From tragedy to transcendence

A particularly poignant March of the Living.

March of the Living 2010 311 (photo credit: Gregory Keer)
March of the Living 2010 311
(photo credit: Gregory Keer)
Last week saw flooding at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and our memories were flooded too. In April, we were part of a team of educators who led young Jews to this same location. This time, it was to remember those lost. This time, it was to affirm the vitality of the Jewish people.
As thousands have done for the past 19 springs, we joined the March of the Living, an international program that brings Jewish teenagers to Poland for a unified walk on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and then to Israel to engage in a second march on Independence Day. All of this is to celebrate how Jewish life continues to grow.
For us, two arteries fed the heart of the March. One  comprised seven survivors. Sidonia Lax, Paula Lebovics, Dorothy Greenstein, Sigi Hart, Ben Lesser, Mike Popik (who brought his wife Esther) and Halina Wachtel came with vim and vigor to inspire us. On bus rides, in front of graves and at concentration camp barracks, these strong and generous people told stories of loss and survival.
The second artery of our experience was the 162 students themselves, coming from L.A. educational institutions such as New Community Jewish High School, Milken Community High School, Campbell Hall, Oakwood School and El Camino High School. They came to stand where so many of their ancestors suffered in Poland and triumphed in Israel. They also basked in the wisdom of the survivors, who they treated like cherished grandparents.
These two lifelines pumped energy through our six days in Poland, which began with a visit to Treblinka. Absent of barracks or instruments of death, the place features memorial stones to the towns and countries from which victims were taken. There, we had the first of a number of prayer interludes, beneath a handmade tallit, stitched with yellow butterflies, that covered our nearly 200-member group.
On our next day, we visited Dorothy Greenstein’s hometown of Otwock, where our teens met Polish Catholic students at a high school. Our teens laughed and promised to befriend one another on Facebook, showing how much alike they are.
But smiles were not to last long for the Polish people we met. The next morning, we received the news of the death of Polish president Lech Kaczynski, and the family, friends and other government officials who died in a plane crash. We were later taken to visit the presidential palace, to pay respects to a man who had been a friend of the Jews.
We toured Auschwitz 1, shivering from frigid rain and chilled feeling, guided by a Polish gentile who conveyed the story of the camp with precision and compassion. Those survivors forced to stay in this camp long ago showed the way with sobering recollections of their time in this camp.
It was in Auschwitz 1 that we gathered for the Holocaust Remembrance Day March. Thousands of Jewish teenagers flooded the pathways of Auschwitz, ready to walk in memory of those who died and in honor of those who survived. Signs were raised, noting the presence of contingents from Turkey to South Africa, while students bounded from one area to another, kibbitzing and trading pins and T-shirts. Everywhere you turned, Jews in all shapes, colors and sizes, a world map of Jewry, enlivened a place known primarily for death.
The walk itself was 60 minutes of the teens moving toward Birkenau, like the forward progress of a people not in pain but in strength. Along the way, students wrapped in Israeli flags planted wooden placards to memorialize those who died in the Shoah and to urge action to make peace, to never forget, to not stand idly by so that nowhere in the world should such a Holocaust happen again. The walk culminated in a stirring ceremony of speeches and music, broadcast worldwide, confirming the meaning of all that Jewish promise in the form of the thousands of Jewish teens present.
We continued to take in Poland. We were humbled to meet true bravery, in the form of Jozef Walaszczyk, a recognized Righteous Gentile. We danced and sang Hebrew songs at the top of our lungs in one of the only remaining synagogues in Krakow. We scoured the Warsaw Ghetto area and realized the significance of Janusz Korczak to the Jews and Poles.
No site hit our group as hard as Zbilagovska Gora Forest, where 800 children were buried, many of whom having been clubbed to death by Ukrainian guards acting under Nazi orders. Upon hearing our guide, Jewish studies educator Ronnie Mink, explain the horrors that had been committed at the very spot we stood on, nearly the entire group was reduced to tears. After stretching our tallit over the mass grave to say Kaddish, we walked, arms thrown around each other’s shoulders, slowly out of the forest.
On to Majadanek, which sits at the edge of Lublin, remarkably close to apartment buildings. This site of death is most notable for its intactness. Barracks could readily house prisoners; gas chambers appear operational with only minor repairs. Then there is the monument of ash at the outskirts of the camp. This is where our students read letters from their parents, who had been instructed by BJE staff to write about what they wanted their children to learn on this trip. The teens cried and we, the staff, marveled at their ability to connect so deeply with their parents and this experience.
From here, we boarded a plane, hours before the Icelandic volcano eruption prevented flights from taking off. Yet, Israel’s pull seemed to lead us eastward.
Israel revived us. From the moment we stepped off the plane, we felt lighter. Happier. Whole. In this country, we used our bodies as much as our minds. We boated on the Jordan River up north.
In Jerusalem, we waded through Hezekiah’s tunnel and walked everywhere on Shabbat.
During bus rides, in discussion groups, casual conversations and serious talks, our teenagers put the pieces together. For them, seeing the sites of mass destruction in Poland, while difficult, gave them the tools to finally understand the importance of Israel.
For both evenings of Remembrance Day and Independence Day, we gathered with Israelis in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Rabin. We shared in the contemplation of those lost in battle for Remembrance Day and played with revelers on Independence Day. During Remembrance Day, we visited with IDF soldiers from Southern California, who spoke to our teens about their choices and the value of Israel to them.
On the day of Yom Ha’atzmaut, we assembled with our 10,000 other Jewish marchers at the Jerusalem city hall. Boosted by an ensemble of percussionists, our Los Angeles contingent was honored with taking the front of the Israel march. In our bright green shirts, we led the throngs through the Old City all the way to the Kotel, singing every possible traditional song of Israel and feeling so at home and so proud.
Only a few short decades ago, our people were persecuted and imprisoned, simply because they were Jews. Millions all over Europe fell at the hands of the Nazis, murdered because they had nowhere to turn. Gradually, our group began to realize why thousands of people had died protecting this land of ours, and why it must always exist: We as Jews must always have somewhere to go. We must always have Israel.
On the last night of our trip, the entire March of the Living gathered for a special celebratory performance at Latrun, where thousands of teenagers danced, cheered and sang for hours. And at the end of the event, we raised our voices in song one last time, singing for those who died in the Holocaust, for those who died protecting Israel, for every Jew in every country around the world.
Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live. The people of Israel march.

The writers were March of the Living staff members for the BJE Los Angeles. Keer is an educator at New Community Jewish High School in Los Angeles, award-winning syndicated columnist and publisher of Silverman is a social media and marketing consultant for many Los Angeles-area Jewish nonprofit organizations. Her blog is