Jewish Journal


November 4, 2004

March Connects Students to Shoah


With 15 years of Jewish day school education under his belt, Marc Marrero had a plan for college.

"I was going to graduate from Milken, come to college and basically have my Jewish life back home, and I was going to completely forget about Judaism when I came to college," said Marrero, a freshman at Tufts University in Boston.

That plan was "flipped upside down" after he attended March of the Living last April, spending a week in Poland and a week in Israel with thousands of teens from all over the world and forming a bond with a Holocaust survivor who became like a grandfather to him.

"The first thing I did when I came to Tufts was go to Hillel," Marrero said. He also advocates for Israel, and made an effort to find Shabbat services that are meaningful to him.

It is reactions such as Marrero's that has given March of the Living such widespread support both among those interested in perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust and those interested in building positive Jewish identity -- two camps that often find themselves at odds.

With the anniversary of Kristallnacht this week, the ongoing debate around whether to put scarce community resources into Holocaust memorials or into Jewish education re-emerges. In this touchy context, March of the Living seems to have carved out a niche where memorializing tragedy and fostering positive Jewish identity come together in such a way as to deflect criticism and to attract broad support from educators and community leaders.

In cities around the United States, including Los Angeles, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) often acts as a local planner for the trip, and community money subsidizes its roughly $3,500 price tag. The BJE in Los Angeles this year is sending an adult group, and is also making the trip a yearly rather than biannual event, as it has been for the past decade.

"This is not a horror and sadness trip. It's not just about concentration camps and death camps, not about Nazis," said Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE's associate director, who has attended with groups twice. "It's really about having the opportunity to think about who we are in a very powerful conversation with our past."

This year, the international March of the Living is boosting promotion efforts in an attempt to get 18,000 Jewish and non-Jewish teenagers and adults -- nearly three times the yearly average -- for the May 2005 trip, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

At Milken Community High School, which sent 12 students last year, recruitment efforts are underway to get as many as possible of the 138 seniors to go this year, an idea Marrero thinks is a good one.

"I got a really good Jewish education, but I never really understood the immediacy of why I needed that education and the role it needed to play in my life. There was this disconnect, and the march really made Judaism a part of my life," Marrero said. "It has given me a calling, or a task."

About 100,000 teens worldwide have gone on March of the Living since the first trip in 1988. Every year, local delegations from around the world spend a week in Poland, touring erstwhile shtetls and concentrations camps. The week culminates on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, with 6,000 teens, chaperones and survivors in matching blue jackets marching with Israeli flags from Auschwitz to Burkina.

After Poland the groups head to Israel, where they celebrate Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day.

The combination of understanding the richness of what was once there, how it was lost, and then how Israel rose from the ashes to become what is today, in a milieu with peers from around the world, proves to be an intense experience for teens.

To aid the teens in processing the information, a social worker attends the trip, and work is done in small groups before, during and after the trip itself.

"Even though the experience was intense and very emotionally and mentally challenging to deal with, I think ultimately the intensity of the experience is what lit up the passion inside of us to go out and carry the message of what we learned," said Miri Cypers, a Milken graduate who now attends Barnard College. "One of the most important messages of the trip was how to take history and take the tragedy of the past and still continue to find meaning and depth in everyday life."

That message was brought home by the presence of Nandor "Marko" Markovic, a survivor who attended with last year's Los Angeles group (see sidebar).

"Marko's response and his way of dealing with things -- and the way I've come to view the world -- is that you have to respond to injustice with humanity," Marrero said.

Markovic built intense bonds with the group, telling them his story of surviving through six concentration camps when he was younger than most of them.

"I never got to meet my grandfather, but Marko filled that void in my life," said Marrero. "I've never learned such important lessons from anyone as I did from him. It was unbelievable to be able to meet someone you didn't know before and two weeks later feel like you've learned the most important lessons of life on how to deal with yourself and how to confront humanity and how to deal with evil in the world."

Both Marrero and Cypers tell of their experience in the small town of Tykocin in Poland, where they stood in desolation looking at the barely visible relics of a wooden Magen David on what was once the rabbi's house in a thriving community. The group suddenly heard loud noises coming from the 500-year-old synagogue that had been salvaged as a museum. They entered, and found hundreds of March of the Living participants from around the world singing and dancing.

"I could see Marko just started to weep, because this was a tangible moment where we could see how we were bringing back life that [which] was decimated," Cypers said.

It was Marko's first time back to Auschwitz since he lost his parents and several siblings there, and he said it was the kids who carried him through the trip, and gave him the strength to continue on the 3-kilometer march.

"With my generation going, the whole story will go to academia," Markovic said. "If we bond with these kids, they will remember it emotionally rather than academically."

That was the thinking behind the creation of March of the Living. Israeli Knesset Member Avraham Hirchson saw that Israeli teens did not know anything about the Holocaust, and he wanted to be sure that Israelis and Jews worldwide could bear witness to the destruction. Along the way, the larger idea of building Jewish identity arose.

"I am convinced that March of the Living has such an impact on these youngsters, that without modesty I will predict that they will represent the future leadership of the Jewish people all over the world," said Freddy Diamond, a survivor of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen who founded Los Angeles's citywide Yom Hashoah program and attended the march five times over 10 years.

While in Auschwitz, Diamond showed the teens the block where his brother, a leader of the little-known resistance in Auschwitz, was tortured and then where he was hanged in front of 15,000 inmates.

Markovic showed them where he stood when he shooed his little sister to go stand with their mother and other siblings; they were among thousands killed that day.

But more than reliving the tragedy, the survivors provide inspiration. It is a difficult trip for the aging survivors, but one they see as key not only to remembering their lost families, but as central to the Jewish future.

"What is the impact of the trip to Poland and Israel?" Diamond asked. "I can say it in one sentence: For the first time in their lives, these youngsters know what a privilege it is to be Jewish."

Applications are now available for March of the Living 2005. For more information, visit www.motl.org or www.bjela.org, or call (323) 761-8605.

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