The 2012 March of the Living [MOTL] was the 25th year that thousands of people participated in a 1 ½ mile walk through Auschwitz to commemorate the Holocaust and the loss of six and a half million Jews. The event takes place annually on Yom Ha Shoah, and people come from all over the world to take part. This year 11,000 people joined the March, reaching Auschwitz in 110 large busses.
I was asked to join the United Kingdom delegation of almost 200 as one of four survivors who would share their personal experiences as we journeyed to the camps, looking at the remnants of Jewish life in Poland along the way.
Such a large scheme requires a great deal of planning and organization. The person responsible for the UK effort is Scott Saunders, who not only organizes myriad details – the schedule, route and sites to visit, hotel and airplane reservations, kosher food but much more that will become apparent as you read about the trip. Scott is a brilliant organizer who spends a good part of the year fundraising to make it possible for young people to go on the MOTL. The majority of the group were young people whose costs were substantially subsidised; this is the seventh year that he has organized the UK MOTL.
What follows are my experiences during those five unforgettable days.
I wake up a few minutes before the alarm goes off at 4:15 a.m. A car takes me and three others who live near me to Heathrow, where we find, Scott, our chairman, and some, but not all of the UK participants. We are to meet the rest in Warsaw, where we are to spend our first day. Prior to boarding the plane, we receive a 253 page book, “Links in the Chain,” written and compiled by Elena Yael Heideman, containing a wealth of information about Jewish life and identity in Poland, as well as excerpts from essays, poetry, and songs about life before and during the Shoah, all of which are helpful on our journey.
The UK group has four buses, and participants were assigned to specific busses for the entire five days. In addition to the participants each bus has one survivor, or witness, as it states on my name tag, to indicate we had been witness to what we are to see. Each bus also has one or two educators, individuals who are expert in Jewish, Polish and Holocaust history.
My bus is Bus B, the youth group. The majority are members of Birthright, an organization that funds 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish people who had never visited the country and who know little or nothing about Judaism or Israel. Others are members of the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade, JLGB, and Tribe. I had expected teenagers, and although I think of them as the kids, they are in their 20s; while some are students, many are already started on their careers. Our educators are Angela Gluck and Simon Glass, both PhDs and hugely knowledgeable.
Because we must wait for people joining our UK group arriving from Manchester and Israel, it is close to one o’clock before we finally board our Bus B. We’re on our way to our first stop, the old Warsaw Cemetery, and it is raining, heavily. Mercifully, bright blue jackets with hoods bearing the MOTL logo on the back have been distributed at the Warsaw airport. Miraculously, they are waterproof, providing some protection against the continuous heavy downpour and a bit of additional warmth in the damp and chilly atmosphere.
This cemetery is nothing remotely like British burial grounds. It is filled with trees, so that you feel you are in a forest. Many of the marble or granite headstones are more than six feet tall, some featuring elaborate carvings. Each appears different from its neighbour. Twenty-five of us crowd around Angela [Simon has taken the rest of our group] as she points out graves of notable Poles, among them Esther Kaminska, noted Yiddish actress, and L.L. Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto. Unexpectedly, I stand in front of the grave of one of my all-time favourite writers, I. L. Peretz. It feels as though I am visiting a member of my family.
Then we stand in front of the grave of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Judenrat in the Warsaw Ghetto, who in July 1942 was ordered by the Nazis to prepare daily lists of 6,000 Jews slated for deportation. He would not, could not comply with the monstrous suggestion to provide names of fellow Jews to be murdered, and on July 23, 1942 he committed suicide. Although Jewish law prohibits suicides from being buried in Jewish cemeteries, an exception was made for Czerniakow, the only known time this has been done.
Before we leave Angela, shows us a beautiful sculpture of a man carrying a child in one arm, holding a second by the hand, and followed by more children. This is Janusz Korczak, founder and director of Warsaw’s Jewish orphanage. When deportations began, he would not abandon the children and refused offers of safety. Instead, on the day they were to be killed he told them they were going on an outing and kept up their spirits, dying with the children at Treblinka.
The downpour continued as our bus takes us to our next stop, a still standing remnant of the brick wall of the Warsaw Ghetto. It is some 10 feet high. and you realize that it is impossible to scale the wall. In the ghetto 360,000 Warsaw Jews and another 90,000 from elsewhere lived in incredibly crowded conditions, many having to sleep in shifts in their assigned flats. At the wall, driving past Mila 18, the Ghetto uprising headquarters, and at our last stop of the day, the Umshlagplatz, a monument to the sites where Jews were assembled for deportation, Angela tells us of the Warsaw uprising and final liquidation of the ghetto.
Our evening meal at our Warsaw hotel is in a large room with ten long tables, to accommodate all our delegation. The meal is buffet style and the fare is simple with chicken, green beans and humus; sliced lettuce, tomato, rolls and jacket potatoes are at the tables. It is typical of all our meals in the coming days. We will have breakfast in the same room.
Breakfast is at 7 a.m. The choices are cold cereal, rolls, hard boiled eggs, sliced cheese, tuna and yogurt. We are urged to make sandwiches and pack lunch that we will probably eat on the bus. At 8 a.m. we board our bus on the way to Treblinka. I imagine that day two will be more difficult than day one.
During our stops yesterday and at dinner and breakfast, I had chatted with many of my Bus B group. Without exception they were kind, courteous, solicitous and fussed over me, helping me on and off the bus, the few with umbrellas holding them over me, making sure I was comfortable. I decide that the long trip to Treblinka is an opportunity to get to know them better, so I make my way slowly along the aisle of the bus. As soon as I stop to say hello, they offer me – no insist that I sit down.
As an opener I ask them where they live and what they do--study or work, and soon they want to know if they can ask me questions. In this way I tell them a bit about my life under the Nazis, Kristallnacht and the long journey until I reached New York. I am the only one of the four witnesses who is not a concentration camp survivor, a fact that had made me hesitant to go on the MOTL. I decide to go only after Scott insists that I had an important history to share. Then and in the days ahead, I also tell them about how my parents survived French camps, about my grandfather, aunts and uncle who were murdered in the camps and about my cousins who survived there.
I am not alone in knowing nothing about Treblinka except the name and that Jews were sent to their deaths there. We get off our bus and it is raining, heavily. We find ourselves in a quiet clearing, surrounded by pine trees. Treblinka had no barracks. Its sole function was to murder Jews. It had no labor force except for the small number of 800 Sondercommandos, Jewish prisoners who had to move the bodies out of the dozen gas chambers, initially bury the bodies and later burn them in open pyres.
From July 1942 and for the next 15 months 800,000 Jews and some Romani were murdered in Treblinka. In August 1943 the Sondercommandos staged a rebellion during which about 100 Jews managed to escape. Shortly after, the Nazis destroyed Treblinka.
In 1947 three Polish artists decided to create a memorial at Treblinka. This huge memorial consists of a vast number of polished granite stones of various shapes and sizes rising out of the ground. Most are blank, but a few contain names of communities that were destroyed. There is one individual memorial stone; it is to Janusz Korczak. In the soil under the stones lie the ashes of the victims of Treblinka. No cemetery is more peaceful, nor more moving than this place. We are standing on sacred ground.
Where the gas chamber had stood, there is a tall sculpture topped by hands clinging together. The mother and a number of other relatives of one of our witness-survivors were murdered at Treblinka. Before Kaddish is recited, she is asked to give the names of her mother and sister. Sobbing, she struggles to speak their names. She lights a memorial light; then Rabbi Michael Laitner who accompanied the UK group leads us in Kaddish and speaks. Later when I ask my bus B crew for their thoughts about Treblinka, many say that what moved them the most was seeing the grief of the witness-survivor.
Our next stop is in a building in the town of Kazimierz Dolny that had been a Synagogue before the war. Afterwards, for many years it was used as a cinema; then, about two years ago, Angela tells us, it was restored as a Synagogue, but there is no visible furniture or sign that this is a shul; nor is there an indication of this outside the building. The walls are covered with black and white photographs that tell the history of the Jews from the area. We feel we are in a museum.
Nevertheless, we sit in rows of folding chairs, facing East, while one of our members davens Mincha, the afternoon prayer. When it is finished, I think: Ok – now it’s a synagogue. Rabbi Laitner tells us that the restoration is an important and joyous occasion and leads us in Israeli songs and dances. When we return to our bus, Simon tells us that this was the first Jewish religious service since the restoration was completed. The announcement is greeted with applause, and I think we have done something important.
At the hotel in Lublin that evening, as I had anticipated, I feel that the second day of our trip was much more difficult than the first. There is no doubt in my mind that the third day, when we are scheduled to visit the concentration camp of Majdanek will be harder still.
The concentration camp of Majdanek was captured intact in August 1944 by the Russians and was the first camp to be liberated. The Nazis had no time to destroy it or any part of it, so it has been left as it was then. The camp is on the outskirts of Lublin and was opened in 1942. Lublin Jews and those deported to that city were marched to the camp as Poles watched from their rooftops.
Majdanek was both a labor and an extermination camp. We walk through the camp and see the barracks where the prisoners lived and the gas chambers where Jews died.
Selection took place in the open, outside the gas chambers. Those selected for work were first cleaned and disinfected. As part of the cleansing, naked people were brushed down with brooms. We see the concrete chambers where women showered and then entered a concrete tub filled with a disinfectant solution. Women worked in light industry and men worked in quarries. Angela refers us to our source book where a survivor describes cruelties inflicted on camp inmates:
“They took away our shoes, and we had to stand all night in a field barefoot…Throughout the night a frost of ten centimetres thick lay on the ground. They examined our feet if we didn’t put a piece of paper underneath. Afterwards, in the morning we had to run ,not walk, to work. Chased after by a young SS woman with a gigantic dog. We were bitten, our clothes torn off...”
Those selected to die were stripped and disinfected before entering the gas chamber. The clothes of the murdered Jews were disinfected with Zyklon B before being sold in war-effort shops in Germany. German people were told they were helping the war effort by purchasing these second hand clothes.
Men, women and children were murdered with carbon monoxide that was sent into the killing chamber through metal pipes. We stand in the rectangular gas chamber and note that one of the concrete walls has an opening measuring about one foot square that is covered by a metal grate. Through this window Nazis watched the naked people die. Members of my group find this more horrible than the gas chamber itself.
The bodies were brought to the crematorium, whose chimney seems to me to be at least six stories high. Before they were burned, the bodies were searched and stripped of dentures, gold teeth and any valuables that may have escaped earlier confiscation, such as perhaps narrow wedding bands. The bodies were loaded onto metal shelves and pushed one after the other into the crematorium. The ashes were kept in metal containers. For me, seeing how the bodies of dead Jews were shoved into the crematorium to be burned is the most awful thing I have seen this day.
The total number of people killed at Majdanek is 78,000. The comparatively infinitesimal number who survived to be liberated is 1,500.
After the war, the Soviets built a memorial here. We climb the steps to reach a covered circular walk way. Inside the circle is a huge round uncovered concrete bowl filled with ashes and body fragments of tens of thousands of Majdanek’s victims. Slowly I circle the walkway surrounding the huge graveside, tears rolling down my cheeks.
That evening we arrive in Krakow and after dinner at our hotel, I am asked to give a talk to my Bus B group. Because of a shortage of time, Angela, Simon and I agree to limit my talk to my experiences in Nazi Germany. I speak about the difficulties Jews faced from 1933, when Hitler took power, to 1938. I tell the group about the Polish deportation at the end of October 1938 during which my grandfather was arrested and deported to Poland. I relate what happened ten days later on Kristallnacht, when six Nazis burst into our apartment to arrest my father and how my mother was faced with smashed store windows and had to sweep up the broken glass littering the sidewalk. I conclude with the story of how my mother managed to secure forged visas making it possible for us to leave Germany in June 1939.
After my talk the previous night, some members of my group heave a sigh of relief that everything was fine once I left Germany; others ask, “What then? What happened in France.” So on the coach on the way to Auschwitz I summarize the rest of my journey and that of my parents and sisters. While my older sister and I eventually reached New York on a small Kindertransport, my younger sister became a hidden child and my parents were in French concentration camps where they twice survived a selection that sent other Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz.
THE KRAKOW GHETTO
Prior to our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, we travel to the site of the Krakow
Ghetto. This ghetto was established in 1940, and on March 3, 1941 all 60,000 of Krakow’s Jews were ordered to move into the ghetto, an area measuring only 600 meters by 400 meters. They were permitted to take as much as they could carry, but there was to be no return for further possessions. An Einsatzgruppen official checked papers of the Jews to make sure that the entire family was walking to the ghetto.
Buildings made up the ghetto walls. On the ground floor of one building was a chemist’s shop, entered from outside the ghetto that also had a back door into the ghetto. The pharmacist was not Jewish, but for the Jews his shop became a bridge to the outside world. Over a period of 2 ½ years he and his family saved several thousand Jews.
In the ghetto Jews were divided into two groups. The A group walked to Plaszow to work. The B group, people who could not work, were deemed useless and directed to Auschwitz where they were murdered. One and a half million people died at Auschwitz, of whom 1.1 million were Jews
AUSCHWITZ – BIRKENAU
What is generally referred to as Auschwitz is actually a complex of several camps. We begIn at Auschwitz One, where a number of brick barracks still stand. These housed mainly Polish prisoners. The first transport to Auschwitz in June 1940 was not of Jews but consisted of 728 Polish prisoners.
For visitors, the main building to visit is one that is, for want of a better word, a museum. We begin by walking past hundreds of black and white photographs of Auschwitz victims, identified by name and dates of birth and death. I look at the names and wonder if I will see a photo of my maternal grandfather, murdered on arrival in 1942.
A Polish guide is assigned to each visiting group. The guides have an encyclopaedic knowledge about all aspects of the camp, but the items we see that have the greatest impact do not need a guide.
One section of the camp was called Canada, and this is where the belongings of victims were sorted. In a display case behind a glass window, we see hundreds of pairs of shoes, shoes that had been on the feet of men, women and children, some in good conditions, some quite worn. The next display is of crutches and artificial limbs. There is a case with used brushes—toothbrushes, hairbrushes and shaving brushes, and another that contains the inmates’ vital metal cups and bowls, vital because no one was allowed more than one utensil. We see a case with broken dolls, dolls’ clothes and children’s shoes.
Then there is a case with human hair. I knew about this before I came and felt before and feel when I see the frizzy hair, that this was part of living beings, that should have been properly and respectfully buried, not exhibited. One of the young women on my bus disagrees. Distressing as it is, she says, it refutes Holocaust deniers. And it is only by actually seeing this human hair that the monstrosity of Auschwitz takes on a terrible, irrefutable reality.
We leave the museum and walk to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We step through the infamous and widely pictured iron gateway with the, notorious slogan Arbeit Macht Frei. I am surprised at how narrow, the gate is. The width of the path is not much more than that of a standard size traffic lane..
Our group spends four hours in this main part of the camp, covering more than four miles. I have pages of notes on what we saw - too may for this report - on how Jews lived and how they died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. So I will limit myself to those sites and structures that had the greatest impact on me.
Actually being in the wooden barracks brings home the gruelling existence of the camp’s inmates. Space in the barracks is incredibly limited. In one barrack we see, there is no space between flimsy mats that cover the floor on which people had to sleep. More common are barracks with tiers of wooden bunks, each tier with three levels, and again almost no space between the tiers of bunks. We are shocked to hear Angela tell us that here more than a thousand people lived in a single barrack.
In these long barracks we see a foot high concrete slab with holes that served as toilets. The human waste went into a six-foot deep trench. The waste was removed in buckets by inmates assigned to this detail. There are six rows of sinks, and nothing to divide one from the next. There was absolutely no privacy whatsoever. The only walls in the barracks are the four outside walls of the building.
People had only one uniform in which they worked, ate and slept, Outer garments were rare. Angela tells us the daily schedule: 5 a.m. was wakeup. At 6 a.m. people started on to their way to a 12-hour day of work. She lists food prisoners were given: Breakfast was a liquid Ersatz substitute coffee and a piece of bread; lunch was soup cooked with cabbage and potatoes. Those in the middle of the line received the thickest soup; those at the beginning and end got a thin liquid. The evening meal was a potato or bread and water. They are no different from the meals my mother and father received in the French concentration camps.
We walk along a railroad track. Some time during the war, the line bringing people to the camp entrance was extended into the camp itself, to make security easier. Selections then took place on the railroad platform.
Auschwitz had five crematoria. One was put out of commission during the Birkenau uprising on October 7, 1944. Women working in the gunpowder factory patiently secreted gunpowder under their fingernails. Men working as bootblacks collected polish. They fashioned a grenade and threw it into the oven on top of the gas chamber. Twenty SS were killed along with 15 Jews. When the Nazis realized where the gunpowder came from, they rounded up all the women workers. Four confessed to save the rest and were hanged.
The ashes from the crematoria were kept in large square pits. Angela tells us, “Today there are human ashes in the soil here. You can’ t help walking on them.”
The Nazis blew up three of the crematoria on January 27, 1945 just before Auschwitz was liberated. Where Crematorium 4 stood, a black marble slab has been erected with the words, “Here Lie Their Ashes.” We chant “El Molei Rachamin,” the traditional prayer for the dead, and recite Kaddish.
That evening UK participants from all four busses walk to the Kupa Synagogue established in 1647, whose interior was plundered by the Nazis but whose walls still stand. A speaker from each bus cites highlights of the past four days. Then Londoner Freddie Knoller, a 91-year-old Auschwitz survivor who has now joined the UK delegation, brings a stark reality to what we have seen on this fourth day by relating the story of his incredible survival first in occupied France and then at Auschwitz itself.
On the fifth and last day the UK delegation joins 11,000 others for the seven kilometre march from Auschwitz One to Birkenau. The downpours of Warsaw and Treblinka are a distant memory. Umbrellas are now open against warm sunshine, and I am offered sun block, which I gratefully accept. Someone has brought a cloth Union Jack of the type athletes wrap around themselves for a run of victory, and we have a placard on a wooden pole with the letters – U K.
This is a Jewish event, and the march is late in starting. No one minds. Excitement fills the air. This is the culmination of our journey. Finally we are ready to begin. Our assigned place is towards the front of the March. We are immediately behind the Israeli group of disabled who are here with their guide dogs in remembrance of the Nazi policy of murdering disabled men, women and children.
Elana Heideman, the educator who put together “Links in the Chain,” shouts, “Survivors in the front, survivors in the front.” We link arms and lead our delegation. A dozen people with cameras, I think mostly from our UK group, crouch in front of us along with a journalist and the two film-makers who have been with us from the beginning.
Once more we walk under the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. Several times our pace slackens, as the Israelis pause with their dogs, and we find ourselves mingling with the Belgians behind us. After a while people break ranks and walk at their own pace. For a few minutes I walk with Rabbi Laitner who asks the question I have been asked countless times by concerned marchers in the last four days: “Are you alright?” I assure him and he says he is relieved and glad that we have been able to do the march.
We are walking along the railroad track and decide this is the place where we will light our memorial candles and plant small wooden message boards. I think of my grandfather and my aunts, uncle and cousins who perished here.
After that we walk quietly to the stands and stage where the March of the Living Ceremony will take place. Earlier we all had been all given plastic wrist bands. Witness-survivors’ bands are gold, admitting us to the VIP section. Elana finds me a seat in the 7th row of the center section. The names of some of the 1 ½ million children who perished in the Shoah are being read as the marchers fill the stands.
Seated in a row on the stage are 12 elderly men in military uniform, rows of ribbons and medals pinned on their jackets. These are the liberators who are being honoured this year. The program itself lasts no more than an hour. All the speeches are short. Among the speakers is the former Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Meier Lau, a survivor. The March of the Living children’s choir sings “Ani aamin” and “Eli Eli”, and we watch a moving video tribute to the liberators.
The ceremony concludes with the lighting of six huge flames that shoot up from large round black bowls. The longest, strongest standing ovation is given to the liberators when they step forward.
By previous arrangement I ride back to Krakow in Elana’s bus, the bus of middle-aged adults. She leads us in Yiddish and Hebrew songs and someone passes wine and then Scotch whiskey around. We have completed the five day March of the Living.
My Bus B group of young people thanked me constantly for being with them, talking to them and sharing my story. Over and over they told me that they found me an inspiration. The truth is this group of young men and women in their twenties were an inspiration to me in how they listened and took in all they saw and heard. Unasked, they promised me they would tell everyone about what they saw, learned and experienced on the March, and some asked to become volunteers at London’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre.
No matter how much you read, how many films you see, how many survivors’ stories you hear, nothing can make you comprehend the scale and the tragedy of the Holocaust until you visit the camps and see for yourself what I have described.
As we mourn the six and a half million, our solace is that Hitler and Nazism failed, though at a terrible, terrible cost. The young Jewish people with whom I shared this journey represent the future of the Jewish people –Am Israel Chai, the Jewish people live.
- Eve R. Kugler, April 2012
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