It felt like a cliché when people told me I’d leave Poland with more questions than when I came. After all, I embarked on March of the Living UK with nothing but questions. I wondered how I would react in places that were witness to the worst cruelty ever perpetrated by man. I wondered how it would affect my identity as a Jew. And then, of course, I wondered how any of it happened. I wondered how the Nazis and all their accomplices could commit such horrendous crimes, and how the world stayed silent.
Now that the journey has come to a close, I have a few answers.
I began the trip numb, unable to understand the enormity of what happened. I was confused as I peered into a gas chamber in Majdanek, wondering how a simple concrete room could have been something so terrible. And then I saw Buczyna Forest, which contains the mass grave of 800 Jewish children, as well as the graves of many thousands more Jews and Poles. I thought of what our educator, Yoav said: the trees saw everything happen. They bore witness. I realised that there will be living witnesses for centuries more, even if they cannot speak. Suddenly, I was overcome by emotion. The feeling persisted throughout the trip, especially as we spent an entire day walking the grounds of Birkenau and Auschwitz.
My Jewish identity did not waver. I struggled with it, as I’m sure many others have in the past and always will. We will always wonder how any of this could have happened, and what it means for our communities. But March of the Living was a phenomenally Jewish experience. Despite having had a different Jewish upbringing than many of the other participants on my bus, I felt welcome. On any other trip, I would not have stayed up as late as I did discussing halacha. I would not have walked into a beautiful synagogue in Krakow for Kabbalat Shabbat services and marvelled at how my anger and frustration morphed into an overwhelming love for the vitality of Jews and Judaism around the world. I would not have been able to sing out Shabbat, and share Havdalah with 260 other Jews, including seven survivors.
And yet, I still don’t know how the Holocaust happened. I never will. But I’m filled with questions. How do I relate my experiences to others? How do I convince them that going on this trip will be incredibly meaningful? How will I fulfil my obligation to share what I’ve learned? We often quote Elie Wiesel, and say “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.” I’ve had the privilege of listening to survivors speak, and having conversations with them. I am a witness to each and every one of them.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to attend March of the Living. I did not realise that I could change so much in just one week, but I can honestly say that I am a different person than I was before. The burden that has been placed upon me as a witness to witnesses is one I will bear with pride. I only hope others can share in this tremendous experience, and take as much from it as I have.