This chinuch article was written by our bogeret Daisy Bogod. It does not necessarily represent the views of LJY-Netzer.
I can tell you what I did over the past week. I can tell you where I went. But you will not understand my experience on March of the Living. Before my trip, I had a decent but somewhat basic understanding of the events of the Shoah. During my trip, I learnt how it worked; I walked through the routes taken by the two groups of prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau: the group that was taken straight to the gas chambers and the group that was were stripped, shaven, disinfected, tattooed and crammed into a barrack of a thousand people to await their almost inevitable death.
It is only now that I’m back in the UK, sitting on a comfortable train back to my home in Leeds that I can start putting the two together; the numbness I’ve felt over the past few days is fading and I can begin to process the turmoil of emotions and horrific sights I’ve seen. Even in my head, though, my experience is pretty immutable: the thing that keeps going around my head is the simple, ineloquent phrase ‘the Holocaust was really, really horrendous’.
Majdanek, the first death camp we visited, was perhaps the most visual. The part I remember most clearly is a small room separated from the gas chambers by a small, barred window. It was here, as a survivor’s testimony described, where the valve would be turned and Zyklon B would be released, suffocating the hundreds of people visible through the window, whose last minutes are collectively documented in scratch marks on the blue tinged walls. I stood there, in front of an empty gas canister; it was so real, and the camp could become a killing factory again in a matter of minutes.
The contrast between the sizes of the other camps we visited, Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau, could not have been different. Around 500,000 Jews died at Belzec: a gas chamber hidden through a path of trees, covering a site of only four football pitches. The memorial there was beautifully done, but it was difficult to process what literally happened other than with an abstract feeling of tragedy.
Birkenau is massive. Many of the barracks were destroyed post-war to be used as firewood, but many remain in exactly the same condition as they did 70 years ago. There are four small, rectangular ponds, which are estimated to contain the ashes of 1 million of the Jews who where gassed and cremated there. The rooms of the museum in Auschwitz where piled with possessions of the 1.3 million people who were murdered there: photographs of families and loved ones, named and addressed suitcases, shoes, crockery, and hair. The sheer quantity didn’t seem real.
When we returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau the next day, for the March, there were 11,000 Jews from across the world excitedly exchanging greetings and merchandise prior to the actual march. This is equivalent to 1% of the Jews who died there.
It was a weird, surreal experience, and there were definitely aspects I didn’t like, didn’t feel comfortable with or thought slightly inappropriate (selfie-sticks, littering and hordes of Israeli flags, for example), but parts were some of the most incredible, empowering and identity-affirming experiences I’ve ever had. Before the march, LJY- and RSY-Netzer sat between barracks singing, praying and playing the guitar, and it wasn’t long until we were joined (and filmed, which was weird) by Jews from around the world, including other Netzer-niks and those from different youth movements in the UK.
We sang the Netzer song as we walked out of the infamous gates of Auschwitz 1; incredibly, Jews survived this hellish part of our history and new generations of young, proud Jews are still here, trying to make each other and the world a better place through our youth movements. It was an f-you to the Nazis, to all who wanted us dead, and a thought-provoking glimpse into our futures and the necessity for us to remember, educate to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again and act to help stop injustice and intolerance that happens at the moment throughout the world.
I know now that I need to go back to Poland; I need to learn more about what happened, and I would avidly encourage everyone to do the same thing. Walking around with Arek, our bus’s survivor, and listening to his testimony and experiences (including the phrase ‘the soup was better here, at Auschwitz [than at Birkenau]: it was thicker’, which I will never forget) was an indescribably inspirational experience. He is an incredible man. This has opened my eyes to the important journey I have to make of learning and educating about the Shoah, and in that sense, it was definitely life changing. I am incredibly grateful for everyone who helped shape my experience of the trip, but I am even more grateful that I am here and part of such a passionate Jewish kehila. Ani v’atah neshaneh et ha’olam and all that jazz.