Reflections

Students look back at their experiences on the March of the Living

By EMMY GNAT
April 30, 2016 07:51
March of the Living

Emmy Gnat found a traveling partner and ‘shoulder to cry on’ in Holocaust survivor Esther Fairbloom. (photo credit: COURTESY MOL)

 When your bus buddy is Esther Fairbloom

YOU MIGHT be wondering why I haven’t posted for the past two weeks, even if you’re not wondering, I’m going to tell you anyways. I’ve been in Poland and Israel traveling with the March of the Living to learn about the Holocaust, the Jewish people, and Israel.

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I could give you the play by play of each day and what I saw, but I thought I could focus on something from my trip that will stick with me forever.

Arriving off the packed plane, we all shuffled down the stairs, disoriented and nauseous but excited knowing how much was ahead of us. Being the bus sick traveler I am, I opted for a seat at the front of the bus to avoid any potential disasters.

Unfortunately, all seats were taken by the time I managed to stuff my luggage into the bus. Anxious and confused, I timidly asked my chaperon for a seat at the front of the bus. She looked at me with pity and asked “how’s row five going to be?” when she saw that the seats had all been filled with security and tour guides. I paused nervously and accepted the offer. I began shuffling back when I heard a voice call out “there’s an empty seat beside me”.

I turned back and was surprised to see that the Holocaust survivor on our bus, Esther Fairbloom, invited me to sit with her.

I politely denied her offer assuming she would actually want both seats to herself, but she demanded, in the most loving way, I sit next to her.

I was nervous. What was I supposed to do? Should I introduce myself? Ask her about her flight? Is it rude if I listen to music? Maybe I should start a conversation? So I did.

We talked until we arrived at our first stop of the day. She began to tell me a bit about herself. She is a mom, a Bubbie, and a devoted wife. She has worked 35 years at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto, and this was her second year on the March of the Living.

Everyday I looked forward to getting on the bus and sitting next to my bus buddy.

She would tell me stories, give me chocolate, and always be there with tissues. She was a shoulder to cry on and there with open arms for anyone. She never failed to be a comfort and hold your hand tight until she knew you were okay. It amazed me to see her be so strong. After all this was equally, if not harder for her than for us, to go to these places of evil. Even when she didn’t want to go into a part of the camps, she would hold my arm tight and say, “I’m going where my kids go” and together we would walk through the most appalling and terrifying places. Even after everything we saw though, she was thinking about everyone else. She was giving everyone hugs, holding the kids who were sobbing, she put everyone before herself.

Every so often on the bus, Esther would tell me parts of her story. I thought I had heard it all, but little did I know how much more there was. When it came time for Esther to share her story with the entire Toronto delegation, I expected to hear the unbelievable story I had heard pieces of on the bus. She started out, and I thought I knew pretty well what she was going to say, she talked about how she was hidden in a nunnery by Polish and Russian nuns and how when the Nazis would come, they would hide her in a desk because she had red hair and they would know she was Jewish.

The story began to take a turn when she started talking about her life after the war. I knew pieces of it, but then she started talking about something I had never heard her say.

Esther was not only a Holocaust survivor who lost her parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, but she was also a stage four liver cancer survivor. She was diagnosed just months before her granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah and was determined to be able to live to see that. After aggressive chemotherapy Esther had lost so much weight and all of her hair, she stood in front of a mirror and looked at her self with disgust.

She told us that she knew this is what her family looked like when they were dying in the camps during the war. She told us she was broken and felt like this was the end and she couldn’t go on, but then she found the strength within her to keep pushing through.

I was shocked. I stood in front of her in silence as she spoke. She told us that even after all she’s been through and suffers with today, she continues to live a positive life.

How could someone stay positive when there has been so many terrible things done to them? How do they not give up? She told us straight out, life is unfair, but that doesn’t mean that you have to project that in yourself everyday. You can choose, if you want, your life to be miserable and live everyday like the world is out to get you, or you can choose to love. You can love the people around you, love the things you do everyday, find things that make you smile, and do things that make other people happy.

Esther doesn’t see herself as strong though, she sees herself as a human. In my eyes, Esther is one of the strongest people I have ever met. She has the side of her that takes care of her family, babysits the grandchildren, raises money for their schools, and cooks anything and everything they want. She also has the side of her that was stricken with a terrible disease and has suffered through excruciating physical and mental pain in her life. It takes courage and tenacity to come on this trip and relive the horrors of her early life, it takes grit and persistence to get out of bed every morning with aching bones, and it takes strength to be able to look at your life, misfortunes and all, and decide that you can be happy. Esther taught me that life may be unfair, but you have to remember that you’re still here, and being mad at the world is just a waste of your time. If you spend everyday angry, than you’re missing out on all the love around you. Even when it’s hard and you feel like you should just give up, you have to remember to stay strong for those around you because there is always someone who loves and cares about you.

Esther – I usually have to sit beside a first aid kit or water bottles when I get stuck at the front of the bus, exciting I know.

How grateful I am that you called me over and let me sit beside you. I have never been so lucky to have a better bus buddy than you. You not only taught me so much about the past but have given me lessons to carry on into the future. You inspire me everyday and I am so glad I got to sit beside you for the past two weeks. Thank you for all the chocolate, hugs, stories, and of course lots of Kleenex.

Emmy Gnat, Canada.

Sharing sorrow and joy

HOW CAN I begin to express what I’ve been through the past week? I’ve just returned from Poland, after what felt like a whole lifetime. A journey in the footsteps of my family, visiting sites where there once existed a flourishing Jewish life, a life that was exterminated in the ghettos and concentration/death camps that I’ve just seen the remnants of.

During this trip I’ve tried to comprehend the incomprehensible: to fathom what went on during the Holocaust and what sort of life existed in my grandfather’s homeland before the war made everything Jewish in Poland a historical artefact, something that seems as if it existed centuries ago.

During this week I have seen synagogues that have been turned into museums since there are no Jews left to gather there, cemeteries where the death year marked at the graves stop at 1939 since the next generation was never buried. I have seen mass graves in the forests where an entire village’s Jewish population was shot and buried, some of them still alive.

I have seen the death camp Treblinka, a veritable death factory - where the number of people killed equals the size of my whole hometown, Stockholm. Its only trace is an open spot in the forest, it has a monument of hundreds and hundreds of stones you’d think represent each killed person, when in fact they’re representing each village or city where Jews were killed - the bigger the size of the stone, the bigger the city.

With thousands of other Jewish groups from all over the world, we marched a “March of the Living” as the trip itself is called, from Auschwitz to Birkenau. More than 10, 000 of us marched together – as an inverted version of the death marches where the Nazis would have people walk 24/7, until they fell down of exhaustion and died, or were shot for slowing down.

But we could gather on the lawns of Birkenau in the blue jackets we all had - to show that we are alive, that Jewish life goes on and to honor the life of our murdered families.

Most importantly, it was an inspiring feeling to see so many of us there and to know that we, unlike them, could walk away as free human beings, to leave those horrific sites still alive. Yet, once more, it was impossible to grasp that the sum of all of us there, 10 000 people, was the equal amount of people being killed every at that very place, 70 years ago.

We visited Majdanek, another concentration and death camp. With the city of Lublin as backdrop, masses of people were killed and the smoke from their burnt bodies covering the skies above the heads of the Poles. Nowadays, this is the only site in Poland where we could still see an intact gas chamber, the Zyklon B gas used to kill our families still leaving its blue color on the walls.

One of us had a grandfather who managed to escape those very gas chambers we were looking at. He survived that camp, and several others, as well as a death march. His story and another incident, reminded us that the fight against antisemitism is not a historical one. In the first case, right upon returning from the trip, the first news I was reached by was that neo-Nazis had entered the room in the school where he, now 88 years old, was giving a speech about his experiences.

In the second case, we had just been visiting the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, including the site of the ghetto uprising. Walking away from there, for the first time in my life, I saw two people stretching out their arms in a Hitler salute directed towards me and our group.

After all we’d seen that week, their gesture was silently saying that they agreed with all of it, that they believed that we too ought to be killed just for being born Jews.

We’ve seen a number of memorial monuments and in the biggest book I have ever seen, all known names of Jewish Holocaust victims were collected. There I found several people sharing the names of my family members, as well as my own name. That made it perfectly clear that it really could’ve been me. And it could still be me, or you – if the people who live to hate and create false differences between people are allowed to do so.

Finally, apart from the sorrows we’ve shared, we’ve also shared an incredible amount of joy. We have laughed, danced, sung and celebrated Jewish traditions in the best of spirits, alive as we are. I strongly recommend everyone to do the same kind of trip, because although I’ve tried, this cannot be retold, it has to be seen. It’s the worst and the best trip I’ve done.

Thank you to all my new beloved friends for making this trip what it was. Let’s never forget.

Hannah Laustiola Frydman, Sweden


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/


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