March of Life musical

50 Nazi descendants present ‘Exodus 1947’ to Holocaust survivors in Israel.

The cast of the musical production of ‘Exodus 1947’ (photo credit: MARCH OF LIFE)
The cast of the musical production of ‘Exodus 1947’
(photo credit: MARCH OF LIFE)
“There are other Germans,” wrote Klieger after meeting Jobst Bittner, a German pastor, theologian, activist,  and half of the husband-wife initiative that created the March of Life, or as it is known in Germany, Marsch des Lebens. Klieger, a survivor of Auschwitz and respected journalist for Yedioth Ahronoth, told his own personal story of Exodus to Bittner last year when they met at the March of Life House in Israel.
The musical, “Exodus 1947,” recently put on in schools and community centers across Israel by March of Life, tells the story of one of the largest refugee ships to help immigrants found the State of Israel in May 1948. It takes the audience into the hope of a Jewish state, the readiness to fight for it and the way from the Holocaust to a new life.  The cast and crew of this musical, unlike the actual Exodus, are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Nazis and Nazi collaborators. They have joined March of Life to spread their message of reconciliation and mutual understanding, and to show their support for the State of Israel and Jewish life worldwide.
“We stand here together with our families and children, performing in front of Holocaust survivors, bringing everyone’s hearts together, against antisemitism, and towards peace and forgiveness,” said the show’s staff members.  “We mourn the death of the Holocaust survivor, the journalist and our good friend Noah Klieger, but now with his death, March of Life dedicates the musical to the memory of the dear man he was.”
The production, part of an hour-long encounter, includes an open discussion between the cast, most of whom are descendants of Nazis, and the audience, Israelis of all ages, including over 200 Holocaust survivors and over a dozen direct descendants from the original Exodus ship. Exodus was the ship that has been brought to fame through literature and by Hollywood, on the big screen with Robert Redford, himself the son of Jewish immigrants. The SS Exodus brought 4,500 immigrants to Palestine in the summer of 1947.  Most of the immigrants on board were survivors, hoping to reach their promised land in safety.
“My grandfather’s brother was the mayor of a small village in Germany, and he made sure that all Jews had to leave this place. Then he wrote Hitler a letter informing him that his village was the first in Germany where Jews would no longer live, and he asked Hitler if he would like to become an honorary citizen of this village. Hitler praised my great uncle for his services and gladly accepted the invitation to become an honorary citizen.”
This is the testimony of Bärbel Pfeiffer, March of Life member, whose grandfather, a Nazi engineer, engineered and worked the laying of the 16 km electric barbed wire fence in the Auschwitz death camp, and assisted in the design and idea of the gas lines which led to the death chambers.  Those electric fences were the direct cause of death of hundreds or even thousands of Jews who threw themselves into their cold metal embrace, desperate for a death less cruel than the one they knew was coming.  
Others, maybe not as desperate, were chased into the high voltage metal fences by dogs and soldiers, their bodies snapping back towards the ground as the electricity shot through them.
When Bärbel discovered the horrifying fact that her grandfather was one of the people directly responsible for engineering and erecting the electric fences, she was deeply upset, shaken and frightened.  For months the thoughts have been haunting her, until these days. 
Today, she says: “I can only ask for forgiveness and break the silence in our family. As part of the March of Life Movement I say: Such things must never happen again. I stand with Israel and against every kind of antisemitism around the world.”
Bärbel was a part of the recent production of Exodus here in Israel.  So was her husband, Frank, whose own grandfather volunteered to join the Waffen-SS in Stuttgart. As a sniper he was deployed throughout Europe: in the Balkans, in Krakow and Warsaw and the Baltic States, where he was involved in the massacre of partisans.
Antisemitism was a normal part of Frank’s family culture. “At family gatherings there was always an atmosphere of antisemitism and racism” said Frank. In their own family, Frank and Bärbel are raising their two daughters, Ana-Suzette (16) and Jordana (12) with a sense of breaking the silence they were raised with. The couple has built understanding between cultures, a strong identity with the Jewish people, and love and admiration of Israel – Which is why they travelled again together as a family in the last delegation, putting on “Exodus 1947” in high schools, community centers and stages across the country.  Ana-Suzette and Jordana were part of the talented musical cast, with Jordana performing a beautiful rendition of the famous song “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”
“I do not want to remain silent when I see antisemitism in everyday life” says Frank.  His feelings are shared by other Nazi descendants that largely make up the cast and crew members of “Exodus 1947”. Another member of the delegation, Samuel Haas, whose all four great-grandfathers were Nazis, shared that: “One of them printed propaganda material, and the other three went all over Europe as part of the Wehrmacht, murdering, looting, and robbing Jews.” Moreover he claimed that “As the descendant of these men, I am standing here knowing that something like this must never happen again. I want to unveil the history of my own family, and stand with Israel as a friend of the Jewish nation, making a statement against modern anti-Semitism.”
After the recent showing of Exodus 1947 here in Israel, actors and cast members of the production  deliberately and painfully told their stories, some shamefully, all apologetically, but with the same message:  We are here for reconciliation – we are with the Jewish people to ensure this will never happen again, and mostly we are here to support you and Israel.
“My great-grandfather became part of the Nazi-party already in the year of 1933”, said Hannah Dißelhorst. “He was part of the Reich Labor Service and helped destroy the synagogue in Königsberg in the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht).” Hannah’s family always told her that her great-grandfather wasn’t really involved in the war, which turned out to be a lie. “Today I won’t keep silent about my families past and raise my voice against anti-Semitism”, she shared.
They actors also explained why it was so important to them to take part in this deeply symbolic and emotional meeting.  The audience members in turn, told their own stories of horror, dread and loss. The sorrow and sense of regret on both sides was palatable.
March of Life has toured a dozen countries worldwide, and over ten cities in the United States, but nowhere is the encounter quite as meaningful as in the land of Israel. During June Their message of remembering, reconciling, and taking a stand for Israel both within Germany and throughout Europe is especially poignant in today’s world of rising anti-Semitism. 
March of Life was founded in 2007, and since then has held marches in 22 nations and in more than 400 cities.  The marches are in cooperation with Christians from many denominations, as well as from several Jewish communities. In 2011 and 2015, the March of Life was honored by the Israeli Knesset for its special efforts on behalf of Holocaust survivors. In 2017, the Jewish Community of Halle in Germany awarded the March of Life movement with the Emil L. Fackenheim Prize for Tolerance and Understanding.
Jobst and Charlotte Bittner, founders and leaders of March of Life, joined the Exodus 1947 tour with the delegation, saying, “This kind of experience is a living proof to the change we can make in our world.”
“My own family is of Nazi collaborators”, said Jobst. “When Charlotte and I started this movement, we didn’t think so many would join and welcome us around Germany and the world. But here I am, in Israel, together with my family and children, who are performing in front of holocaust survivors, bringing the hearts of everyone together, against antisemitism, and towards peace and forgiveness,” he added.  
At the heart of their planned upcoming events is the March of Nations 2019. After the success of the 2018 March of Nations that took place on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the State of Israel, with 6000 participants from 50 nations, March of Life is calling out again and inviting everyone to come to the March of the Nations 2019. The march will take place in the cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nahariya, Ashdod and Beersheba from June 18 to June 20, 2019.
The March of the Nations 2019 will host a preparation conference in the ICC Jerusalem with international artists and speakers. It will also hold encounters with holocaust survivors, and meetings of the delegations with politicians and representatives of public life. Like every march, it will include descendants of Nazi perpetrators finding words their fathers and grandfathers couldn´t find and be a clear symbol for Israel and against modern antisemitism; a symbol that is embodied by both the founders of the movement and its members, such as Bärbel and Frank Pfeiffer, with the message of hope that they are teaching in their  home, in their country and in the world.