Holocaust survivors call for more gentiles to participate in memorial ceremonies

JEWISH AFFAIRS: Speakers at the March of the Living remind listeners of the necessity of Israel.

 PARTICIPANTS WAVE Israeli flags Tuesday at annual International March of the Living on the grounds of the former Nazi Auschwitz death camp in Oswiecim, Poland (photo credit: Jakub Porzycki/Agencja Wyborcza.pl/Reuters)
PARTICIPANTS WAVE Israeli flags Tuesday at annual International March of the Living on the grounds of the former Nazi Auschwitz death camp in Oswiecim, Poland
(photo credit: Jakub Porzycki/Agencja Wyborcza.pl/Reuters)

“You’re a survivor, right?” an organizer from March of the Living asked one of the elderly women standing on the gravel. “Yes,” she responded.

She was one of 42 Holocaust survivors who sat on folding chairs Tuesday in front of the gate at the Auschwitz death camp.

Behind them were some 13,000 people who had come to participate, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in a march in honor of the six million Jews who were murdered. So many were forced to walk to their own deaths on a 3-kilometer road between Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau. The March of the Living considers the annual event a tribute to all the victims, and this year was its 35th march.

The entrance gate at Auschwitz famously says in German “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free). It was an intimidating salutation from Nazis to innocent Jews, Poles, Gypsies and prisoners of war who had been rounded up in the millions and forcibly brought to the camp in Poland where 1.3 million people were held hostage and forced to work, and 1.1 million were killed.

One survivor recorded her testimony for a video presentation that was later shown in the closing ceremony for the March of the Living. She testified that, upon entering Auschwitz and seeing the sign, her father had told her that their family would just have to work for a short time and would then go home. For most people, it wasn’t the case.

 Auschwitz concentration camp in Oświęcim (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Auschwitz concentration camp in Oświęcim (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the ramp-up to the march itself, people of all ages gathered by the thousands on the campgrounds, all wearing the signature blue March of the Living rain jackets, which were given out to the hundreds of buses that rolled up. In a stroke of luck, marchers had sun overhead as they gathered at 10 a.m., waiting for the march to begin at around 2 p.m. On the previous day it had rained from morning till night.

News crews from around the globe took interviews on the grass. Diplomats arrived with their entourages. Teenagers from Latin America, Poland, Germany and North America spoke among themselves about their plans for the summer. Delegations brought people from far-away places like Japan and Morocco. And in every corner there was someone wiping away a tear.

English-language announcements let people know that the march was minutes away from commencing, and organizers asked people not to sing, dance or cheer, as the event was meant to maintain a solemn feel. Multiple shofars were blasted, and then all the delegations began passing through the gate. One of the many Israeli delegations sang “Am Yisrael Chai” as its members clapped and cheered on the way to the road out, as they were exiting Auschwitz to go to Birkenau.

On the road to Birkenau, some Polish people came with signs that said “Polish Friends of Israel – In Solidarity With You.” Others stood on their porches and waved. The road between the two camps was desolate, with what looked like empty factories and fields along the way. As marchers approached Birkenau, they entered a residential neighborhood. Many young people questioned out loud how it was possible to have lived so close to the death camp during World War II and not have felt responsibility or tried to take action. Tuesday, roads were blocked by police, and Polish locals waited inside their cars, eyes peeled, waiting for marchers to finish the procession.

The train tracks indicated to the marchers that they had arrived, and they dug signs into the gravel that listed names of family members they were marching for or their reason for participating. The tokens were left behind in Spanish, Portuguese and English, to name just some of the languages.

Inside of Birkenau, an enormous stage was lit by a digital display behind it. Crematoriums that were blown up at the end of World War II were just meters away. The program included a number of speakers, torch-lighters, video presentations and a presentation from international police officials who read out a signed document that detailed their commitment to fighting antisemitism in their respective communities. Each officer read out a part of the declaration.

Important for young people to see Auschwitz

MARK WILF is the chairman of the Jewish Agency and the president of the Minnesota Vikings football team. His father was heavily involved in the March of the Living early on and was the first North American president and chairman. Wilf spoke with The Jerusalem Post about the importance of making sure young people are educated about the history of the Holocaust.

“Here in Auschwitz, you see where hate, tolerance and bigotry goes. Words... if they go the wrong way... horrors can happen,” Wilf said. “It’s important to have so many young people here and to send them back to their communities and to their friends so they understand we have to be strong as a Jewish people.”

Wilf also commented on the importance of remaining optimistic, which he said is something everyone could learn from those who used optimism to help their chances of survival.

“Look where we were 80 years ago. The Jewish people were fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto with no hope to hang on to, and then five years later the State of Israel was founded,” Wilf said. “We have to remember to look at how far we have progressed.”

Former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman lit a torch at the ceremony. He had an idea ahead of the program, which was to show that antisemitism is bigger than politics. He reached out and asked current Ambassador Tom Nides to join him on stage for the lighting.

“I was very honored when I did this in 2019, and unfortunately since 2019, antisemitism has only grown and gotten stronger. Tom Nides is a left-wing Democrat, and I am a right-wing Republican,” Friedman said. “Tom said yes immediately. Together, I think we can show people that this is a battle that we have to win together. We can’t be divided on this fight. We have to be together.”

For Nides, it was his first journey to Auschwitz. Looking around at all the people in blue jackets, Nides said the feeling was something that words could not express.

“Six million Jews died, and I have an opportunity to represent the United States of America during a time that is emotional for all of us,” Nides said.

Nides went on to discuss Israel’s impending 75th-year anniversary of independence, saying he was honored to be a part of it in a small way.

“This country was just born 75 years ago. It’s a Start-Up Nation, a lively democracy, an economic powerhouse, a military powerhouse. How remarkable is that? ”

Education Minister Yoav Kisch gave a powerful speech in English to the crowd, introducing the message of Jewish bravery. The march highlighted the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, commemorating its 80th anniversary. With that message, Kisch discussed the heroism of his late grandfather who worked as a brigadier-general for the British Army and was ultimately the face that met many Jews as his troops liberated them from the Nazis. Before his talk he fielded questions from the Post on his intentions to make sure Holocaust education is a part of educational institutions around the globe.

“The first mission is for everyone to understand that Israel is the home for Jews all over the world, and among that is making sure no one forgets what happened here.”

Yoav Kisch

“The first mission is for everyone to understand that Israel is the home for Jews all over the world, and among that is making sure no one forgets what happened here,” Kisch said. “Of course, we cannot enforce that on governments not willing to do so, but if we can get understanding from different governments, we will try to do that.”

He explained that while most Israelis understand the important information about the Holocaust, the difficult part is getting people to understand the magnitude.

“To see the way that normal people designed a killing machine for a nation is hard to understand,” Kisch said.

 People pay tribute during a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, in Jerusalem, April 18, 2023. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS) People pay tribute during a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, in Jerusalem, April 18, 2023. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Eighteen-year-old Anna from Germany is a young Christian student who is trying to understand exactly that. Her school gave students an option to spend time in Hamburg “chilling,” as she described it, or to go to Auschwitz. Anna came to the March of the Living with 33 students who were interested in learning about the horrors of their former government.

“[I came] to know a bit more about the Austrian/Germans and what they did to the Jews and learn more about history and about racism against other people,” Anna explained. “This city has a very dark vibe; and when we entered, it was scary and depressing in this place. I’m here to show that I am interested in what the Germans did in history and that this should not happen in the future.”

On the other side of the ocean lives 18-year-old Hannah Azolay, who joined the march with the Miami Jewish Federation. She came with urgency, as she believes at some point in the future the camp will be closed to visitors. She also wanted to experience a trip to the grounds with the last generations of living Holocaust survivors.

“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions. My family is Sephardi and we didn’t experience the Holocaust. I want to make sure it really is never forgotten, because schools are not teaching about it anymore,” she explained.

Holocaust survivor Reny Friedman was born in Holland and was hidden in a Christian convent during the war. Her close connection to the non-Jewish community has fueled her activities of speaking in public schools about her story throughout Canada.

“I am interested in the young people 17, 18, 19. I think the gentile people need to know,” Friedman said. “There are kids in Canada who don’t even know what a Jew is.”

Friedman’s largest criticism of the March of the Living organization, after six years of participating as a survivor, is that there’s not enough inclusion. She says it would be best if non-Jewish youth would be more widely invited.

Today, 147,199 survivors of the Holocaust are living in Israel, and one of them, 93-year-old Arie Pinsker, joined the Israeli journalist delegation for the experience. Pinsker has taken on a new career later in life, as a speaker and activist. He tells his harrowing story of survival which started at the age of 13 when he and his family arrived in the Auschwitz camp.

“When I retired, Yad Vashem wrote a report that showed how much these trips I joined were important and impactful for the students and soldiers. Then I decided this will be my mission,” Pinsker said. “This [Israel] is our home. If, God forbid, we will have a problem again, there will be no Israel again. We lost our home in Israel, and we can’t lose it again. Now I can’t sleep at night, because of the [political] situation in Israel, because of the internal conflict, the baseless hatred. We must have ahavat hinam, unconditional respect between people; love and not hate.”

Israelis central to ceremony

ISRAELIS WERE a large part of the ceremony, with five out of eight torch-lighters coming from Israel, all musical acts having been performed by Israeli artists and talks from a number of Israeli officials. In the early part of the ceremony, the crowd watched an artificially created video by an Israeli artificial intelligence company, D-ID, that was able to use a photo of some of the Warsaw rebels and make the image move. Israeli sound designers added an artificial voice to match, and the dialogue was created from letters recovered from the 1943 uprising, which detailed the monthlong fight that staved off German troops on two occasions and over the course of four weeks.

Another video highlighted an initiative called “From Soul to Sole” in which the March of the Living promoted a campaign to conserve children’s shoes on display in Auschwitz that were at risk of fully deteriorating. Those who worked to keep them in good condition say they want to hold on to the spirit of the children who wore them.

The ceremony’s most touching part was a duet with Holocaust survivor Shoshana Trister and singer Ivri Lider. The two sang a song, “Bo’i Mama” (“Stay, Mother”) in which a child asks his mother to stay until he is grown. Trister told the Ithat she broke down when she exited stage.

“Everyone told me that it was the most moving part,” Trister said.

Pinsker was invited to read out the Mourner’s Kaddish. The crowd respectfully responded “Amen” for each break in the prayer that called for it.

The ceremony then concluded with the entire crowd singing “Hatikvah,” as the Israeli flag waved behind on the digital display. The message brought Israel’s 75th anniversary of independence, taking place next week, into view.

As the day inched toward night, the skies over Auschwitz turned from yellow to gray, and the winds began pushing people through the brick arch of Birkenau and off the grounds... until next year. •