti-Semitism became even more important to them after the trip. In the area of human rights and feelings of tolerance for other groups, 87% felt that their understanding and personal sensitivity increased.

Participants returning to their home communities thus have a special and unique power, telling the story of the Holocaust, which may in turn help check the rise of anti-Semitism.

This is especially true in a year that has seen levels of anti-Semitism spike all over the world – and especially in Europe.

“Every normal human being understands that if we have living survivors telling their personal stories then we hope the world learned something,” reflects Rosenman. “We hope and pray that anti-Semitism declines [in] the world. But in the last couple of years we’ve found a strong increase instead.”

As a response, the preparation sessions include instruction on what is anti-Semitism – including its roots – and explanations on the difference between old and new anti- Semitism.

“At the end of the day, they are the same thing,” says Rosenman. “It’s a hatred of Jews, a hatred of Israel, and using Israel as a tool to create hate for Jews.”

He insists that the program’s participants are very aware of the current situation. The fact that half of them are not Jewish is important in helping spread teaching about what anti-Semitism, fascism, and racism can do to the Jewish people and to societies at large. Personal experience with real survivors can turn them into agents of change. The program’s leadership believes that, even if they can’t change the world, they can make a small change for the better.

“Most people today, even if they’re not deniers, they are bystanders,” explains Rosenman. “We want to teach that you shouldn’t be a bystander. You should be active – taking action by law and action by intervention. To be a strong force against anti-Semitism anywhere in the world. Our slogan is – witness the past, ensure the future.”

To this end, Rosenman recalls something that writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said: “We were convinced that anti- Semitism perished here in Auschwitz. It didn’t end here. Its victims perished here.”

Asked what he plans to tell this year’s participants, Rosenman answers: “With each step that you take, let it be a reminder to raise your voice against violence and hate, to proclaim to the world that you will never be silent or indifferent in the face of evil.”

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