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 Noah Haber, who is in shevet Na’aleh:
Last month, I was privileged to represent BAUK at the March of the Living. It was a very education-focused trip and also my first time visiting Poland; so it is hard to really summarise all my reflections, but I can manage a few main points.
There was quite a lot of discussion in our group (which was very religiously diverse) about the role of G-d in the Holocaust. It was first brought up in a processing session, the evening after spending the day visiting Majdanek concentration camp. I was surprised with myself that despite being one of the more religious members of the group, I had hardly thought about this question all day. I realised that my approach to this type of question in general is that is impossible to understand the Holocaust from a theological perspective, and so, for me, there isn’t much point in thinking about it. However, something that I had spent a lot of time thinking about during the course of that day was the role that man played in the Holocaust.
My chavruta and I have a term we jokingly use, called a ‘social sevara’ (a sevara is like a theory or suggestion in Talmud study). A social sevara is an attempt to explain people’s behaviours or general social phenomena. Our social sevarot are rarely correct, sometimes funny, and usually very far-fetched and bizarre. However, despite all my experience in coming up with social sevarot, walking around Majdanek I was unable to come up with any explanation at all for what took place there. Of course, I have studied the Holocaust before and already knew what happened for the most part, but to actually be in the places where it happened is naturally a much more powerful experience. On seeing, for example, that a bath had been installed next to a crematorium so that SS officers could take advantage of the heat from the ovens and use to warm their bath water, I was completely shocked at how human beings could have descended into such evil. I was at a loss to understand how people could have felt that so much murder and cruelty was justified and desirable. For me, the role of G-d is hard to explain in many situations and so it is no surprise that it can’t be explained in the Holocaust. However, the role of man, despite usually being much easier to explain, is equally impossible to understand in this context.
The most powerful and affecting moment of the week for me was something else that I saw in Majdanek. There is a mausoleum there which houses a vast mound of human remains which were found after the camp was liberated. A pile of ash and bone fragments – all that is left of thousands of victims of the Holocaust. People who know me will know that I don’t usually get emotional, but standing in front of the mound was an almost overwhelming experience. It gave such a strong sense of perspective. To see the thousands of people who were reduced to nothing but ash, robbed of all opportunity, forced me to think about what opportunity I myself have and how much of it I waste.
But more than that, I felt that this mound had a message to give. One of the things that we learned about over the week was about how incredibly diverse Polish Jewry had been before the Holocaust. At least as diverse as the Jewish community we have now, if not more so. The thousands of victims whose remains make up the mound would most likely have come from a wide range of backgrounds; they would have been very different to each other when alive. And yet, in death they had become one, collective unit. There is an inscription on the dome of the mausoleum, which in English translates to ‘let our fate be a warning to you’. For me, the warning that the ashes give and the message that they convey is that we as a people must strive to be unified in life, and not only in death.
After this reflection, I realised that there was a significance to the March of the Living being my first trip to Poland. My other opportunities to go would have been the Aish-run year 12 trip and the Poland trip with my yeshiva. While I’m sure that both these trips would have been amazing and meaningful in their own ways, I felt that it was very appropriate to go on a Poland trip with a group of people with a wide range of backgrounds. The Holocaust didn’t happen to any one specific Jewish group and, while I’m sure that there is merit in going to Poland on a purely religious trip, I found it meaningful to have the experience with a much wider spectrum of the Jewish people.
Lastly I would just like to say that our educators, Yoni, Rachel and Natalia, were all truly outstanding. If anyone from BAUK (or beyond) is considering going on March of the Living next year, I’d really strongly recommend it. Feel free to get in touch if you want to know more!