Thousands march from Auschwitz to Birkenau

13,000 attend March of the Living • Israeli tech start-up uses AI to revive stories of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The 2023 March of the Living. (photo credit: SHANNA FULD)
The 2023 March of the Living.
(photo credit: SHANNA FULD)

OSWIECIM, Poland – Following blasts from a number of shofars, 42 survivors led the way for about 13,000 people in the 2023 March of the Living on Tuesday. The number of participants included dozens of global delegations young and old, dignitaries, Italy’s president and international press.

The masses made the 3 km walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau at around 2 p.m. with a good deal of sunshine in what is very frequently a gray Polish sky. Young people walked slowly through Polish roads toward Birkenau, discussing the unimaginable horrors, their family histories, plans to study or move to Israel and questions about why Polish neighbors did not try to intervene while Auschwitz was holding prisoners just down the road.

Walking the path to the gas chambers

The March of the Living commemorates the Holocaust each year by participants walking the path in which Jews were led to the gas chambers. This year, the March of the Living Organization honored 35 years of marching, commemorated 80 years since the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and will finish by celebrating Israel’s 75th year of independence.

Many said this year’s event felt larger than any previous march, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic having squashed many people’s plans to join in previous years. This year, one of the traditional seven honorary torches were lit in honor of North African Jews, which many say is a community that has not been given enough attention in relation to the Nazi occupation of Tunisia.

Businessman Haim Taib lit the torch with his wife, Iris, both of whose parents are survivors. Taib said he was lighting in honor of his father, who was starved, beaten and tortured in a Nazi labor camp in Tunisia.

The 2023 March of the Living. (credit: SHANNA FULD)The 2023 March of the Living. (credit: SHANNA FULD)

“I am very proud,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s the first time that I will light the torch in the memory of the Jews in Tunisia and North Africa. I am here with my brothers, sisters, wife and all her family. It is very important. We as Jews have to always look for solidarity and be united between ourselves and other nations.”

After Taib spoke to the crowd, his wife spoke, rolling up her sleeve first to reveal a tattoo of the numbers her grandmother had on her forearm. She said it was a reminder of her great aunts who did not make it out of the camp.

“It’s the first time that I will light the torch in the memory of the Jews in Tunisia and North Africa. I am here with my brothers, sisters, wife and all her family. It is very important. We as Jews have to always look for solidarity and be united between ourselves and other nations.”

Haim Taib

Other figures in attendance included New England Patriots CEO and Genesis Prize recipient Robert Kraft, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Minnesota Vikings president and Jewish Agency chairman of the board Mark Wilf and physician Miriam Adelson, whose philanthropy has made a large impact on the US and Israel.

The sixth person to light a torch was deputy chair of the International March of the Living Baruch Adler, who told the compelling story of his survivor parents. The seventh was Ifat Ovadia Luski, the first woman to chair Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.

The ceremony placed a large emphasis on bravery, with presentations and talks about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which took place in 1943 by Jews fighting the German army. The rebellion lasted for about four weeks, with fighters inflicting heavy losses on the Germans. The uprising inspired many other Jewish rebellions in ghettos, extermination camps and in forests.

In an effort to honor the heroic fighters of the revolt, Israeli tech start-up D-ID used artificial intelligence to bring a select few Jews who took part in the fight “back to life.” While many of the rebels were killed, some survived to tell their story, and many wrote it down in letters that were later recovered.

D-ID used AI to create animations for videos using still images of the fighters and their written letters as the script. Voices were given to the animations, and viewers could watch the rebels come to life on screen. Israeli artists who wanted to be a part of this year’s Holocaust commemoration worked to generate the audio, some 80 years after the messages were penned.

Emphasizing Jewish bravery

Shmuel Rosenman, chairman of The March of the Living, spoke to the crowd from a large stage, saying, “Jewish bravery during the Holocaust was for many years left out of general Holocaust consciousness, and Jews were portrayed only as victims who went like lambs to the slaughter. As an international educational organization, it is our responsibility to emphasize this.”

Education Minister Yoav Kisch took the stage to discuss a similar point of bravery he was proud to claim. Kisch spoke of his late grandfather who fought as a brigadier-general with the British against the Nazis as one of the soldiers who met with the newly freed prisoners. Kisch ended his talk by raising a strong fist in the air and shouting “Am Yisrael chai.”

Director of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum Yigal Cohen said it was immensely important to draw strength from the power of the human spirit that enabled the rebellion, as well as the inspiration created by its leaders. He urged the crowd to pass on the message to future generations, especially at the current generational turning point when many of the last Holocaust survivors are aging and passing away.

Perhaps one of the most emotionally triggering moments of the event was a duet with Holocaust survivor Shoshana Trister and singer Ivri Lider, as the two sang a heart-wrenching song called “Stay, Mother.” The last line alludes to a child asking his mother to stay until he is grown. Not an eye was dry, including those of 87-year-old Trister, who was pulled into an encompassing embrace by 49-year-old Lider as soon as the song came to a close.

The event winded down with the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, led by Holocaust survivor Aryeh Pinsker. Virtually everyone in attendance stood tall in unity as they responded with “amen” every time the response was called for.

Shortly after, Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” was sung as an Israeli flag lit up on the stage’s digital display, bringing next Tuesday night’s 75th Independence Day into focus.