This past April, a group of thirteen local high school students embarked on March of the Living - a two-week trip to Poland and Israel to bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust, and build their connection to Israel. The journey is far from over for the students, though, as they begin to share their experiences and act as ambassadors throughout the community at events such as Jewish Federation’s AGM on June 14th (link).
The first leg of March of the Living is a one-week visit to Poland, throughout which the students enter into the Holocaust’s history. A highlight of the trip is the actual March of the Living, a three kilometre march from Auschwitz to Birkenau that takes place on Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day.. Thousands of Jewish teens from around the world take part in the March, retracing the steps of millions before them. The Poland leg of the trip is followed by a visit to Israel, contrasting the anguish of our past with the hope of our future. Experiences in Israel include climbing Masada, visiting the Kotel and touring an IDF base.
Every second year, nearly 700 students from across Canada take part in the program. This year, Vancouver’s contingent included for the first time a Vancouver-based survivor, Alex Buckman, who both travelled with the group and helped prepare them prior to their departure. With thirteen students, this was the largest group Vancouver has sent in several years. The experience has a lasting effect on participants; some of those who have gone on to careers in social justice or Jewish communal service, and others have become rabbis or made aliyah, at least in part because of connections they built on the March.
Jewish Federation provides a range of support to March of the Living participants, including scholarships funded by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, and departmental support and resources from the Israel and Overseas Affairs department.
Below, is a personal account from David Emanuel, who chaperoned this year’s Vancouver contingent of March of the Living.
Standing in the shul, a beautiful white-washed baroque building with a red tile roof, in Tykocin, a small village in Eastern Poland you can hear the rhythm of prayer echoing off the bright yellow walls. The building is humble, and yet majestic. The bimah has four corner posts that reach up to the high ceiling. The walls are covered with the words of many tefilot. People didn’t have siddirum back then, so this is how they would follow along. Close your eyes, and the sound of Lecha Dodi reverberates in your mind. Imagine...the village market just a few streets away is quiet now. The shtetl is peaceful as the words of Lecha Dodi drift amongst the buildings and rise up in a chorus welcoming the Shabbat Queen.
We walk the streets of Tykocin - here is where the Jews lived, and here their Catholic neighbours. Here is where the market was. And here is where the Jews were rounded up.
Back on the bus for a short ride, seven kilometres, to the Lopochowa Forest, a serene place where silence reigns except for the birds singing in the trees. The day is overcast; the forest is a blend of greens and greys with a pastel purple hue. Our footsteps are muffled by woodchips and old forest vegetation. What a harmonious moment! I wonder how often the Jews of Tykocin used to picnic in this place, or walk amongst the trees with their loved ones, enjoying a moment of quiet, in harmony with Hashem’s creation.
And then, there they are: Three mass graves, cordoned with blue metal fences, and covered with candles and stones - markers left by those who have come after to pay respects and reach out to understand, and to feel that awful moment when the Nazi’s changed this corner of heaven into hell on earth. Listen carefully and you can hear the screams, the begging, truck engines, gunfire, mud and blood. What was a serene refuge just a short while ago is a place of unimaginable horror. And then silence once again. A community that was born in 1524 ended on August 25th, 1941.
Such overwhelming sadness. The loss is too profound to comprehend. Getting back on the bus you wonder about that beautiful building, the shul of Tykocin. So alive the day before, cast adrift and lost to its purpose at the whim of those madmen. You can almost hear the walls calling ... Jews... my Jews ... where are you? I miss your sweet harmonies. Come back! A community of 2,500 or so, a vibrant society, gone. A fraction of one percent of six million. And the loss of THAT fraction alone is too much to bare. Tears flow freely.
The moments we shared on the March of the Living are engraved in our memories, whether it was at various sites in Warsaw or the Gensha Cemetary, whether it was at Auschwitz, Majdanek or Treblinka, in Lublin, Krakow or Kielce. Whether on Shabbat in the Nozyk Synagogue (Warsaw), on the March itself amongst nearly 10,000 other Israeli flag carrying Marchers, sitting in the dance studio of Korzack’s Orphanage, or in a barrack at Birkenau listening to the memories of survivors, adults and student marchers all agreed that the March of the Living has moved us to greater connection with our Jewish heritage, and will drive us to be more effective members of our community for years to come. We experienced a sense of unity with each other and with our people, even those who are no longer with us.
I am grateful for the privilege of being the chaperone for thirteen unique and very special grade 10, 11 and 12 students from our community on the March of the Living this year. We were joined by Alex Buckman, a child survivor, who was hidden in an orphanage in Belgium, and who lost both his parents in the Holocaust, as well as our physician, Dr. Marvin Huberman, whose parents are Polish survivors. We shared a learning experience which is second to none. This program offers opportunity for life defining experiential learning, and we will pursue the security of our Jewish future. Some of the students who participated in the March will be sharing glimpses of their experiences and perspectives at the upcoming Jewish Federation AGM on June 14th. We look forward to seeing you there.