Fear, loathing and hope on the ‘Train of the Living’

Just 70 years after the events of the Holocaust and a rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, a symbolic train ride from Budapest to Auschwitz renews hope of changing attitudes among enlightened youth.

NEARLY 10,000 international high-school students participated in the March in Budapest on April 27. (photo credit: REUTERS)
NEARLY 10,000 international high-school students participated in the March in Budapest on April 27.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After marching down Budapest’s main thoroughfare with thousands of Hungarian Jews last month to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the country’s mass deportation – and subsequent slaughter – of nearly 600,000 Jews, I was simply happy there were no eruptions of violence along the route.
There was cause for concern.
Several weeks earlier, approximately 20 percent of the Hungarian electorate voted for the radical nationalistic Jobbik Party, whose platform rails against Jews and Gypsies, while offering little else. Compounded by the nation’s anti-Semitic history and its increasingly anemic economy, I watched helplessly as history appeared to repeat itself before my eyes.
And despite Budapest’s undeniable beauty, I began to view it with a visceral contempt, rendering it no more attractive than a rundown trailer park.
Yes, thousands of members of Hungary’s dwindling Jewish population marched side by side with many of their sympathetic non-Jewish counterparts to memorialize the tragedy. However, based on the facts on the ground, it became perfectly clear to me that there was an unspoken statute of limitations for penance against killing Jews, and Jew hating in general, there.
Having attended a panel discussion shortly before the march about the alarming increase of anti-Semitism throughout Europe by parliamentarians from Poland, Belgium, Spain and Greece, I began to wonder if I had accidentally traveled back in time.
Indeed, this seemingly reassuring mass procession of humanity and tolerance belied the fact that all the leading indicators of imminent danger for Jews were still out in the open throughout Hungary and Europe – on the 70th anniversary of the mass deportation, no less – for the world to see.
Therefore, my journey an hour later on the “Train of the Living” with dozens of other Jews, to attend International March of the Living’s annual event at the notorious death camps, felt all the more haunting.
The symbolic ride was arranged by IMOL and the Israeli Jewish Congress, as a reaffirmation of world Jewry and to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians sent to their deaths. Yet, despite seeing three men proudly singing “Hatikva” out of one of the train’s window as I boarded, I was less than sanguine about the symbolism our shared journey was meant to represent.
That all changed when I entered the car I would be sharing with three young leaders from considerably different backgrounds.
Ran Bar-Yoshafat a 30-year-old IJC project manager and former elite IDF soldier, greeted me as I entered the car. Sitting next to him was Nikola Srdic, a non-Jewish student union president from Serbia, and next to me was Robert Santa, a non-Jewish Romanian student leader.
As I quickly took in their collective energy and undeniable potential, in some ways I felt like I was sitting with a microcosm of “the future.”
Bar-Yoshafat, once Israel’s national mixed martial arts champion, who has a law degree, master’s degree in history and soon-to-be MBA, regularly lectures about Israel at US college campuses – sometimes to hostile audiences. He personally invited Srdic and Santa to attend the events in both Budapest and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“This is the first student delegation of its kind,” said Bar-Yoshafat as the train pulled out of Budapest. “And because education is the most important factor for fighting anti-Semitism, it was important for me to take part in it and invite Nikola and Robert.”
Bar-Yoshafat – whose paternal grandparents were deported from Hungary 70 years earlier and survived the camps to make aliya – said he wanted the two student leaders to experience the marches and train ride to gain a better understanding of Jewish history.
And although he questioned the decorum of the train ride – no matter how well-intentioned – Bar-Yoshafat said he concluded it was worthwhile if Srdic and Santa left it with a greater understanding of Jews, and shared it with other students and friends.
“It’s bad taste to send a train from Budapest to Auschwitz, but to hear people like Nikola and Robert say they learned something about Judaism – that we’re all human beings – then this train ride is more than worth it,” he said.
Based on that criterion, Bar-Yoshafat’s efforts appeared to pay off.
“Until last Friday I heard stereotypes and prejudices about Jewish people because I was told by poorly informed people and the media [in Serbia] that the Jews owned all the banks, and they’re all rich and trying to control the world’s politics and economy,” said Srdic, a 24-year-old engineering student who leads 44 student unions throughout Serbia.
He added that he learned little about the Holocaust and Jews during high school and college.
“The Holocaust and Jewish history in general isn’t much mentioned in school,” Srdic said. “I knew nothing of Jewish tradition and life before this trip.”
Describing the Shoah as a “failure of mankind,” Srdic said that despite knowing few Jews, he felt compelled to learn about the Holocaust firsthand.
“I wanted to experience this because it is inhumane, what happened,” he said. “I don’t think you can generalize about people, so I wanted to see the truth for myself.”
This “truth,” Srdic said, proved to him that “Jews are people, like everyone else.”
“I like the customs and traditions of the Jewish people,” he said. “I took part in a Shabbat dinner and liked the optimism in the songs. I didn’t see even one partly negative thing.”
Srdic continued, “I learned more from IMOL and IJC than I could from reading books for 10 years.”
Asked how he will react when he returns to Serbia and encounters anti-Semitism, Srdic said he will openly challenge hackneyed stereotypes and hate speech.
“The biggest stereotype of Jews in Serbia is that they are cheap and will take advantage of you to get money,” he said. “So when I hear people who are poorly informed say these things, I will ask them, ‘Do you know one Jew? Do you know their history? What is the source of your information?’”
Conceding that there are limits to what he can do to change long-held prejudices and fallacies as one person, Srdic said that will not stop him from attempting to change hearts and minds in his country.
“I can’t stop them from talking, but as student union president I can tell them to get informed before talking about Jews,” he explained. “I now know Jews are regular people. I respect their traditions and I no longer believe the stereotypes about them. I hope that I will be able to inform as many others about the truth as possible.”
Indeed, Srdic said he would make education more of a priority in his country to “prevent what happened to the Jews from happening again.”
“Right now the government is spending all its money on sports to gain support, but they should spend it on education,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Santa, 28, who said he joined the trip out of “personal interest,” noted that he only knew two Jews when he was growing up, and that he has long been fascinated by the underpinnings of anti-Semitism in Europe.
“I got involved in Jewish history in high school and began reading about it, and then became a student leader in Romania,” he said. “We had a lot of activities with Israeli students and they told me about the Holocaust. All of them had at least one relative who was killed.”
Santa added that Romania is rife with Jewish stereotypes and anti-Semitism, propagated by the media and Internet.
“The trolling on the Internet is really aggressive: ‘Jews are trying to take over the country and the world,’” he said. “I wanted to see the story of the Holocaust with my own eyes. I wanted to see how [Jews] reacted to it, coped with it, but I had never seen the infrastructure of the Holocaust.”
Santa said present-day European anti-Semitism is increasingly alarming, because it is “largely going under the radar” and “frequently framed as anti-Israel sentiment.”
“People now attack Israel with the same intensity as they once attacked Jews,” he said. “Personally, I always try to raise awareness when I communicate about anti-Semitism because it’s a complete abomination that 70 years after the Holocaust Europeans are sweeping it under the carpet by attacking Israel instead.”
According to Santa, who is an MA candidate in education at the University of London, anti-Israel sentiment has become a metaphor for a “dangerous, new, less obvious anti-Semitism.”
“People in London and Romania become emotional in condemning Israel,” he said. “It has the same effect as anti-Semitism, but it’s now phrased differently. There is ‘legitimate criticism’ and then there is ‘foaming at the mouth criticism,’ and unfortunately laws against anti-Semitism can only do so much.”
While Santa said he doubts a second Holocaust will take place in Europe, he opined that given the current state of affairs, “most of the Jewish population will probably emigrate to the US, Israel or Canada.”
“I would not blame them,” he added.
Asked how he feels to be on the same train ride that once led to the murders of millions of Jews, Santa said the experience brought him closer to understanding what he once believed was unthinkable.
“This is really emotional, to relive something that I cannot conceive of,” he said. “But at the same time, this train ride makes it feel real because you’re experiencing it, so you know it’s real.”
Perhaps more importantly, Santa said he will share this reality with any students or acquaintances who question its veracity.
“When I go back to London and Romania, I will certainly do what I can to dispel the lies and distortions against Jews and Jewish history,” he said.
Ten hours after boarding the train, we arrived at Auschwitz, which we toured extensively in pouring rain.
Following a 3.5-kilometer march from Auschwitz to Birkenau with over 10,000 high school students from across the globe draped in Israeli flags, Srdic and Santa appeared haunted. When we finally reached the infamous train tracks leading to Birkenau, both young men reiterated their pledge to inform fellow students and others of the truth.
“This experience will have a profound impact on me for the rest of my life,” said Srdic when we left the camps. “I will never forget what I saw and learned here, and I will share it with whoever will listen.”
Santa echoed his sentiments, adding, “This can never be allowed to happen again. I will do everything I can to ensure it doesn’t.”
And while I remained troubled and cynical about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Hungary and Europe only 70 years after the Holocaust, the two young student leaders provided a glimmer of hope.