Until this May, Holocaust survivor Michael Zeiger of Randolph had never visited a concentration camp.
After some prodding, he agreed to accompany 40 high school students from the New Jersey/New York area on the 2016 March of the Living. From May 2 to 14, starting in Poland, they (and 12,000 other young people from 40 countries around the world) visited five concentration camps and other sites of the horrors of the Holocaust before traveling to Israel.
As always in the annual program, although they followed slightly different itineraries, all the thousands of participants convened at Auschwitz on Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and marched silently to Birkenau, 3.5 kilometers away, and, again as always, the trip culminated in a visit to Israel and a mega-event at the IDF military museum and memorial in Latrun on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.
In a phone conversation with NJJN shortly after returning home, Zeiger called the experience “life-changing.”
“What I thought I knew — it turned out I didn’t know much. What I learned is beyond imagination,” he said. “I was very young when the war broke out. We were in hiding. I listened to my parents talk about Auschwitz and the gas chambers, and I felt bad. But after a while, I forgot about it and moved on.”
But being there, he said, “to see the gas chambers, to see the ovens and the ashes and the bones — that really hit me hard.” He added, “I’m still trying to recover from it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same.”
Zeiger survived with his family and two other women in a hole in a neighbor’s home in their native Zborow, Poland. His family’s story of survival is captured in the children’s book The Secret of the Village Fool, written by Rebecca Upjohn and illustrated by Renne Benoit.
Zeiger almost didn’t go on the March of the Living. Just two weeks prior to the May 2 departure, survivor Raymond Fishler of Wayne, who was set to accompany the group, fell ill. Joel Katz of Morris Plains, who has served as regional director for the March of the Living on a volunteer basis since 1996, turned to Zeiger, a fellow member of Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph. Zeiger turned him down flat.
“Nah — no, no, really; I don’t have time,” is how he recalled responding. “But he kept asking me and telling me how important the trip is,” Zeiger said. “Now, I’m glad I went.”
He laughed as he recalled that he departed on such short notice that he forgot to pack sneakers. How did he manage the 15-kilometer pace each day? “In dress shoes,” he exclaimed.
The NJ/NY contingent sends a group on March of the Living that is among the smallest, said Katz, with about 40 people each year. The reason for that, at least in part, is many of the Jewish day schools and yeshivot in the area run their own similar programs and because, as a volunteer, Katz has a budget of $0 for recruiting.
The total number of participants worldwide fluctuates from year to year but has grown dramatically since the first group of 750 gathered in 1988. For Israel’s 50th birthday, international numbers peaked at more than 20,000. In 2016, the number was slightly down from 15,000 worldwide in 2015.
Katz continues to recruit students for the program. He already has nine teens registered for the 2017 trip, which will run from April 24 to May 3. Now assistant executive director of the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn, he was holding the same position at JCC MetroWest when he took on the role of March of the Living regional director in 1996.
This year marked the 19th trip that Katz organized and went on. While the group follows a similar curriculum and itinerary each year, he said, no two are the same for him; there are always experiences that cannot be predicted.
One highlight this year involved a reunion of sorts between Zeiger and his “cousin” Boruch Adler. Adler’s mother is one of the women who hid with Zeiger and his parents through the war years, and afterward, they adopted each other as family. Boruch Adler, now a prominent attorney living in Tel Aviv, is also a founder of the March of the Living. Together, the two led Kaddish at Birkenau — which came as a surprise to Zeiger, who thought they would be accompanied by many others. Instead, he learned at the last minute, it would be just the two of them.
“It was a wonderful experience, let me tell you,” Zeiger said. Referring to the jackets with the March of the Living insignia that participants wear, he said, “To stand on the stage and see everyone wearing blue jackets…as far as the eye could see. It was like infinity. Ten thousand young people,” he said. “Thank God! There is hope for our people, with all these young people learning about the Shoa.”
But he is not that optimistic about humanity in general.
“We haven’t learned anything. It’s déjà vu all over again. In former Yugoslavia a few years ago, in Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur. Look what’s happening now. The greatest Christian community on earth is being exterminated in the Middle East right now. What have we learned?” he asked, and responded, “Nothing.”