This year, Bnei Akiva sent five delegates on March of the Living UK, as part of the student bus: Jodie Franks, Rafi Hambling, Chana Bernstein, Noah Haber, and Jemma Silvert. Every day this week, we will share an article from each of them, hearing about their experiences in Poland, what they took from the trip, and how they feel upon returning home.
Today’s thoughts are from Rafi Hambling, who is in shevet Na’aleh and is currently Camps & Social Action Director on the Mazkirut.
Two weeks ago, we returned from March Of The Living 2019. It was certainly an experience. There were 300 people from the UK (although a lot of them were American) and 11,000 from worldwide.
During the week, we didn’t bump into the other countries that much, apart from possibly staying in the same hotel as them for a few nights. On the Wednesday, the second to last day, everyone was visiting Auschwitz. We started off in Birkenau, a terrifyingly large complex, for over 150,000 people to be held in at any one time. We learnt about solidifying our faith after the Holocaust, and even more of the atrocities that the Nazis caused.
In the afternoon, we went down the road to Auschwitz I, with the famous ‘Arbeit macht frei’ sign. Our guide took us into the gas chambers to start with and then into the main complex, with the instruction that, out of respect, there was to be no eating on-site. Although it wasn’t an explicit instruction, the atmosphere of the place seemed to call for quiet, with only the tour guides speaking – and even then, in hushed tones.
As I walked through the complex, my mind was only on what had been done here, and how many lives had potentially been lost in the exact location where I was currently walking. We visited the jail block, we visited the block which showed living conditions, and we visited the courtyard where people were executed. This final place was the only place where candles were allowed to be lit, and there was no talking to be done here, even the tour guides stopped speaking. It was a difficult day, and I was able to hear various people, not necessarily from our group, weeping as we walked around the site.
The next day was the March. 11,000 people gathering at Auschwitz I, waiting around for a bit, and then Marching as one down to Birkenau. As we walked in, I felt wrong. Everything around me felt off. Where as on Wednesday, people were quiet, people were not eating, people were crying – today was the complete opposite. There was a jovial atmosphere: people were eating lunch while sitting on the steps of the barracks, there was a loud buzz of chatter coming from everywhere. The weird tradition of swapping badges between countries had begun, and I took part in that. (Got a cool South Africa badge, I did.)
It wasn’t till halfway through the morning did I realise just how off I felt about this. In my mind, Auschwitz was a place to be quiet, to be respectful and humble, and I just didn’t feel that in the atmosphere on Thursday. Please, don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming anyone. It happens when 11,000 people get together in such a small space. I didn’t feel like I was standing in Auschwitz, it may have been the atmosphere, and it may have been that the buildings around me looked a bit like a council estate, to my eyes at least.
At the other end of the March, when we reached Birkenau, the feeling was still there, only different this time. There was a massive stage, right between the remains of two crematoriums and at the end of the railway tracks, some 2,500 feet away from the entrance. Seeing 11,000 people pour through that space was amazing, but the atmosphere here felt worse. Yes, when you put a lot of Jews together you aren’t going to get silence, but a bit of respect for a Holocaust survivor speaking was something I personally expected.
There are always two sides to every coin, and its wrong if I only voice one side. Yes, to me, this all felt wrong. This felt disrespectful to the deceased, and it felt insulting to the survivors, but to others it was the opposite. This is March Of The Living. We are the living. We are here to show that we have survived and that no matter what happened or happens, we will always be here. That is something to celebrate. That, for sure, is something to be excited and jovial about. Yes, for some, like myself, I felt we should have been quiet in Auschwitz, but for others, it was a shout that we are here. It’s like putting a bit middle finger up to Hitler, yemach shemo, and showing to him that we are still here.
Everyone has different ways of remembering, some remember in silence, some remember in song, some remember in doing as much as they can to show they are still here.
This is why, when people were asking me how my trip to Poland was, my response was simply, “Different.” It wasn’t different good, or different bad – just different. Then always came the big questions:
Was I happy I went?
Would I recommend March of the Living to others?
To answer the first, yes. I was extremely happy with the fact that I took this opportunity to revisit Poland, 7 years after my first visit, and to come at it with a more mature and adult mind (don’t laugh). I was also extremely happy with how educational this trip had been. My last trip was purely emotional, and felt like it was a trip to make us cry. This one felt like a trip to make us informed, and to see the travesty more clearly.
The second question is a bit more difficult. Would I recommend the trip, yes. Would I recommend the March, eh. The trip is amazing. As I said before, the educational content is great, and the things I learnt from our educator, Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum, I will remember for a long time.
The answer, ‘eh,’ is not really an answer to recommending the March. Everyone is different, and everyone will view the March differently. I viewed it as a sign that we are still here, marching in memory of those who are not. Some other people I spoke to marched for the living instead. Each person looks at it in a different light: I prefer to mourn silently, to think about everything, and to remember. Maybe this is why I felt uncomfortable, but I know that was not the case for others.
So, take that ‘eh’ however you wish. Take it as a suggestion to go for yourself and make up your own mind, I don’t mind.
What I do ask, however, is that everyone who goes on the March goes in with an open mind. More open than my mind evidently was, and that you all come back with maybe a better answer than ‘eh’.
Please, also, feel free to disagree with anything I have said here. This is my personal views, and does not represent the views of anyone else.
Finally, just remember. Remember those we have lost. Remember those that survive. Remember the stories of those who perished, and remember the stories of those who escaped. And, as the title of a good Holocaust book I own says: Live. Remember. Tell the world.