Living history

Jarring images and haunting poetry commemorate 25 years of March of the Living.

University students on the March of Remembrance and Hope visit the barracks at Majdanek concentration camp, located on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland (photo credit: COURTESY SECOND STORY PRESS/MARCH OF THE LIVING)
University students on the March of Remembrance and Hope visit the barracks at Majdanek concentration camp, located on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland
The March of the Living has sent more than 200,000 people, both Jewish and not Jewish – students, Holocaust survivors, teachers, governmental, communal and religious leaders – on trips that take them first to the concentration/ death camps and to Jewish sites throughout Eastern Europe and then to Israel. A new book, Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations, commemorates and celebrates the 25 years of this effort through gripping photos and text.
Research on the march has shown that it has had a great impact on those who go, affecting their outlook on life, their values, charitable giving, career choices, and much more. Why has this program been so effective – aside from the professionalism and dedication of those involved in it? In large part it is because those who go on the march relive the seven years of hell that the victims endured. Together with Holocaust survivors who share their memories in the very places their personal tragedies unfolded, the students walk through the camps and see the towns that were once vibrant communities in their current state.
In so doing, they vicariously relive the horrors in a very intense way, but with one major exception. As they emerge, emotionally drained, their trip, unlike that of the victims, is not over. They travel next to Israel, where they have a cathartic uplifting experience, visiting the Western Wall, praying, dancing, singing, and experiencing a vibrant country that those who went through the Holocaust and died never even saw.
Social science research has shown that an intense experience, even of short duration, can have permanent, long-lasting effects. Follow-up studies of the march have confirmed this again and again.
Marchers who went 10 to 20 years ago talk about how their Jewish identity was strengthened, how they married within the faith, how they chose careers in helping professions, and how they give generously to Jewish organizations as a result of the trip.
This truly engrossing book, filled with both harrowing and uplifting photos, as well as moving statements by those who went on the march, brings this experience to life for the readers. To browse through this volume is to realize how much our people have endured through the centuries and how resilient we are in reaffirming life in the aftermath of that most tragic of calamities, the Holocaust.
The statements made by the participants are so eloquent as to defy easy description.
Witness provides a capsule history of the Holocaust that is especially useful for someone who is unaware of what actually happened. It’s also a very helpful review for more knowledgeable individuals.
There are photos of the camps, the victims and those who went on the trip – both Jews and non-Jews.
Witness also includes a cutting-edge interactive feature. Almost all of the Holocaust survivors, Righteous Among the Nations and World War II liberators appearing in the book have an invisible bar code embedded in their image. By scanning the page with a smart phone, readers are taken to edited pieces of their Holocaust testimony found on the USC Shoah Foundation and March of the Living Digital Archives websites. Thus the stories of the figures featured in the book are further brought to life.
What is perhaps most fascinating about this work is that despite its subject, the message is overwhelmingly positive.
There’s not one essay, poem or quote that in any way discusses hatred or revenge.
This is the true message of the book, to find hope and strength to make the world a better place.
Ten years ago I had the opportunity to take a group of non-Jewish journalists on a trip sponsored by the March of the Living. We visited Majdanek and I walked through one of the barracks with a journalist from the American Midwest.
We passed row after row of shoes that belonged to the victims. We emerged and entered another barracks also filled with thousands of shoes, walking through in silence; and then a third barracks crammed with shoes. I asked Tim if he wanted to go through the building again: “Definitely,” he said. And so we did.
When we emerged Tim turned to me and said: “Let me explain why I did that. My father came to America from Poland in the 1930s. He was a terrible anti-Semite.
I went on this trip hoping that I could make up in some way for his bigotry. Every one of those pairs of shoes belonged to a human being who was once alive and I felt it would be disrespectful to say: ‘I don’t have time for it.’” Last year, Tim emailed me to tell me how he never forgot the trip and how much it affected his thinking and actions in various ways. Witness is a beautiful and inspiring coffee table book in the most positive of ways. You want it there and will want to give it to others to remind them about the potential for all human beings to be caring and loving.
William Helmreich is professor of sociology at CUNY Graduate Center and the Colin Powell School. His book, Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives they Made in America, won the National Jewish Book Award for nonfiction.