The organizers of the “March of the Living” – one of the flagship events of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) – did not allow the corona pandemic to disrupt their plans last April, and they quickly converted the event into a virtual format. This year as well, the “March of the Living” will be broadcast along with additional events live and online on Yom HaShoah, on Thursday, April 8, at 5 p.m. in Israel – 10 a.m. EST, followed by a special memorial service that will also be broadcast on all digital platforms and social networks.
“This year, we had hoped to hold the events normally, but Europe is ‘red,’ and two months ago, we concluded that we had to have a virtual event once again,” says Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, chairman of the March of the Living. “We are expecting to have millions of views via electronic and social media. The world has become accustomed to working virtually. We learned our lessons from last year and received amazing responses and unprecedented involvement. We hope that in 2022 we will march in Poland and in Israel from Safra Square to the Western Wall, as we have been doing for the past 33 years.”
Every year, the March of the Living is marked by a concept that relates to both the Holocaust and revival. This year the March will commemorate the theme of medicine during the Holocaust, focusing on ethics and medicine during the Holocaust.
“On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are planning a symposium about ethics in Holocaust medicine with the participation of medical schools and medical associations in the United States and around the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci will be one of the guests of honor alongside other senior officials who will participate in the symposium, including Albert Burla, Pfizer CEO; and Dr. Eran Harary, VP, TA Head, Neurology and Psychiatry, Global Specialty R&D. Rosenman adds, “The goal is to salute doctors and nurses – Jews as well as non-Jews – who saved Jews from the camps, including the partisans.”
The day after the symposium, the March of the Living will be broadcast in a memorable and stirring format that was filmed and edited in advance. Rosenman explains that the participants were filmed and digitally placed in the original parade route, between Auschwitz and Birkenau. President Reuven Rivlin will head those walking in the virtual March. He will be joined by Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, KKL-JNF Chairman Avraham Duvdevani and many others.
“Among the Holocaust survivors who will participate in the virtual March will be survivors of Dr. Mengele’s cruel experiments, including Vera Kriegel Grossman, physicians, and the children of physicians who were in the Holocaust – including Dr. Robert Finieli, Prof. Galia Rahav and Prof. Idit Matot. Also participating will be those who were saved during the Holocaust against all odds, due to the efforts of doctors and nurses, including Elka Burstein, who was rescued by a German nurse.”
In normal times, more than 10,000 people – including Jewish and non-Jewish youth from around the world, accompanied by many heads of state, ministers, intellectuals and dignitaries – walk along the train tracks from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom HaShoah to commemorate the Holocaust and heroism. More than a quarter of a million participants have walked in the March of the Living as a tribute to the most significant loss in the history of the Jewish people and humanity. But, in a way, the virtual format of the March has brought some benefit. Last year, millions of people around the world were exposed to the event on various platforms.
“As in the words of the song of the Jewish Partisans, ‘Our resounding footsteps will proclaim: We are here!’” says Dr. Rosenman with feeling.
ONE OF the participants in the March of the Living is Dr. Robert Finieli, born in 1941, who grew up Catholic and discovered his Judaism years later.
“From the age of three, I grew up as a Catholic. Until I turned 53, I did not know my family at all. I was a very disciplined Catholic. I went to church, attended ceremonies and I thought there was nothing else. I did not know what Judaism was. I knew my parents were killed because they were Jews, but I had been educated as a Catholic since I was three. That was my mentality and that of my brother as well.”
Dr. Finieli received his connection to medicine from his father, who studied medicine in Vienna and was forced to leave the country in order to continue working.
“My father had a red mark on his doctor’s certificate, which prohibited him from practicing medicine in the Nazi regime. To fulfill his calling, he fled to France and worked illegally as a doctor there. While visiting another doctor, he was reported by associates, caught by the Gestapo, and was taken along with my mother, who later joined him in the concentration camp. They never returned.”
Finieli relates that at age nine, after discovering his family’s past, he decided that he would become a doctor.
“To march as a physician in the March of the Living gives me immense pride. I fulfilled my father’s purpose, who did not give up the profession he loved and paid for it with his life – and I continued in his tradition. By participating in the March, I am proclaiming that I succeeded in the task. It is not easy to study and work in medicine. I believe I have succeeded in that profession.”
RABBI ISRAEL Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel, marched in the first March of the Living in 1988 and continued for 33 years. Rabbi Lau, a Holocaust survivor, has made sure to arrive in time for the March and fly back to Israel that same evening.
“I will never forget the first March, which was introduced by Avraham Hirchson. Seven hundred marchers participated. Half were Israeli citizens, and half came from different countries in the world. Among the participants were seven Knesset members who were Holocaust survivors, including Haika Grossman and Dov Shilansky,” says Rabbi Lau. “We marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau, and the local residents looked at us in astonishment. We answered them in Polish, saying, ‘Here was the death march. From this place, our brothers and parents went to the crematoria. Now we are marching in the March of the Living.’ It was very moving and exciting to know that now we had a country and a home.”
At that same March, Lau was asked to speak alongside Eli Wiesel and Israel’s then-ambassador to the United Nations, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The correspondent from Kol Yisrael turned to me after the speech and asked me if I thought the event would continue in the future. I replied that I was certain that the Israelis who came here would return feeling more Jewish, and that the Jewish friends of Israel who attended would return home feeling more Israeli. That is precisely what the March did for Jews and Israelis. Each of them completed the part of him that he was missing, thanks to this initiative. What they thought would be a one-time initiative has become a 33-year-old tradition.”
Lau, who survived the Buchenwald concentration camp when he was only eight, is careful not to stay overnight in Poland.
“I was saved by my brother Naftali Lavi, who protected me during those years, and by a Russian prisoner of war named Fyodor who protected me in Block 8. I was saved on German soil, thanks to the American army that arrived.” Rabbi Lau promised himself that he would never remain overnight in Germany.
“Three years ago, I attended an event in Munich, marking Kristallnacht, and the German chancellor was scheduled to speak first. I explained to her that I had to be on an El Al flight departing from Munich that night at 8 p.m., and I could not spend the night since I had so many unpleasant memories. She nodded her head in agreement and said she was aware of it. Although the promise I made to myself pertained to Germany, I never spent the night in Poland either.”
ISRAEL’S CORONAVIRUS Commissioner, Professor Nachman Ash, will also participate in the virtual March. His connection to medicine in the Holocaust began when he was Chief Medical Officer in the IDF.
“I was a partner in an initiative that began during my service as Chief Medical Officer and continued after my discharge from the army – leading delegations of medical personnel to Poland,” he says. “The goal was to create a group of medical personnel from all medical professions that would discuss issues related to medicine and the Holocaust. These consisted of topics related to the Nazi worldview, the influence of the worldview on physicians, and the authority of physicians in the extermination process. Of course, the discussions also referred to the field of research, and Dr. Mengele, etc. In addition to the Nazi position, there was extensive reference to the Jewish issue that discussed the ethical subjects that existed, regarding medicine and extermination camps, hospitals and how they were managed during the Holocaust.”
Ash’s father, a survivor of Auschwitz, lost his parents and sister in the extermination camp, but miraculously survived after facing a dilemma whether to receive life-saving medical care a few days before the camp was liberated at the end of the war.
“It happened in January 1945. My father diagnosed an abscess in his leg and was debating whether to be hospitalized there. One of the difficult issues was whether to get medical treatment. It was entirely a matter of deciding to go for treatment, knowing that the chances of destruction and going to the gas chambers would be made greater. But the dilemma of whether to seek treatment and perhaps not survive was something inconceivable.”
Ash’s father had no choice.
“He was hospitalized and then again faced with a dilemma greater than the first. The death camps were ending, and the death marches were beginning. He was asked if he was joining the death march or remaining in the hospital. Despite the problematic leg and pain, he decided to join the death march. He had to be hospitalized between each camp, but fortunately, he survived.”
Ash explains that the dilemmas that the prisoners faced – whether to receive or avoid medical care – were inconceivable.
“It’s a little unbelievable, but in that terrible world, you received medical treatment and the ability to save your life. On the other hand, he and others faced the choice of remaining active and persevering within medical limitations or undergoing treatment and not surviving. These are dilemmas that we cannot grasp today but existed then.”
In army delegations, Ash says, they tried to learn from what was done in the past and apply it today.
“The thought is first and foremost about how you can neutralize external factors that can influence you as a physician – how it affects the treatment of the vulnerable populations you control and what you can learn from the conduct of that time about the worldview of the stranger and the ‘other.’ These things came to me much later, and not necessarily at the beginning of my career. But there is no doubt that my connection over the years occurred against the background of my personal interest.”
LIKE LAST year, the digital interface that accompanies the March of the Living allows anyone to write a post in memory of those who were murdered or convey messages to fight antisemitism. The public is invited to participate in the global campaign and upload digital memorials in a choice of seven different languages at nevermeansnever.com. These signs will be projected during Holocaust Remembrance Day in Birkenau, and some will be physically placed on the railway tracks.
Last year 20,000 participants from dozens of countries created memorial signs.
“With the help of the campaign, we want to get rid of the evil from the world as quickly as possible – to respect those who are different and at the same time fight antisemitism and continue our mission at all times,” says Dr. Rosenman. “Those who watch the virtual March will not stop crying. The heart cannot understand how such things happened. It is even more difficult since dozens of Holocaust survivors around the world die every day, and their number is disappearing.
“It is close to 80 years of Holocaust and heroism, and we are reaching the point where there will no longer be someone who can tell the story of what happened firsthand.
“We are here for them.”
Join the March of The Living memorial campaign at nevermeansnever.com.
This article was written in cooperation with March of the Living.
Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.