Gabriella Karin was a young girl when World War II broke out. She lived in fear of the Nazis as she and her parents made every effort to conceal themselves. Gabriella had to sit in one room for 9 months, not speaking a word to her parents or the other Jews who were hiding with her, reading any book she could get her hands on so she could pass the time. She woke up every morning terrified, wondering if today would be the day that she would be caught. Many of her relatives and friends were being tortured, shot, and gassed as she hid in a non-Jew’s apartment, waiting for her fear to end.
On April 19th, 2012, I walked arm in arm with Gabriella as we marched down the infamous path from the Auschwitz 1 labor camp to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp where 1,100,000 Jews were killed. 10,000 other Jews from around the world joined us. As we walked, she told me about her life in Los Angeles. I learned that her granddaughter would be attending college in the same city as me. She told me about her amazing artwork and future projects. She asked me about my family, my life as a high school student, and my plans for the future. Even as we walked past the gates leading into Birkenau, the nightmarish tower standing tall over us, we continued to talk about our lives. Not once did the subject of her Holocaust experience come up- as we sat together before the ceremony, our conversation did not stray.
The most important lesson I learned from the March of the Living is that there is life after the Holocaust. These survivors have moved on with their lives. Although this idea might seem obvious to most, I did not realize it until I was in Poland, walking through death camps with the people who escaped them. I did not realize that before this trip, I would listen to survivors speak and all I could envision was the ghastly tower at Birkenau, the striped pajamas, and the gas chambers. It was all a generalization. Just in our delegation, we had three survivors who were liberated from Auschwitz- Jack, Helmut, and Paula. We walked through the barracks where they slept, we saw the crematorium where their families perished, and then we joked around with them on the bus back to our hotel. The day after the march, as we stood in the cattle car that took Jack and his entire family to Auschwitz, those three survivors joked around with each other, even making a few dirty jokes that made some of our counselors blush. As they joked, I saw many of my friends crying. I felt tears staining my own cheeks. This trip has shed a new light on these survivors; they all have a sense of humor, they all have fears, they all have favorite movies and favorite TV shows. They’re not that different from me, or any of my friends, or any other person. The Holocaust was a part of their lives, but it does not define them. The Holocaust took so much away from these survivors, but does not weigh them down every day of their lives. They live happy and beautiful lives.
The march is so much more than a tour of various death camps. There’s more to it than just experiencing Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaut in Israel. It’s more than the march to Birkenau followed by a march to the Kotel a week later. I could describe what I saw at each death camp- the pit of human ash at Maydonak, the symbolic death drive that we took to Chelmno, the railroad tracks at Treblinka, the gallows at Auschwitz 1. But that does not describe my personal march- I can’t show anyone how I felt as I sat over mass graves or walked through an actual gas chamber. The march is about appreciating life, not just mourning those whom we lost. It’s about making everything personal; it involves taking those 6,000,000 that died and seeing them, as Monise Neumann, the Director of BJE March of the Living, would always say to us, as one person at a time- one person being led into the gas chamber at a time, one person being led to a mass grave at a time. It’s about feeling emotions that had never hit you before. It’s about learning how to be comfortable in a group of people whom you have never met before. It’s about learning to not judge people when they start crying, or screaming, or turn blank.
For those who have not gone on the march yet, a phrase that you will hear over and over again before your trip is, “I can’t describe it to you. You just have to go.” I heard this phrase dozens of times before I left for Poland and it frustrated me. Only now do I understand why people use this phrase. Although there are 10,000 people who attend the march every year, each experience is personal- there is no one feeling that you will feel and there isn’t one general sight that you will see. Every person marches differently, feels differently, and picks up on different lessons. This is why I think that every Jew should have the chance to experience the March of the Living. Milken makes it very easy for seniors to go on the trip and I am so thankful that I was given the resources to go on this trip. I can say without a doubt that it was the most meaningful trip I have ever been on.
Featured image by Rachel Chistyakov