'Never Means Never' campaign shows importance of fighting antisemitism

‘Corona will come to an end, but there will be no end to our fight against antisemitism and racism,’ says March of the Living president Phyllis Heideman.

DR. SHMUEL ROSENMAN, co-founder and chairman of the International March of the Living, flanked by Mossad head Yossi Cohen (left) and Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman in 2018 (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
DR. SHMUEL ROSENMAN, co-founder and chairman of the International March of the Living, flanked by Mossad head Yossi Cohen (left) and Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman in 2018
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
The March of the Living has taken place in Auschwitz-Birkenau annually for the past 32 years. Since its establishment in 1988, more than 300,000 participants from around the world have participated. Each year, 10,000 Jewish and non-Jewish youth from various countries arrive, joining 150 Holocaust survivors and witnesses on an unforgettable journey. This year, in the wake of the coronavirus,  it was decided to cancel the march. In its place, a wide-ranging campaign entitled ‘Never Means Never’ directed at youth around the world, will be launched to combat antisemitism and racism, teach the history of the Holocaust and inculcate values of tolerance.
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“In past years, we said, ‘Never Again,’” says Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, chairman of the International March of the Living, “and this time we realized that we needed to move from passiveness to activity, and say, ‘Never Means Never.’ Our goal is to inspire young people around the world to become the agents of this change, especially in recent times when we are witnessing rising antisemitism.”
Rosenman says that the cancellation caused feelings of distress.
“We have been marching for 32 years, and the event has become one of the mainstays of world Jewish commemoration, not only for Jews, but for non-Jews as well. It is sad, but there is nothing we can do.”
How important is it today to continue the March of the Living?
“It is more important than ever. Nearly 20 years ago, a senior correspondent at CBS interviewed me and asked why we insist on holding the March of the Living each year. ‘We understand what you want to say,’ he told me, ‘But why don’t you turn the page and move on?’
“Today I have the exact answer for him. When you look at the graph of antisemitism in the world, one can’t help but wonder where we missed, and what the world missed. The waves of antisemitism today in Europe and the US are rising. If you ask 70% of European youth, they will not know about the historical context of Auschwitz. It’s the same in the US. There are those who turned the page and there are that are still on the page. We are on the page, and our task is to convey the remnants of memory from Holocaust survivors to those who will have to transmit them further. The survivors are disappearing every day, which is why we do what we do.”
Rosenman, who previously headed the Tel Aviv educational system, is one of the founders of the March of the Living, which he conceived after watching Shoah, the film by Claude Lanzmann.
“I saw that students preparing for the matriculation exams were looking at the Holocaust like any other chapter in history. After the movie Shoah came out and we saw its impact on youth, we realized that what makes a significant difference – both educationally and emotionally – is visiting the death camps. It is what turns us into participants with all of the Holocaust survivors.”
What moments stand out in your mind?
“Every ceremony has been significant for me, but three years ago, something happened to me that surprised me. I had thought I had seen everything, and then at a ceremony in Birkenau, one of the survivors got up and said the Kaddish in Yiddish. He began to recite the names of his family, his parents and his brothers, naming all of his 72 relatives who were murdered. Despite everything that I have seen in my life, I found myself sitting and crying. So how can we turn the page? These are the stories we have to take with us the entire way.”
There is tremendous importance in conveying messages not only to Jewish youth, but also to non-Jews. I am curious as to how they react to the story.
“I hear many non-Jewish youth who didn’t know about the Holocaust, and they say that they don’t understand how an enlightened nation such as the Germans could have led such a movement. They also tell me, ‘We look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves if we could do something like this.’
“There are amazing lessons and I think that the March of the Living, apart from its importance as a march of memory in passing the torch from the generation of the Holocaust to our generation and beyond, is one of the key tools to cause change in this world, so that will reduce hatred, and cause people to become more connected. When the 10,000 youth who participate in the March of the Living return to their communities and meet people, whether physically or virtually – multiply that number and you’ll see that we can reach millions of people through the media. There is something that enters the public consciousness – this is the main goal.”
“CORONA WILL come to an end, but our obligations do not end,” says Phyllis Heideman, president of the March of the Living. “There will be no end to our fight against antisemitism and racism, and we will continue our work and continue to preserve the future legacy of our commitment to be in Auschwitz on Holocaust Day for the March of the Living.”
Heideman also addresses the rising wave of antisemitism in the world and says, “We are even busier today. We see that hatred can be spread on social networks in seconds. Hate has found a home, and on the one hand, it is frustrating, but on the other hand, we must continue our work, and we understand that it is more important than ever. We’re rolling up our sleeves and redoubling our efforts, because there is no choice.”
PHYLLIS HEIDEMAN, president of the March of the Living.
PHYLLIS HEIDEMAN, president of the March of the Living.
Despite the work done on the Internet and the effort to give a positive spin to counter the waves of hatred, Heideman still believes that there will never be a replacement for the actual March of the Living.
“Several years ago, we had the privilege of bringing a delegation of blind people from Jerusalem with their guide dogs, to the March. We were with them in Auschwitz and everyone accepted them. At the end of the ceremony, I spoke to a few people, and introduced myself. One woman came up to me and said, ‘You know, I did not see anything, but I felt everything.’
“I will never forget this for the rest of my life. I don’t know her name, I don’t know who she is. I was so moved that I didn’t even ask. For me, this was the moment when I realized how important it is to visit there, and to actually be there. You can read a lot and watch movies, but nothing can replace a visit to the place, which is what I am sadly missing this year, but we are already working on the ceremony for 2021. We will not give up.”
“The March of the Living is a very important educational tool,” says Pinchas Gutter, educator and the only survivor from his immediate family.
“The connection with the survivors, visiting the place and the educational effect of the march, is what will enable the youth who eventually will become adults to continue the tradition of remembering.”
PINCHAS GUTTER, a survivor, chants tradtional prayers in the Tykochen Synagogue.
PINCHAS GUTTER, a survivor, chants tradtional prayers in the Tykochen Synagogue.
Gutter was deported to the Warsaw Ghetto when he was seven, and was transferred to the Majdanek camp with his family. Gutter survived, was transferred to other concentration camps and eventually fled to England. Currently, he lives in Canada and serves as a Holocaust educator at Catholic schools and universities, among others.
“Today, especially, it’s important to educate the non-Jewish world about the Holocaust and help it understand that it can happen anywhere,” says Gutter. “I not only tell of my experiences but try to convey the message that antisemitism is a symptom of a larger phenomenon that is dangerous for the entire world.”
When I ask Gutter if he can put his finger on one moment that particularly moved him, he replies that there have been many, but there is one thing he will not forget.
“In 2005, I went on the march with a group of middle-aged Catholic nuns and delegates. I was concerned about their ability to connect, or the difficulties that I would have connecting with them. After the first session, I was so moved by the intensity of the feelings that were being directed to me that I burst into tears. For the first time, I was able to connect with a Catholic group as I never could before, which then allowed me to start teaching students and students in Catholic schools and universities and connect with them in a human way, without prejudice from both sides.”
The most vivid example of fulfilling the purpose of the March of the Living is that of Jordana Leibowitz, a 24-year-old Canadian graduate student who, after returning from the March of the Living as a 16-year-old high school student, decided to devote her life to educating children and youth about the Holocaust.
“It was my dream to travel to the March of the Living, and I was very excited to be there. It was a very emotionally charged week, and every day I discovered new things. The climax was when we were in Majdanek on the final day, and I found a pouch in which a Scroll of Esther was rolled. I read it and broke down. I have read the scroll of Esther since my Bat Mitzvah, and I think I broke down because I suddenly realized that the people who read it are no longer alive. But the turning point was when one of my fellow participants said to me, “You are reading the same historical scroll, but it is not the end of the story. We will create the end of the story.”
JORDANA LEIBOWITZ, a March of the Living alumnus, was inspired to devote her life to Holocaust education.
JORDANA LEIBOWITZ, a March of the Living alumnus, was inspired to devote her life to Holocaust education.
The March of the Living made such a huge impression, that three years later, in 2015, you decided to travel to Germany to be alongside survivors who took part in trial of SS officer Oskar Gröning.
“After participating in the March of the Living, I returned to Canada and realized that this was my mission. I started introducing Holocaust Day ceremonies in high school. When I got to university, I heard about Gröning’s trial. I knew that I would attend the trial and I got in touch with the prosecutor. I was with the survivors in court every day, and it made me realize how important education is needed for the Holocaust. On the March of the Living, you not only experience the past but the present – your life.
When I returned, I initiated a Holocaust education week at the university. I brought a railroad car, which resembled the actual railroad cars that transported Jews, and it became a type of museum, visited by almost 2,000 students. I thought I would become a psychologist, but this took me in a different direction, to that of Holocaust education. With survivors dying almost every day, we are the last generation to hear directly from Holocaust survivors, and it is our duty to be the bridge to preserve this memory so that it will last forever. It depends on the dedication of our generation.”
“I always wondered why the survivors returned after all of the suffering that they had endured. When I was there, I became very close with a survivor named Hedy Baum. I remember standing in the gas chambers in Auschwitz and crying. She stood and hugged me. I asked her how she could return after everything she went through, and she said to me, ‘I’m doing it for you, and for your generation to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I realized that it was my responsibility and I would make her proud, and we left Auschwitz together, hand in hand.”
Leibowitz recalls the story of the Exodus. “At one point there were people who remembered it, and then they died, but it is a story we remember forever,” she says. “We are told that we need to feel as if we ourselves left Egypt, and I very much hope that we young people can create this feeling in the future about the Holocaust. If we work now, we will succeed. We are the main reason why the Holocaust will still be remembered in 20 years, and it is a great responsibility.”
This article was written in cooperation with March of the Living.
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