March of Life stirs emotions

Unable to alter the past, we take action in the present to make a better future.

MARCH OF Life at Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. (photo credit: MARCH OF LIFE)
MARCH OF Life at Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.
(photo credit: MARCH OF LIFE)
It was my cousin, Elisheva, who introduced me to March of Life. The project was founded in 2007 by Parson Jobst Bittner in his home town of Tuebingen. Bittner is convinced that because every German family was actively or passively involved in the Holocaust, every German is responsible for speaking the truth, raising their voices against antisemitism and standing in friendship with Israel.
Elisheva works with Holocaust survivors, through Amha, providing psychological help, care, support and an ear to help survivors talk about their traumatic past and impending end of life.
Elisheva was witness to the March of Life that brought some 300 participants from 12 nations to Israel in June. It was centered in three cities, Tiberias, Kfar Saba and Sderot, where the participants were divided into groups of 100. Hundreds of Israelis came out on the streets to join the MOL participants with the strong support of their hosts, the local municipalities.
What makes the concept unique is that the participants have discovered that their grandfathers or great grandfathers were Nazi perpetrators responsible for the death of Jews during the Holocaust.
To find out more the Magazine spoke with Heinz Reuss, the international director of “March of Life” who resides in Tuebingen, Germany.
“TUEBIGEN WAS the first town to declare itself ‘Judenrein’ and its university was a hotbed of Nazi ideology,” Reuss explains. Even though Tuebingen is a small town, a disproportionately high number of SS perpetrators originated from here and were responsible for the death of 700,000 Jews throughout Europe.
Local families began to look into the role played by their grandfathers and great grandfathers and were shocked to discover their involvement with the Wehrmacht, SS, police and the entire Nazi system.”
The first “March of Life” took place in 2007 on the routes of the Death March from the Bisingen Concentration Camp (near Tuebingen) to Dachau. These marches have taken place not only at Holocaust sites but also worldwide, embracing 400 cities in 22 countries.
The most emotionally challenging of these marches are those that take place in Israel. Here the program brings together Holocaust survivors with MOL participants. The Magazine had the opportunity of speaking with two participants.
CONSTANZA, WHO lives in Halle, East Germany, studied educational science and theology and is now employed in a private school. Her job is multi-faceted – a mixture of social worker, teacher, project coordinator and more. She researched her grandfather‘s role during World War II and tells her story.
 “My grandfather, Paul Sandow, was a sergeant at the beginning of the war. In 1940, he moved, with a machine gun unit, through Poland, Belarus and Russia where they destroyed Jewish life. In June/July 1941, his regiment was involved in the conquest of Eastern Poland’s Bialystok, where approximately half of the 80,000 population was Jewish. Bialystok was home to the largest Jewish community in Poland.
“On the day of the German occupation, many Jews were imprisoned in a synagogue that was then set on fire, killing over 1,500 Jews. The following two weeks saw more than 4,000 Jews killed by attacks and mass shootings.
“The more I researched my grandfather, the more I realized how indifferent I had been toward the Jewish people. The more I discovered about my family’s story, the more my heart changed. Now I can say I love Israel and feel honored to be able to visit this astonishing country born out of the ashes of the Holocaust. I want to turn around my family history. I don’t want to be silent like my grandfather. I want to be a voice that speaks up against antisemitism; I want to say that I am standing with Israel and the Jewish people.
“The project offers me the opportunity to meet with Holocaust survivors, which I consider a huge privilege. I am touched by their stories, impressed with their inner strength that enabled them to choose life in the midst of the atrocities, inhumanity and injustice they experienced. It is special for me to have the opportunity to share my family story in front of one who has survived Hitler’s final solution. I cannot change anything, but I can represent my family and express how deeply sorry I am for the pain and loss my grandfather caused. To witness the Holocaust survivor’s moving reaction to my words is simply indescribable.
“I have been to Israel many times and just love the country and its people. There are many challenges, but in the midst of it all the country thrives with a people who have made the desert bloom.”
WE SPOKE with a second MOL participant. 27-year-old Luisa became involved through her church’s Bible Study Group. She discovered that her great-grandfather had been part of a SS Police unit that, in 1941, entered Serbia, ending up in the area of Belgrade. Her great-grandfather was stationed in a concentration camp named Sajmiste where, according to the archive documents, he was a watchman.
Sajmiste was an extermination camp where thousands of Jewish women, children and old men were brought to die. The women and children were placed in makeshift barracks where they suffered numerous influenza epidemics. Kept in squalid conditions, they were provided with only a miniscule amount of food before succumbing to starvation or to the bitter cold that froze them to death.
Luisa’s first visit to Israel took place in 2015. The organization Helping Hand Coalition brings together Holocaust survivors with MOL participants. It was on this trip that she met Chaim (as we shall call him). Chaim was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. Luisa shared the story of her great grandfather with Chaim. He told her that he had lived in Gelselnkirchen – a town very close to where Luisa lives. Chaim was separated from his family as a 10-year-old and sent to Holland to live with a Dutch family for two years until he was caught and sent to Bergen-Belsen.
Luisa and Chaim bonded and entered into a correspondence. At that first meeting, he gave her a necklace of a flower set in a stone. Luisa explains, “If you put it into water, the flower will open and start to bloom. Chaim sent me a second necklace, set with 12 colored stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel. I wear this necklace every day. Sadly, Chaim died last year. I miss him very much.
AS I listened to the moving stories of Constanza and Luisa, I could not help but think of the connections to my family and those of my late husband. Constanza spoke of Bialystok where half of the inhabitants were Jewish and were probably totally annihilated when the Germans entered the city. Had my late grandfather not escaped from Bialystok to Britain at the start of the 20th century, I would not be here today.
My late husband’s grandmother perished in Theresienstadt simply because she could not obtain a place of refuge to escape Germany and his Hungarian aunt and cousin ended their days in Auschwitz.
While there will always be differing feelings among survivors of the Holocaust as to whether or not they are prepared to meet descendants of Nazi perpetrators, it has to be seen as positive that today there are young Germans who express abhorrence at the deeds of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. This is displayed graphically by their activities against an ever-increasing rise in antisemitism and their strong pro-Israel stance.
In 2018, MOL participants came from 50 countries to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel. The participants, together with Israelis, numbered 6,000, who marched from the Sacher Park to the center of the city. The proceedings closed with a Festival of Life event at the Sultan’s Pool.
2019 will boast 70 Marches in 16 countries mobilizing tens of thousands of people. As we face the eventual demise of the last Holocaust survivors, March of Life can be a positive and meaningful counterbalance to the ever-increasing number of Holocaust deniers and minimizers.
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.