BY DALTON JACOBS
After undergoing a nine-hour flight from New York to Poland, my first stop while participating in March of the Living – a two week trip (April 3-17) for Jewish teenagers to Poland and Israel in memory of the Holocaust – was at Treblinka, a death camp that I had never heard of. Though the camp only ran for one year during World War II, it resulted in the death of 800,000 Jews.
The Nazis destroyed the camp because they tried to cover up the evidence of their crimes. Because of this, the camp serves now as a memorial, with over 17,000 stones representing different communities throughout Poland.
While we were in Treblinka, the weather was brutal with the extremely low temperatures and heavy snow. This showed all 73 of us from Broward County how harsh the conditions for the victims were. I couldn’t help but think about how the victims had only a light layer of clothing to keep themselves warm while we were freezing fully clothed and wearing heavy jackets.
On Day Two, we went to the Warsaw Ghetto Cemetery, which takes up over 69 acres. What really touched me the most was the memorial for the 1 million children who died in the Holocaust. This consists of an actual wall from the Warsaw Ghetto and it has a poem on it that reads: “Through a hole, through a crack or a cranny, starving yet stubborn and canny, sneaky and speedy like a cat, I daily risk my youthful neck. And if fate will turn against me, in that game of life and bread, do not weep for me mother; do not cry, Are we not all marked to die? Only one worry besets me, lying in agony; so nearly dead, Who’ll care for you tomorrow, who’ll bring you, dear Mom, a slice of bread?”
After the cemetery we went to a Warsaw Ghetto Uprising sculpture that symbolized the strength of the men, the fear of the women and the hope of the children. Then we walked through where the Warsaw Ghetto used to be and went to the headquarters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Mila 18. This was a great feeling to see how the Jews in the uprising were able to hold off the Nazis for over a month, even though the entire Polish army didn’t last two weeks against the Nazis.
The following day was Shabbat. I went to an Orthodox service that took place in the only synagogue to survive the Holocaust. With all that happened to the Jews in Poland, it’s a humbling feeling to be able to unite with around 10,000 other Jewish people from across the world and pray in a place that was meant to exterminate Jews forever.
That night, the Canadian delegation invited us to a special ceremony. This ceremony honored survivors and people who helped out the Jews. The ceremony ended with all the survivors dancing together happily. Then once we left, my group broke out into song as we walked back to our bus. We were all very proud to be celebrating in the streets of a place that tried to suppress the Jewish people.
The next day we went to Ludz, which has a memorial that showed us a duplicate crematorium, actual railroad tracks that were used to deport Jews, and a real boxcar, which deported Jews. Inside the boxcar we had an emotional moment as Irene, a survivor of Auchwitz, told us that in a box-car she was holding her little brother and told him everything was going to be all right. She had to lie to him because she knew that they were going to a concentration camp, where everything wouldn’t work out for the little boy.
After that, we went to the home of our other survivor Adele, who is probably the nicest person I have ever met. She was taken away from her home when she was little and saw it for the first time in over 70 years on last year’s trip. After being away from her home for a year, Adele was just as excited. Once she got off the bus, she started running to where her home was and didn’t slow down for anyone. Right when she saw her old apartment room she screamed, “I’m home!” It was pure joy. Right there she forgot everything terrible that had happened to her and her family and all she could feel was genuine happiness.
The next day was the actual March of the Living as we began the 1.5 mile march in silence from Auchwitz to Auchwitz-Birkenau: better known as the death march. There were approximately 10,000 Jews from all over the world who participated in the march. I could not imagine having to do that walk knowing that at the end I would probably die at Birkenau. After the walking there was a ceremony to commemorate everyone who was affected by the Holocaust. After the ceremony Irene showed us the spot where she last talked to her mom and got separated from her sister. She lit a candle in memory as all of us cried together.
At that moment it really hit me that I was at a concentration camp and not a re-created one. The feelings of people losing their families and all their belongings at this place had surfaced.
The following day, we took a tour through Auschwitz. We saw all of the belongings all of the people had before their deaths: the shoes, hairbrushes, shaving cream, pots, etc. We saw the beds, the bathrooms and the public hanging spots. Most importantly, we saw the actual gas chamber. Right away I could see the scratches on the wall of people trying to resist their death, and I could see how the walls were discolored from the chemicals that were dropped in. I rested my head against one of the scratched walls and cried. I cried for my people, and what they had been through for it all to end in that room. I cried for the families who were torn apart because of that room. Then I prayed so that something like this never would happen to anyone ever again. Directly to the left of the gas chamber, were the ovens where bodies would be discarded with efficiency. It’s unfathomable to think of how many life stories and people were burned away in those ovens.
After walking out of the crematoria, all of us joined together for the Mourner’s Kaddish to pray for the dead. After the prayer the names were said of the people who had died at Auschwitz, which included Irene’s entire family. As they said the names of her family, I looked over to Irene and she was hysterically crying and that was the most pain and suffering I had ever seen in someone. I will always remember how extremely sad and distraught Irene was at that very moment. And how strong she was to keep revisiting the place where her entire family had been killed.
The next day we went to Majdanek, which is another concentration camp. There, we went into another gas chamber where the walls were even more chemically discolored with green and blue than Auchwitz. But the disturbing part was that there was a window in a separate room. This window was so that the Nazis could watch the people being killed by the gas. They actually took pleasure in watching people die. That shows how cruel and inhuman these people truly were.
After walking through rooms with artifacts of the camp and the possessions of the victims, we came across a room filled with shoes. They were all the same type of shoes because they were the ones issued by the Nazis. And these hundreds of thousands of shoes signified how many deaths took place at the camp. That was a very emotional room for me because the quantity of people killed was
absurd. At the end of the camp, there was a dome with sand piled up extremely high. I learned that this sand was made out of human ashes and it was shocking to see how high the pile was. Right after Majdanek we went to the airport to leave for Israel.
Overall, Poland seemed like a gray and gloomy place where no one smiled. Many Jews used to live there but they were forced out of their homes. Poland is still anti-semitic as evidenced by graffiti that was scattered across the country. For example, we learned that “Juden raus” means take the Jews out.
Once we arrived in Israel we could feel that we were welcomed. We rejoiced that we were in the land of our people. Israel proved to the Nazis that it is impossible to wipe the Jews out because we are resilient and don’t go away easily. Israel is where every Jew is home and belongs.
We walked around the Israeli markets, walked through water tunnels, floated in the Dead Sea and climbed Mount Masada. We were saddened on Memorial Day when the whole country stopped to remember the fallen, and we were elated when the country celebrated its Independence on the very next day.
But most importantly, all 10,000 Jews from all over the world came together and marched from Safra Square to the Western Wall. No matter how spread out everyone is across the globe, all Jews were able to become one during that March. Everyone who participated will remember it for the rest of their lives and be able to call Israel home. The friends that I made will last a lifetime because the range of emotions that we experienced together are one of a kind. The opposing emotions of joy and sadness are what made the March of the Living a memorable experience and have changed who I am as a person.