March of the Living chairman Shmuel Rosenman reflects on his 30-year involvement with the organization and eagerly awaits the annual pilgrimage to Poland.
“We [the organizers] thought that maybe the first march would also be the last, that perhaps it would only be a one-year thing,” he said. “However, its educative power was very clear – both to Israeli and Diaspora students. In fact, the educational element is the glue that holds everything together.”
For Rosenman, the significance of taking students to Poland to visit former Nazi death camps – the location of where the apotheosis of European Jew-hatred was realized – occurred a year or two prior to the first March.
“A delegation of approximately 140 students and teachers from different Tel Aviv schools went to Poland. We saw that the effect of visiting an extermination camp and being in front of the crematoria, for even an hour, was more educationally valuable than five years in a classroom.”
The March’s phenomenal success, wherein more than 260,000 alumni from more than 52 countries have marched down the same three-kilometer path leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day, belies its tentative beginnings.
“People asked us who we were and what our program was,” said Rosenman. “From our inception we have received funding from neither the government nor the Jewish Agency. We have been powered by the people who believe in our mission – including our volunteers, who devote so many hours to the cause. All of our partners, mostly from the educational arena, have helped to ensure that this is one of the most powerful experiences our students and participants can have.”
URUGUAYAN-BORN Baruch Adler, a second-generation Holocaust survivor and vice chairman of the International March of the Living has, like Rosenman, been with the organization since it was founded.
“The format and work of March of the Living built on already existing programs that were present in Israel at the time,” he explained. The iconic march leading from Auschwitz’s gates that ironically proclaimed “Work Sets You Free” to the Birkenau extermination camp was not the main emphasis originally.
“The intention was to investigate how we could combine educational activities – such as a quiz on the subject of the Shoah and heroism during the Second World War – with a presence in Poland.”
Critical to this thinking was the presence of an instrumental figure in the genesis of Holocaust education in Israel, namely Abraham Hirchson. As the person in charge of youth education in the National Youth League (the youth branch of the Histadrut), he was uniquely placed to guide this and began to push the idea of some kind of event – with youth central to its conduct – in Poland around the time of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I was a lawyer in the same organization,” Adler said, “and I took part in one or two of these trips, which were concerned with culture connected to the Shoah and heroism. By April 1988, practical ideas began to crystallize to bring teenagers from Israel – from the same schools and communities that had traditionally participated in the quiz – to Poland, and in addition to organize a march to act as an emblem of the generations wiped out in the Shoah.”
It was this idea, instead of a likely overly traumatic but powerful and highly symbolic train journey from Warsaw to Treblinka, which was fixed. Even at this early stage, the combination of an educational trip for predominantly Jewish teenagers with the live testimony of Holocaust survivors was viewed as crucial.
Adler recalled that on the first March, he and his wife brought along their nine-month-old son. That decision raised some eyebrows, but reflecting on it 30 years later, the notion of its poignancy remains intact – and has even strengthened.
“As a son of a Holocaust-survivor mother, it was very emotional to hold a child in our hands in that place. It is a difficult story, butrevenge – both for my mother and the Jewish people.”
THE THIRD panel in this triptych is March of the Living deputy chairman and general director of projects and operations, Aharon Tamir. He is Rosenman’s No. 2 and is responsible for the logistical organization that goes into making each March possible. Tamir has been involved for 25 years and was approached because of his expertise in producing large-scale events. As time has progressed, his role has widened.
“I am principally engaged with the organization and operational arrangements in Poland – the granting of the relevant permits, connections with the Foreign Ministry, the police, museums, programs, security and events.” While the annual march is obviously the jewel in the organization’s crown, Tamir stressed that it is by no means the only event that March of the Living organizes. For example, it has expanded its activities into Hungary – where there is also a march.
This year’s event takes place somewhat in the shadow of the Polish government’s controversial Holocaust Bill, initially passed in February, but which the country’s constitutional court suspended.
For Tamir, there is a clear distinction between the logistical side of things that he deals with and any potential political fallout.
The message he has received from the organizations and institutions with which he deals is that they are eager to once again welcome the March to Poland.
In that vein, a further aspect of the strength of the cooperation that takes place is the presence of hundreds – this year an anticipated 1,500 – 17- to 18-year-old Polish high school students.
“They march with us,” explained Tamir, “and we help sponsor their participation before the March itself by taking them to the POLIN Museum, which showcases the 1,000-year Jewish history in Poland. I have an excellent relationship with Polish Education Minister Anna Zalewska – and they are very pleased that we expose these students to the facts of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust.”
DESPITE THEIR obvious pride in the success of the March of the Living, Rosenman, Adler and Tamir are acutely aware of the pressing need to also consider how the Shoah will be taught in the future, when we will be deprived of eyewitness testimony.
“At Passover,” said Rosenman, “we recall events that took place more than 3,000 years ago. Why do we do that? Because, it is in our DNA to remember our history.” He added that the Shoah of European Jewry was the most traumatic series of events to befall the Jewish people and for many years survivors did not and could not speak of their experiences.
“We need to decide how to continue telling the story and we do not think that museums – despite the excellent work that they do – on their own are enough.” He embraces the technological advancements that will allow a form of firsthand testimony to endure, through virtual reality, holograms and augmented reality.
The use of social media at the same time that the March is taking place will also provide a multiplier effect and help spread the message of defiance and rebirth.
March of the Living has had a profound effect on its participants for the last 30 years, encouraging them to become guardians of the memory of the Holocaust, telling and re-telling the most harrowing and destructive chapter in Jewish history. But it is also a story of redemption, a critical component of which is a series of events that takes place in Israel in the week following the March in Poland and culminates in Independence Day celebrations. And that sense of the narrative of redemption began with the very first March.
“We began the March in light snow,” recalled Rosenman.
“During the ceremony we held small torches, but the snow continued to fall. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau gave his address and at its conclusion we sang ‘Hatikva.’ [All of a sudden]… the clouds broke and beams of light came down. If you had asked someone, they would have told you that we planned it.”
This article was written in cooperation with the March of the Living organization.