Everyone who knows me, knows that I like to participate in various trips, events and seminars organized by Jewish organizations. I always meet someone interesting, learn something useful and see a new place.
The March of the Living is one of the few events, which negates all three of the above, however this was not the reason that I did not take part until I was 25 years old. I already had had several occasions in the past, but the idea of this event never quite moved me, encouraged me, perhaps I did not feel invited?
This year I decided to find out for myself what the March of the Living is really like and seized the occasion to participate with my good acquaintances, as well as those just met a couple days earlier at a seminar - people who came to the march from all over Poland. It is worth noting that the group traveled to Oswiecim as an official group of Polish Jews. We held flags of the Socio-Cultural Association of Polish Jews (TSKŻ), the Jewish Agency for Israel in Poland, as well as the white and red flag of Poland. Since I had somewhat of a chance to see behind the scenes of the seminar preparations and our presence at the March, I must admit that even before we arrived in Oswiecim I felt disappointed with the March of the Living (MOTL) organization’s approach to us, Poles and Jews in one.
But let’s start at the beginning - what the March of the Living is. On the official website we read that it is an annual educational program, which aims to inform participants about the history of the Holocaust, and examine the roots of intolerance, prejudice and hate. Indeed, this is quite interesting, but why is it that the organizers want to teach us about these matters in Poland specifically? Poland was the location of many concentration camps, I agree, but we will not find the history of the Holocaust here. That story began much earlier than the camps themselves; it was many years of politics, events and bad decisions, which led to someone like Hitler taking power. If we want to confirm history with the landscape, then I invite you to Berlin and Munich, then only lastly to Poland. The concentration camps were the final strokes of Hitler’s sick politics, and not its beginning or the idea itself. As for prejudice and intolerance, Poland is also the wrong address, since it was known to Jews for 700 years as a place that they called home. This is not clear to everyone. One of our friends was called a “Polish asshole” as she was walking through the Camp with a Polish flag in hand. The sender of this message was a girl wrapped in an Israeli flag, though she was American.
Reading further the MOTL website, we arrive at the topic of the three kilometer march in silence. It is far from silent, dear readers. The march begins in Auschwitz I. A horrible crowd mills at the toilets, I was witness to some 50+ ladies bidding over who had the worse kidney disease and pushing each other out of line. I immediately thought of the story of one prisoner, who described how women supported each other near the toilets, giving each other those few moments to relieve oneself, by standing around the person on the “toilet”, so that others could not push her off. But that is just an anecdote that came out of nowhere, maybe it was because of such anecdotes that I couldn’t camp out like the others, by the walls of the barracks with a sandwich and a cola in hand.
In the description of the idea behind MOTL we read that a week before the March participants visit a place which was once a haven for Jewish life. Attention, attention - in most of these places there are still Jews cultivating their traditions and religion. If the organizers of the March wanted participants to have a dialog with Polish Jews they would have contacted us beforehand. Here the situation is quite the opposite – Polish Jews had to solicit for months for permission to participate in the March. A bizarre situation! Not only does one pay for participation in the March, and not a small sum, then you have to plead to enter the camp, which is open every day to visitors for free. That’s not all; you have to stand in the proper place assigned and marked for your country. Each group receives a map to position themselves properly for the March. Imagine my surprise when I saw that Polish Jews stand at the very end, next to groups from Austria and Germany. I could not believe my eyes, checking the plan several times. I was convinced that we should at least be near the head of the march, this was quite a disappointment. Unperturbed and unyielding we pushed in front of the group from Los Angeles, ripping the tape which barred us from the Arbeit macht Frei gate, in a gesture of cooperation and support for each other.
Another matter is the presence of former inmates, survivors of the Holocaust. Several times already I’ve had the chance to attend meetings with survivors who told their stories. The young do listen and even feel it, but too bad their memory is short. While in Camp I, before the March started, I was witness to an older man with a cane crossing the square – a former inmate. Too bad no one noticed him, it is not a sight one will see often. Speaking of former prisoners and how grateful everyone is for them being there, surviving and coming to such ceremonies to testify history. After the ceremony ends, first leave diplomats and high position people. It takes quite a long time, because of the regulations, rules, protocols. Former inmates and spectators are at the end. Then organized groups go into the buses and former inmates to the bus stop. No one thinks to provide these seniors with a decent mode of transportation to and from the Camp. After the spectacle, let the actors worry about getting home on their own.
In closing, I will recall the last sentences from the official March of the Living website, which speak about how youth after the march return to Israel strengthened in their Jewish identity, remembering the Holocaust and more engaged in their local community. At what and whose cost, I ask? At the cost of history not quite told, staged emotions, an omitted dialog, future generations from across the water thinking that there is no Jewish life in Poland?
I went to the March of the Living with a critical attitude but also with a will to change my views and give it a chance. Unfortunately, the event did not redeem itself in my eyes. Regardless, it will take place next year and the year after, and for a few or a dozen more. I have no qualm with that, in fact I support it, but only with a different narration and let some use come of it.