Arab-Israeli youth march with Holocaust survivors, fly Israeli flag

A delegation of the Atidna youth movement set out for Poland to march with Holocaust survivors and walk through the camps.

 Delegation of Arab-Israeli youth at Auschwitz, Poland, March 28, 2022.  (photo credit: MICHAEL STARR)
Delegation of Arab-Israeli youth at Auschwitz, Poland, March 28, 2022.
(photo credit: MICHAEL STARR)

KRAKOW – The long march from the gates of Auschwitz to the ruins of Birkenau’s gas chambers is not an easy one. Fasting for Ramadan, as were almost half of the Arab-Israeli teenagers from the Atidna youth movement, only made it more difficult, physically and emotionally.

“I want to give you a blessing for health,” Holocaust survivor Edward Mossberg, 96, told the Atidna members. “The most important blessing is from God – whatever your religion or beliefs.”

One hundred and three Arab-Israeli teens from across the country marched alongside Holocaust survivors and their progeny in the March of the Living on Thursday.

The youth visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot prior to trekking to Poland.

“Nothing could prepare [us] for being at Auschwitz,” said Ali, the group’s social-media manager.

The group toured Auschwitz on Wednesday.

“We were taught a lot of things [about the Holocaust]; now we want to see them for ourselves,” Atidna member Yosef said before passing under the Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free) slogan above the iron entrance gate.

More than a third of the teens had left Israel for the first time. They saw piles of shoes, tallitot (prayer shawls) and eyeglasses, but what seemed to affect them the most was a single shoe: the first shoe of a young child. Thoughts of younger siblings drained the color from some of their faces.

“Every part we get to, I think: that’s it, it can’t get any worse,” said Ali, as they heard stories of what happened where they stood. “And it does. It hurts.”

One girl wiped away tears after she saw the massive book of names of victims.

“It’s a heavy feeling to relive the awful things that went on here,” said Atidna co-CEO Dalia Fadila, an Arab-Israeli scholar and social organizer. “There are terrible memories in every corner.”

Salleem, Yosef’s cousin, said a room in which drawings of children were reproduced as scribbling on the wall was what impacted him the most. Even though it was terrible, he was grateful to have the opportunity to be there.

As the group marched on Thursday, those they met along the way felt the same way. They were repeatedly queried by curious Israelis and Jews from the Diaspora, who even in the solemnest of places were excited by the youth movement and thanked the teens for their tribute to the victims of the Holocaust.

“What we’re doing is historic – the first Arab-Israeli delegation on the March of the Living,” said Suleiman, one of the youth movement’s leaders.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion told representatives of the movement how their visit “is very exciting. You deserve respect for coming.”

As the teens were uploading photos to social media at the beginning of their trip, they were asked where they were going. Some messages were positive, but questions of why they wanted to go on the march persisted.

Suleiman said it was part of their responsibility to educate the future and build a better one in Israel, and knowledge of the Holocaust is part of that education.

“The Arab youth movement Atidna is working to advance and strengthen Arab identity – language, culture, religion – and integration into Israeli society,” said Atidna general secretary Tony Nasser. “The trip to Poland and education about the Holocaust and its heroes are central parts of our civil identity in the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”

When the Arab-Israeli teens saw a Belgian youth delegation wearing Israeli flags, some of them also wanted to wear Israeli flags as they walked along the tracks to Birkenau. As the shofar sounded and the march began, some of the Arab-Israeli youths wrapped themselves in the Israeli flag and became part of the river of white and blue. They were indistinguishable from the other delegations paying tribute to the victims of the Holocaust.