I would like to share with you 2 unique experiences I had on the March of The Living.
On the 2nd day of “The March”, we visited a small village called Tycochin, which I am sure many of you have never heard of before.
Tycochin was a small shtetel in south-east Poland, which had approx.
5000 residents. Half Jewish and Half Polish.
The Jews and gentiles did not have problems with one another. On the contrary, they actually did business together and got along with each other.
If any of you have ever watched Fiddler on the Roof, which was played on the bus on our way to the village, the opening scene fittingly portrays the day-to-day life in one of these villages.
Two years after the war broke out, in the early mornings of August 25 and 26 1941, the Nazis rounded up all Jews in the town square for apparent “relocation”.
Men, women, children, the elderly and the sick were all marched to a nearby forest, where they saw 3 large deep pits, signifying their graves and their coming death.
The Germans were instructed to carefully shoot each Jew one by one, because as they were told “a Jew was not worth more than a single bullet”.
When I asked one of the tour guides on the trip whether or not there were any survivors from the city, he told me told that to his knowledge, none were recorded.
The shtetle of Tycochin tells the story of the countless amount of other villages across Europe, where Jews were randomly rounded up and either marched to a graveyard or shipped to a concentration camp.
Anita Ekstein, one of the survivors that accompanied us on “The March”, told us that about 10 years ago, she met a French Catholic priest named Father Patrick Debois, the founder of an organization called Yahad-In Unum, dedicated to locating the sites of mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazi mobile-killing units in the former Soviet Union.
Father Debois also travels throughout Poland, Ukraine and other neighboring countries to locate this evidence, whether it is bones, hair or even clothing of Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.
Father Debois knows that Poland is a very Catholic country, Pope Saint John Paul II is native, so he goes town by town and asks it’s elders, who have the utmost respect for a priest, to direct him to its Jews.
He finds mass graves, similar to those in Tycochin, but unmarked, sometimes even with Jewish bones sticking out of the ground.
Father Debois wrote a book identifying these little towns, some even larger then Tycochin, who all previously had vibrant Jewish communities.
He records the names of these towns, it’s previous population and amount of Jews and its deaths. The number 6 million has been enshrined in Holocaust Remembrance vocabulary, approximately half of whom were murdered in Hitler’s gas chambers. Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to imagine, of that 6 million, another 1.5 million, unaccounted for.
Murdered - lying In unmarked shallow graves all across eastern Europe, unacknowledged for over 60 years.
As you all know, after the first half of the trip on Poland, we continue our emotional journey in Israel, the national homeland of our people.
On our 2nd day in Israel, we were given some free time to roam the streets of the old city of Tzvat, one of Israel’s four holiest cities.
As I was walking across the hill of the beautiful old city, I was looking for a place to buy some art and maybe bring something back for my family.
I figured I would put my bargaining skills to the test and was looking for the perfect victim.
However, I saw that most of the stores were overflowing with fellow students and participants of “The March”.
As I arrived at the top of the hill, I saw that there was this one smaller store on a corner of the art colony, that for some reason had nobody inside.
I quickly ran towards the shop and I saw a hassidic looking man working on a painting.
As he saw me happily enter his store, he got up and started conversation with me. I presumed he was the owner of the store. So I politely continued conversation and began looking around for something that I can possibly take home with me at a bargain.
As I negotiated the price for one of the paintings I had picked, he asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Canada. He asked me what I am doing in Israel, so I went on to explain to him that I am on this trip called March of The Living, where young teenagers tour Poland for a week and visit Auschwitz for Yom Hashoah and then come to Israel to commemorate Yom HaZikaron and celebrate Yom HaAtsmaut and of course tour the beautiful country.
He then quietly asked me, almost as if he whispered it to me, if I knew what Tycochin was.
I quickly answered him yes of course, I was there less then a week ago but I asked him why specifically this shtetle out of all the thousands of shtetles in Europe? His eyes began to get emotional. I didn’t know what to expect next.
But he continued to whisper to me, and explained to me how his father was the only survivor that he knows of that escaped Tycochin. After the Nazi had pulled the trigger and the gun went off aimed directly at him, behind him the pit waiting for his burial, he had fallen into the mass grave grave but apparently was never shot. When the Nazis weren’t looking, he escaped into the forest and managed to survive the war.
After the war, his father immigrated to Palestine and made his way to Tzvat alone. He was blessed with a second chance at life. He began painting, got married, started a family and opened a small art store in the art colony.
By now, tears were pouring from both of our eyes. He explained to me that he is now doing just like his father, living in Tzfat and painting in the same small art store.
Let’s just say that I bought the piece at full price.
We are gathered here today to tell the terrifying story of the Holocaust from our perspective, high school students who had the opportunity to barely even catch a glimpse and witness what is remaining from the darkest chapter of Jewish and human History.
The one lesson that I came back with from the March of The Living was that in all of the unexplainable, in all of the chaos and in all of the near complete destruction of European Jewry, there can never be an end.
The story of our people for thousands of years has been that we have not only risen from the ashes, but we have thrived.
Wether it was the destruction of our holy temples, which we continue to yearn for them to be rebuilt, wether it was the pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust, that little art store in Tzfat represents the continued perseverance and strength of our people.Yaacov Sultan participated in the 2011 March of the Living.