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March of the Living: my experience

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March of the Living: my experience

After being accepted to attend March of the Living with the UK delegation, I immediately told friends and family with elation that I was going to Poland.

Mirroring my excitement, they asked, ‘….so what’s March of the Living?’. I paused each time, fearing the seriousness of this trip and having to vocalize it. I explained what I thought was the appropriate answer, usually using some combination of World War II buzzwords: 6 million Jews, the Nazi regime, concentration camps, and the holocaust. Their reactions ranged from nervousness, to sorrow, to confusion: ‘Well….have fun?’

I had always been fascinated by WWII and thought I was well-versed with the holocaust in particular. I was not prepared for what an educational endeavour this trip would be, learning about unsung heroes, uprisings, and key dates and places that I had never heard of before. It goes without saying that Yoav, our tour guide, was crucial in making this trip so exceptional. He demanded respect both with each other and within the environments we were going to and I could not be more grateful for the serious tone he set from the start of the trip.

March of the Living was an in depth excursion into Polish Jewry, exploring what life was like before, during and after the holocaust. It promoted self-discovery, while forcing me, a Jew with Polish ancestry, to face deep-seated fears that testimonials and textbooks only skimmed the surface of.  We discussed and reflected throughout the day, finding solace in our journals. I relished in the freedom of writing down emotions that were not able to be articulated and questions that could never be answered.

Once again the subtle claustrophobia creeping in so slowly you do not realize the ending until you’re too far deep. The walls that slowly encase us have horribly twisted and disturbingly contorted metal rods rising from the wall, desperately reaching for the sky, for freedom. We walk past the names of the Polish towns where the Jewish people came from, only to end up here, in Belzec, with nothing to offer but death. We walk past more town names. And then more. And more. It will not end. When will it end? I want to start running so I can get to the end of the names faster. When will it end?

And yet, this trip was not all sadness and tears. There was laughter, compassion, and trust. It was about meeting new, inspiring people. It was about listening to a survivor and being moved by her bravery, both then and now. It was about accepting the past because you can drive yourself to an inch of insanity trying to understand what will never have an explanation. It was about speaking out when you see injustice. It was about being proud of who you are.

I was one of 11,000 people who marched out of Auschwitz on our last day of the trip, and it was utterly surreal. I passed by people with tears rolling down their cheeks, holding a wooden placard with a family members’ name on it. I passed by children laughing and playing in the grass. I passed by people of all ages, races, and nationalities – all celebrating life.

I am so thankful for the grant that many students, including myself, were able to receive for the trip. I sincerely hope that anyone interested in Jewish history will take the opportunity to attend March of the Living and be a part of this unforgettable experience.


If you'd like to find out more about March of the Living 2017, click here. Applications to the scholarship close at the end of January and general applications close in the spring.

Brianna Sommer

Student at Edinburgh University

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