Never again... and again... and again

March of the Living chairman explains the concept of 'Shoah to rebirth'.

march-88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Shmuel Rosenman says that when he was growing up on Moshav Hemed - where he still resides - the Holocaust was neither a subject that was discussed in his household nor one in which he took any particular interest. This is in spite of the fact that his mother came here in 1933 from Poland and his father from Romania in the middle of World War II, after most of his family was wiped out. It is also in spite of the moshav's having had many members who were survivors - "but they didn't talk about it much." It was not until he was an adult - and head of high school education in Tel Aviv - that Rosenman, 61, had an epiphany which changed his perspective. The "trigger," he recounts, was a conversation he overheard between two pupils studying for their matriculation exams. "One asked the other, 'Tell me, have you already covered the material on the Napoleonic wars?' The other answered, 'Not yet. I'm still going over the chapter on the Holocaust.' Suddenly I realized that the Holocaust was being taught as simply another chapter of history. And I understood that if we didn't take drastic measures, the Shoah would remain just that." One of these measures was the "Jewish Heroes Quiz," initiated by MK Avraham Hirchson, which brought youth from abroad here to compete on questions relating to the Holocaust. From this emerged the idea for the March of the Living, a three-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau, symbolizing the "death marches" that the Nazis forced prisoners to make across Europe under unbearably harsh conditions. Since its launch in 1988, the international project, based in New York and chaired by Rosenman in Israel, has gathered thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish youth in Poland every Holocaust Remembrance Day to "share the experience." This year, according to Rosenman, there will be a whopping 9,000 participants. About 5,000 of them will continue on to Israel, where they will tour the country, commemorate Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers at military cemeteries and, finally, celebrate Independence Day with a big 60th anniversary event at Latrun. In an hour-long interview prior to his departure for Poland, Rosenman stressed what he considers the aims and benefits of this annual trek to the sites where the Nazis carried out the extermination of millions of Jews. They can be summed up in "The Pledge of the March of the Living" that is distributed to participants (along with the words to "Hatikva" and the Mourner's Kaddish): "We pledge to keep alive and honor the legacy of the multitudes of our people who perished in the Holocaust. We pledge to fight anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, Holocaust denial and all other forms of hatred directed towards the Jewish people and Israel. We pledge to fight every form of discrimination manifested against any religion, nationality or ethnic group. We pledge to actively participate in the strengthening of Jewish life in the Diaspora and Israel. We pledge to increase our knowledge of our Jewish heritage and to pass on a love of Jewish life and learning to the next generation. We pledge to give tzedaka, to assist in helping the Jewish needy, wherever they may live in the world. We pledge to involve ourselves in tikkun olam, to build a better world for all member of the human family. After the Shoah the promise of 'Never Again' was proclaimed. We pledge to create a world where 'Never Again' will become a reality for the Jewish people and, indeed, for all people. This is our solemn pledge to the Jewish people, to those who came before us, to those of our generation, and to those who will follow in future generations." How did the March of the Living get established? It was founded by [former finance minister] Avraham Hirchson [who took a leave of absence from the cabinet while under criminal investigation for fraud and theft. He is now returning to head the Kadima party's municipal committee]. He had initiated and was president of the "Jewish Heroes Quiz," which brought youth from all over the world to Israel to learn about and compete in a quiz on the Holocaust. It was from this that the idea for the March of the Living arose. In 1986, we led a pilot trip to Poland. And what we discovered there was that 10 minutes in front of a crematorium is worth four years of Holocaust study. That's when we began to build the educational model for such trips. By 1988, the program was fully operational, and we held the first March of the Living. The concept was "from Holocaust to rebirth." It was based on the two central defining events of contemporary Jewish history - the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. We took these two axes - Holocaust Remembrance Day in Poland, followed by Independence Day in Israel. The idea was for Jewish youth from all over the world, including from Israel, to spend a week touring the death camps of Poland, and then, after internalizing what had happened there - or at least seeing it up close - to spend a week touring Israel, and taking part in Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and then celebrating Independence Day. How did you come to work with Hirchson on this, and have his recent legal troubles had any negative effects on the march? Hirchson's issues have had no negative impact. And anyway, he hasn't even been indicted for anything so far. I became involved with him [in the 1980s] when I was head of high-school education in Tel Aviv. When the quiz was in full swing, and the film by Claude Lanzmann, Shoah, came out [1985], we saw how much of a need there was to step up Holocaust exposure. For one thing, we saw that the number of survivors was decreasing. We understood that not so far in the future, there would be no one left to tell the story - that someone else would have to take and tell the story for them. The idea behind the March of the Living was to introduce young Jews to the emotional and educational side of the experience, so that they would be able to carry the torch of memory and pass it on. The first march consisted of Jewish youth from all over the world, 50 percent of them Israelis, and 50% from abroad. In attendance was the minister of education and culture, who later became president, Yitzhak Navon. And he said: "A Jewish child has to pass through two stations in his life - Auschwitz and Jerusalem." That's when we made a decision that the Education Ministry would begin to send groups of Israeli high-school pupils to Poland. So, there are essentially two different groups, the Israeli one, under the auspices of the Education Ministry, and the other from abroad, through the March of the Living. The other major goal - and achievement - of the march was to get youth together to share the experience. So, you have kids from Morocco, France, the US, Canada, Moldavia, Romania, etc. meeting and having a powerful emotional experience together. In spite of the language barrier, all these kids eat Friday-night dinner together in Cracow and march together to Birkenau. This enhances their sense of being part of a single nation. These youth then become like emissaries in their own countries. Imagine a kid who returns home and tells his parents about what he's experienced, then goes to school and tells his friends, and his community. The key here is preventing the world from forgetting. Today, you open the newspaper and read about the phenomenon of Holocaust denial everywhere. At the moment, the only people who can contest it are the survivors themselves. But when they're gone, who will do it? How do you respond to those who say that "milking" the Holocaust for the purpose of giving the State of Israel legitimacy is as bad as teaching youth to "celebrate" the slaughter of Jews? I tell them that I think we have to be realistic. I don't go into whether Israel would or would not have been established had the Holocaust not taken place. I'm not a historian; I am an educator. Look, we just celebrated Pessah, and every year we continue to tell its story of the freedom from Egyptian bondage. Do you know anybody who would say, "Let's stop talking about Pessah"? I'm not making a comparison, heaven forbid. Nor am I necessarily talking about death. But the Holocaust is a major event that happened to the Jewish people. Another point is that I know of nobody who would say that youth visiting the camps is anti-educational. And the fact is that now everybody is interested in visiting them. Why does a Jewish kid want to go there, you might ask - when it costs a lot of money that he could be spending on a trip, say, to Paris instead? Why do you think the IDF sends missions there? It's because the Holocaust is a central event in Jewish history, and Poland has an effect on anyone who goes there. Do Sephardim who visit the camps have as powerful an experience as Ashkenazim? Do Jews of Spanish and North African descent identify with the Holocaust as deeply as those with European roots, whose families were directly hit? We've done many studies on this and found that there is no difference between the way someone with Ashkenazi roots views it from the way someone with Sephardi roots does. We are a single Jewish people. Many critics have observed that "everybody loves dead Jews," which is why so many Holocaust museums have been established. How do you counter that? I think that the fact that the world is increasingly raising the issue of the Holocaust can only be good. The more people are exposed to what happened, the better it is for all of us. The Holocaust is not a Jewish problem. It is a problem of the whole world. And we have to make sure that the blackest event in Jewish history does not repeat itself. There are still many people out there for whom the word "Holocaust" means nothing. And, if you take the Holocaust museum in Washington as an example, where people line up to get in and have to reserve places in advance, it serves an amazing purpose, as visits by non-Jews to Yad Vashem constitute a crucial element in the world's understanding of what happened. You say that such ventures are crucial so that such "black events" in history shouldn't repeat themselves. Yet, at the moment - with all the Holocaust exposure and awareness - the Jews are facing a similar threat, with the rise in anti-Semitism in general, and with its blatant expression in radical Islam in particular. In addition, Iran's nuclear program is moving full speed ahead, with that country's president vowing to destroy Israel. This is an excellent point. There is indeed a resurgence of pockets of anti-Semitism throughout the world. But what are we supposed to do? Respond by dealing with it the way we used to? By not talking about it, so that maybe it wouldn't exist? Or, should we talk about it, and show the world what happens when there is intolerance and what happens when people take a radical-fascist direction? I think the story of the Holocaust can serve as a significant tool today in the struggle against anti-Semitism, fascism and intolerance. Still, you can't deny that the "lesson" even many Jews come away with by learning about the Holocaust and visiting the camps is one that often leads to self-flagellation - one that involves concluding that Israel is abusing the Palestinians. Self-flagellation only occurs when we don't know ourselves or others. Visits to the camps show what people are capable of doing to other people. To make comparisons between the work of the IDF and what was done to the Jewish people has no place. It is a way of making cynical use of Jewish history. What is the response on the part of survivors to the March of the Living? Does their pain about the past make them ambivalent about bringing it up in this way? From the outset, we said that we would have a Holocaust survivor accompanying every group we sent to Poland. The survivor tells the story to the group while they're there. The connection that develops between a group of 40 youth and the "grandfather" who tells his story is invaluable. Imagine going to Birkenau and having a survivor tell the kids, "Here is the hut I was in..." These are people who vowed to tell the story. Many of those who perished not only yelled "Shema Yisrael" ["Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one"] while they were being brought to the ovens, but they also called out to those left behind to make sure to tell the story so that everybody would know what happened here. And, as I said, the survivors are becoming older and fewer in number. Some are so old they can't make the trip, which makes passing on the torch more crucial than ever. How many of the participants in the march wear kippot? In my estimate, less than 20 percent. Still, we make sure that the food on these trips is strictly kosher, which isn't an easy feat. Do any react to the march by returning home and starting to be more observant, or by making aliya? The age of the participants is 18-23. What we have found is that within a year to three years after the march, many of the Jewish participants return to visit Israel again. Another thing we have found is that almost all of them return home and feel they have to contribute more to their Jewish communities. And don't forget that the participants from 20 years ago are today around 40, and they tend to be more active in their Jewish federations, etc. But we haven't examined whether they become more observant. Do they tend to marry other Jews as a result of the experience - because they now consider Jewish continuity to be important? Excellent question. In fact, our research shows that the percentage of intermarriage on the part of those who participated in the march is nearly zero.