Young people take part in the 2015 March of the Living, with Israeli flags draped over their shoulders.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU – Leaving the tranquility of Krakow, with its wide central square and cobbled streets – which unlike Warsaw was not destroyed during World War II – the journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau is a jarring experience.
Even for those who have been to the concentration, labor and extermination camp before, just the name conjures up a sense of evil, something that seems indefinable.
The road that leads through some heavily wooded areas makes you stop and think – did a massacre take place there? At the March of the Living, thousands of participants arrived ahead of the official start to visit the camp, walk its barracks, breathe its air and – unsurprisingly considering the number of teenagers – schmooze. Students from Germany, Sweden, France, the US, Canada and many other countries mingled as the atmosphere began to build.
A group of about 45 students from Poland, ages 18-20, was pleased for the opportunity to take part, meet peers from different countries, and to try and learn the lessons of history. Oliver from Germany said that attending the march was an opportunity to stand with Jews and Israel and show that Germany and Germans had changed. Stefan, taking part with a group from the International Council of Christians and Jews in Germany, said that “the Jewish people carries life. My participation is to salute that fact.”
The march began with a few words from event chairman Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, who recalled that when Soviet troops arrived at Auschwitz in January 1945 and liberated the camp, they were too late. Most of the inmates who had survived until the Red Army approached had been sent away, to their deaths.
Rosenman said the march was to enable people to “return with hope and prayer.” He called on the world to be “alert when people are being slaughtered” and “not be indifferent to their suffering, no matter their color, religion or nationality.” He concluded by repeating the words of a teenage participant: “The march is against dehumanization, to create tolerance and to make a better future for all of us.”
In warm sunshine, leading the march of some 11,000 participants from 42 countries, was Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau – himself a survivor of Buchenwald – accompanied by Keith M. Harper, the recently appointed US ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council. A Cherokee, Harper is the first Native American to represent the United States in an ambassadorial role.
Others included Phyllis and Richard Heideman, the chairwoman of the March of the Living International Advisory Board and her husband, an internationally renowned human rights lawyer, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Walking along the railway spur through the infamous entrance to Birkenau, the marchers were greeted by a reading of the names of some of the children who were murdered in the camp. Greg Masel, the director-general of Keren Hayesod-UIA, narrated the event, drawing attention to the significance of the 70th anniversary since the camp’s liberation.
A video showed the reactions of different survivors to the moment of their liberation. One remarked, “We lived to see evil broken”; another said that she knew she was truly liberated when a US soldier placed a mezuza in her hand. Another survivor said that the liberators “were like angels who came out of nowhere.” Despite the “unimaginable joy,” one of the liberated acknowledged that it was difficult to pick up life’s pieces again.
A short video on Anne Frank used different children to describe parts of her childhood, with each of them concluding with the words “I am Anne Frank” – a chilling reminder of the words “I am Charlie” that the world spoke after January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre by Islamist terrorists.
President Reuven Rivlin recorded a video message in which he said that “we will never forget the evil – it connects the past and the present.”
He concluded with a plea to the students taking part: “The survivors are now passing to you the torch of life, of belief, of standing strong. Hold this torch high to ensure that even if there are no more survivors living among us, their memory will always be part of our life and will never fade away.”
Pope Francis sent a message of hope connecting people of all faiths: “I am very close to these initiatives, which are not only against death, but also against the thousands of discriminatory phobias that enslave and kill.”
Rabbi Lau addressed the crowd as the sky began to darken, reflecting the mood of those gathered. He said that even after 70 years, we can neither forgive, nor forget – because the perpetrators never asked for pardon and we do not have the authority to forgive on behalf of those who died.
He finished with a plea for unity. “If we could all die together, we must know the secret to live together in peace, unity and brotherhood.”