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 Jemma Silvert, who is in shevet Eitan:
March of the Living was my first time in Poland. It’s been three weeks since the trip, and I still don’t feel like I’ve fully processed everything that we saw, heard, and learnt about. I want to spend months just thinking about it all; I want to sit down and really let it all sink in, let it fully affect me, let it make the horrors we witnessed worth something. But honestly, I’m afraid I’d never get up again.
So, in lieu of being able to actually write a coherent piece about my thoughts and feelings following the trip, I decided to pick out ten things that occurred to me during the trip, and in the weeks that followed:
1) I’ve been wanting to go to Poland for a long time. I wanted to go now, whilst there are still survivors alive that we can with. This felt important.
2) I thought of the relevance of graves, of tombstones. I thought about why we have such a natural human aversion to the notion of a mass grave. I wondered if graves are more for the living, or more for the dead. I wondered how you can sum up an entire life on one tombstone, in one image. I thought of the symbolism of putting a stone on a grave, and how the letters of the word stone, ‘אבן’ – aleph, bet, nun, comprise an acronym of father/mother, son/daughter, grandchild. The stone represents continuity, being remembered through the generations. I wondered how many people did not get a stone, did not get the privilege of people to remember them.
3) We learnt about the Talmudic dispute that occurs if two people are walking on a desolate path, and only one of them has any water left. If they share the water, they’ll both die; if one drinks, that person will live (Bava Metziah 62a). One opinion is that they should both drink, and then separate so as not to see each other die. Rabbi Akiva, however, quotes Vayikra 25:36, ‘And your brother shall live with you’, indicating that the one with the water should drink it, and live. From this, I took that we are the ones with the water. We are the ones who live, when so many did not. But it is not enough just to live. We must live in the knowledge that those who died live within us. We survived, but we hold their souls, their legacies. I want to do something amazing. I don’t want to let them down.
4) The hair. The shoes. The sheer volume of it. The weight. I focused on one shoe; it was pretty, and white. I wondered what its story was, who it had belonged to, what she’d been thinking when she chose it out from her wardrobe and placed it on her foot for the last time. I felt bad for all the shoes that were not at the front of the display, all the shoes that would never be seen, that would never have these questions asked about them. I wondered if the museum ever rotated the display. I wondered where all the pairs were, whether the shoes had felt pain on their separation, whether they knew they would never be reunited. We read a poem: ‘And because we only made of fabric and leather, and not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire’.
5) We heard survivor stories. In doing so, we became the witnesses.
6) We had processing sessions every evening, back at the hotels. Our educator, Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum, had this incredible power to observe the group during the day, to note our reactions to the horrors we had seen and heard, and to understand the questions we wanted to ask but weren’t always able to articulate – he understood the discussions we needed to have, the answers we so desperately sought. We spoke about theodicy, about G-d’s role in the Holocaust. He acknowledged our anger, and gently pointed out that, even if we were angry at G-d, we still had enough conviction in our beliefs to maintain that there was a G-d to be angry at. We spoke about Holocaust denial, about who the burden of proof should fall upon, about whether people have the right to ask for forgiveness, whether we have the right to forgive.
7) We learnt about the small acts of defiance. How, even when people knew there was no hope, they still wanted to do something, to have some last act of resistance, of power. The upside-down ‘B’ in the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ sign built by prisoners of Auschwitz I. The monument with the birds at Majdanek that the prisoners were made to build prior to a Red Cross visit; the Nazi’s wanted to make it look more like a prison than a labour camp, than an extermination camp. The prisoners placed the ashes of their friends into the monument, transforming it into a memorial. A small act of defiance.
8) The ashes. At Majdanek. That incomprehensibly huge mound of ashes. I wondered how much space my ashes would take up; how many of my friends would need to die alongside me to create something of this scale. I fear that this was a selfish response. I found a small, round, flat-ish, pink-ish stone, and I placed it on the monument. I vowed, promised, to do something with this anger, to hold the weight of their souls mine – to be the one with the water – to do something, to make the difference, to make the most of my life.
9) The bizarre badge-swapping ritual between countries on the March. Standing in Auschwitz I, waiting for the March to start, and, somehow, the sky is blue. The sun is shining. People are eating their lunch, sitting on the bunker steps. People are running around, chatting, laughing. People are making friends, swapping badges with other countries’ delegations and seeing how many they could collect. There was excitement in the air. I tried to join in, but it felt wrong. And I get it, I get that we’re here, and we’re alive, and that’s amazing. I get that it’s a massive middle finger to the Nazis that we can run around and swap badges here. But it still felt wrong. I articulated this to Yoni, and his response is something that made me think a lot. He said that most people on the March aren’t so observant, Judaism-wise – they may go to shul on Rosh Hashanah, they may have chicken soup on a Friday night but, for the most part, this is the most Jewishly-connected thing that a lot of people here will do this year. And they make ritual out of it. That is how they connect. It’s almost like we have a human need to ritualise our experience in order to formalise it somehow, to make meaning out of it. I liked that.
10) Hatikvah. Hope. The Israeli national anthem. Over the course of 8 days, Thursday to Thursday, Yom HaShoah to Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, I counted the number of times I sung Hatikvah. I noted where I was, who I was with, why we were singing. Five. Five times, eight days. The first time, I was in the Krakow Jewish Centre, on the eve of Yom HaShoah; three hundred UK participants of March of the Living, eleven survivors, the evening before the March. We were singing, knowing that tomorrow we’d be in Auschwitz, in Birkenau. The second time, I was in Auschwitz, standing metres away from the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoriums, at the end of the March itself. I was with eleven thousand people from all over the world; some Jewish, some not; survivors, dignitaries, generations. We were singing because we could, because we were still there. We were singing in memory of all those who could not. The third time, I was in Israel. The eve of Yom HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror. I was at an international MASA ceremony in Latrun, a restored site of battle. There were people from all over the world, mostly around my age, but not exclusively – around three thousand of us. There were dignitaries, families who had lost loved ones, friends. We were singing in their memory, singing for the pain that a Defence Force is still so essential to this country’s survival, that terror still exists, singing for the pain of what we have lost, and the inevitability of what we have left to lose. The fourth time, I was in Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, where I’ve been learning for the last few months. I was surrounded by about sixty people, maybe two of whom I’d known before February, all of whom I’d be proud to call friends. People of all backgrounds, countries and denominations, standing together on Yom HaZikaron day, singing for a loss we were struggling to comprehend. A loss that felt so close, but somehow one we were excluded from also. The fifth time, it was Yom Ha’Azma’ut, Israeli Independence Day – a day of celebration. I stood in Teddy Park as it got dark, the transition from mourning to joy, looking out over the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. I stood with friends, with around three thousand of the young religious community of Jerusalem. We sung sad songs for Yom HaZikaron, we stood and davened ma’ariv in silent harmony, we sang Hallel with unprecedented joy, the band joining our prayer, the concert beginning. We sung Hatikvah. Hope. We sung because we were celebrating what we have, how long we’ve been waiting for it, and all we have left to achieve. I felt like I’d been on a journey, a narrative spanning decades, in the space of but a week.