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‘March of the Living was a truly life changing journey’

Last week, the RSY-Netzer Movement Workers – Amy, Becca and Jack – alongside a delegation of chaverimot (friends of the movement), travelled to Poland with March of The Living. The Yom HaShoah event included a march from Auschwitz to Birkinau, alongside 6,500 people, celebrating today’s thriving international Jewish community. The walk was led by 55 Holocaust survivors, seven of who were with the RSY group for their entire five days in Poland. Below is Amy, Becca and Jack’s report on what they experienced and how it has changed them both personally and professionally:

Our journey began in Warsaw where we learnt about hundreds of years of Jewish culture pre-Holocaust. We then ventured to Lublin where we entered Majdanek, a chilling experience of a fully in tact concentration camp. We were fortunate enough to experience this with Martin Stern, a Holocaust survivor who was taken to Terezin and safeguarded, narrowly escaping the same fate as his peers – a train to Auschwitz. The same day, we faced the horrors of Zbylitowska Gora, mass graves of those who were considered ‘left over’ in the liquidation of the Ghettos.

Once in Krakow, we lead a Progressive Kabbalat Shabbat service, and on the Sunday headed to Auschwitz-Birkinau for the first time. We heard accounts of Greek Jews in concentration camps from members of the Greek youth movement, whom we shared a bus with. Haunting stories of isolation due to a lack of common language were shared, whilst sat just meters from the rubble of gas chambers which killed hundreds of thousands of our relatives.

Before the trip began, we understood that we would be faced with chilling moments in concentration camps and hear heart breaking stories of individuals who survived the atrocities, but perhaps most striking of all, were the lessons that we did not expect to learn.

Leadership and courage became a running theme throughout our journey. On the first day we visited several sites relevant to the Warsaw Ghetto, including markers on the pavement showing the original walls, the offices of the Judenraete and a memorial for all those who lost their lives in the uprising. Whilst visiting these sites, we heard all about the role of Youth Movements during this time. Hearing that the leaders of Youth Movements who are the same age as us, didn’t just contribute to but organised and executed the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was extraordinary. It was a sobering reminder that young people hold real power, but it is our responsibility to use it.

This wasn’t the only time we had considered the use of power. We spoke in depth about Police Battalion 101 of the German Order Police in Krakow. A Police Battalion comprised of ordinary middle-aged men, led by Wilhelm Trapp. The story outlined that prior to their first massacre of Jewish people, these men had the choice of participation – they were allowed to reject the offer with zero consequence. However, almost all of the men went ahead and committed some of the most brutal massacres of Jews in 1942.

This was another moment where we were accompanied by Martin Stern. He beautifully suggested that the brain is like a mouse riding an elephant, the mouse being what we can see and understand of a person, and the elephant being the rest. He suggested that we will never know what was going through the middle-aged men’s minds, and even scarier, many of us don’t know what we would do in their shoes.

Martin made us realise how important our education around informed decision making on RSY-Netzer truly is. It has highlighted to us our duty to nurture young people who have the ability to question and critically think about the world around them.

Another unexpected message of the journey was the importance of finding joy in our Judaism, and highlighting Jewish significance in our daily lives. RSY-Netzer brought Merrit Malloy’s Epitaph to our bus at Zbylitowska Gora, which in part reads “when all that’s left of me is love, give me away”. It discusses taking the memories of those who have passed and using them as a blessing. We also presented this sentiment in the Progressive Kabbalat Shabbat service which we ran for over 40 MOTL participants from all backgrounds, including two Holocaust survivors.

The service discussed Jewish joy and stories from the Talmud which suggest that in order to mourn, we must also indulge in the Jewish joys of life. Havdalah and the following shira led by the Youth Movement bus was a remarkable reflection of that sentiment. As a community we came together to sing and dance, only hours after mourning thousands of lives at Zbylitowska Gora. Perhaps most powerful of all, was being joined by all seven Holocaust survivors, who proved Jewish joy is a privilege we should not take advantage of, as we danced alongside them singing Oseh Shalom, Salam and Hinei Mah Tov.

The messages we have taken from our journey were insightful, educational and truly life changing. The way we see our Judaism and our responsibility to young people has been altered, not just professionally but personally too. These are lessons and sentiments we aim to pass on to those around us, and will continue to embody Merrit Malloy’s message of using the memory of those who are no longer with us as a blessing.

· Pictures courtesy of March of the Living and RSY-Netzer.

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