Step by step, teens relive Jewish history
Four high school seniors from Livingston, all members of Temple B’nai Abraham, were among the roughly 10,000 students from around the world who took part in this year’s 25th March of the Living in Poland.
The event, held annually just after Passover, has brought teens from all over the world — 150,000 so far — to Poland and to Israel. On the first part of the trip, they visit sites of Nazi persecution and former sites of Jewish life and culture, to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, culminating with a march from Birkenau to Auschwitz. The teens explore the roots of prejudice and intolerance, and then go on to Israel to observe Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and celebrate the establishment of the Jewish state on Independence Day.
The Livingston youngsters, Ryan Ladell, Cooper Weisman, Jillian Meinhardt, and Jordan Halper, shared their impressions with the congregation in a guest blog on its website, tbanj.org.
Introducing their entries, the temple’s Rabbi Clifford Kulwin anticipated that the trip would “surely be one of the most extraordinary experiences of their lives,” and their descriptions suggest he was right.
Cooper and Ryan wrote a joint entry, summing up what they had done in the days leading up to the climactic procession from Birkenau to Auschwitz. In Warsaw they visited the Jewish cemetery and the city’s surviving synagogue, prayed at an old shul in Tikochin and visited the site where all 2,000 Jewish citizens of the town were massacred, and went to the Treblinka death camp.
“This experience has been incredible,” they wrote. “Our dense itinerary has allowed us to see a variety of significant Holocaust sites and monuments. After physically walking around the death camps and touching the walls of the gas chambers where so many Jews passed away, our outlook upon the Holocaust completely changed. We learned that history textbooks and movies will never do the hardship of the Holocaust justice. The only way to truly appreciate our Jewish heritage is to physically see and feel what our ancestors felt years ago.”
The two-mile walk from Birkenau to Auschwitz is organized as a living march to contrast with the death marches the Nazis forced on camp inmates as the war was nearing its end. For all the horror, the students found an affirming aspect.
After walking through the grim brick buildings of Auschwitz on April 7, Jordan wrote, “I found etched upon the wall a Jewish star. Whether it was etched then or now, this star was the most symbolic thing I had seen since I got to Poland…, a symbol of Jewish pride.”
Jillian wrote: “I anticipated the actual March being more somber, but everyone was talking and enjoying each other’s company, which is what the Jewish people who suffered would have wanted us to do — remember, feel, but also move on.”
In Israel, they experienced affirmations of Jewish survival but also reminders that victory has not come without loss. On April 16, their last day in Jerusalem, they visited Mount Herzl, the national cemetery, and marched again.
Jordan wrote that this second march “was a celebration of the success of life as opposed to a memorial of death. We danced and skipped and jumped as we marched toward the Kotel. It was an experience to mark the success of our journey, and I felt as though this march gave me closure.”
Summing up the experience, she said, “I’ve seen everything from the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust to the brilliant triumph on Masada and the beauty of the Dead Sea, and I feel justified in saying that I have never felt more Jewish.
“As I boarded the flight to return, the feelings are bittersweet,” she added. “Although Livingston may be where my house is, Israel will always be my home. I am forever changed and it is thanks to this experience.”