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 Chana Bernstein, who is in shevet Na’aleh and is currently Israel & Sixth From Development Director on the Mazkirut.
Wednesday 1st May 2019
Today we visited Auschwitz.
The sun shone, flowers bloomed from green grass, and birds sang. The branches of the birch trees which gave Birkenau its name rustled in the wind. There was an atmosphere of blissful serenity which seemed to mock the reality of where we stood.
Mala, the survivor accompanying our bus, stood calmly, sunglasses on top of her head, cracking the occasional joke and seemingly unfazed by her familiar surroundings. In her lifetime, the ground on which we stood was saturated with blood and ash and death. Smoke and screaming choked the air. It’s impossible to comprehend. The numbers. The efficiency. The cold hatred. I’m trying in vain to understand the meaning of pure, pure evil.
Horror feels like a black hole engulfing me, struggling to breathe.
For hours, we learned. Overcome alternately by horror and numbness, we saw the evidence and heard the testimony and witnessed in sombre silence. We did it to honour those who suffered and died, to learn their stories and their faces and their names.
Their names. The Book of Names is a vast mass of paper that fills a room. It represents an infinity of lost potential, reduced to words on a page. Each person, a whole world, leaves only a line of ink as their stamp on the universe.
They are the lucky ones. We at least know their names.
Why are we here? To fulfil our duty to those who are not. The men, women and children, the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and friends and lovers. The families with nobody left to speak their names and say a prayer for their souls. And we are here for our guilt – guilt that arises when we feel relief that this is not happening today, not here, not to us. This is enough to quiet the voice inside of us that protests when we see injustice today.
Each new sight or story made me think that this is it: the depths of evil. This is as far as a human can stoop. Until I saw or heard the next thing, and I realised that Hell has another step downwards that I didn’t see before. Eventually, the numbness engulfed me, and the remnants of the lives of the human beings that passed through here in a fleeting dream became barely more than exhibits behind glass.
Today is for the memory.
Thursday 2nd May 2019
Today we visited Auschwitz.
The sun shone, flowers bloomed from green grass, and birds sang. The branches of the birch trees which gave Birkenau its name rustled in the wind, whispering with the voices of the dead as they marveled at the scene unfolding. This place was not the Auschwitz we visited yesterday.
Eleven thousand people wandered freely between the barracks, eating, drinking and laughing. Breathing. The voices of old friends and new acquaintances filled the air, merging into a joyful roar. Seventy-five years ago, eleven thousand people would have been swallowed up in one single day. Today we walked out of the gates we came in by, our heads held high. Eleven thousand people marching as one.
A part of me wanted to protest. American tourists posed for selfies. Youth groups sang songs and swapped badges. A group of picnickers, finished with their lunch, discarded their leftover sandwiches and plastic wrappers on the ground.
A moment later, another marcher stooped to pick up their litter as she passed by. An unresentful act; today we all had a shared destiny and a shared responsibility. Eleven thousand people packed into a small area for hours on end cannot remain silent. They must eat and drink and laugh and sing and love. This atmosphere of togetherness is the pinnacle of humanity. The ultimate tikkun for the depths to which the Nazis sank. For this one day, Auschwitz was no longer a place of death.
Today we are alive.
Today we marched for the dead. In their honour and in their memory, we humbly accepted upon ourselves the momentous task of making their voices heard. We are the future they never saw. We will do our utmost to represent them faithfully.
Today we marched for anger and for strength. We stood there in the heart of the fire and we shouted out to anyone who was listening and we laughed a bitter laugh. They beat us down, yet we are still here and they are not.
Today we marched for the world. We share a message of warning, of what can happen when there is silence. One who is silent is responsible. The lesson has not been learned; across countries and generations the victims of silence scream. But we eleven thousand will not be responsible. We will not let silence fall again.
Today we marched for pride. We are a nation. We have an identity, a culture and a religion which are complex and layered and diverse. But we are one people. United.
Today we marched for the living. We are a kaleidoscope of colour and sound. We are mighty and fragile and dynamic and determined and imperfect and powerful and helpless and noisy and triumphant and real and alive.
Today is for the future.