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"An Unforgettable Experience in Poland" Writes Victoria Palman Following 'March of the Living' 2017

"Having never been to Poland before, I decided I was ready to learn about and see where 6 million Jewish people were murdered in the Holocaust, and so I signed up to March of the Living with JLGB. Having my JLGB friends with me gave me a feeling of comfort in places where I definitely did not feel comfortable.

We began the trip at a Warsaw cemetery which celebrated revolutionary artists that were murdered in the Holocaust. It was special to see well designed gravestones placed for people who truly deserve to have their presence recognised. We then went to the Polin museum in Warsaw where we were able to learn about the lives of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust. I felt this was important as it gave a contrast between what life was like before, and how much of it was changed and ruined during and after the Holocaust.

While still in Warsaw, we visited the remains of the Warsaw ghetto wall and learnt about the lives inside a ghetto. It was shocking to see building work running on either side of the remains as though there was no history behind what went on inside and outside of the ghetto.  We continued on a walk commemorating the lives of heroism from the time. This was an uplifting experience where I was almost able to restore my faith in humanity learning about the stories of amazing, helpful people.

Next we went to Majdanek death camp. It was very emotional to see a camp which was in such pristine condition, where it was as if it had only been built recently but had all the original remains inside. This gave an eerie feel making the stories of survivors even more real. The most shocking part was a memorial holding the ashes from the crematorium, which still remains in the camp. I find it very hard to explain what this memorial looked like as it left me completely speechless standing there in front of it. The only way to understand this feeling is to go and experience it for yourself. Being in this camp left me confused with so many unanswered questions about how someone could dehumanise the Jewish people as much as they did at this execution camp. The way the Nazis did the opposite of the Jewish traditions and values utterly hurt me. However, I was lucky enough to have some of my closest friends from JLGB by my side through this, where I could openly discuss my thoughts and try to get my head around what I had seen. While reflecting on my thoughts from the day, the one thing that stuck in my head was the fact that we were unable to walk through one of the exhibitions of shoes left behind by the Jews at this death camp. This was because someone had recently tried to set fire to this exhibition and so we had to view it from behind a barrier. This stuck with me through the whole trip as in the back of my mind I was thinking about how it is now more important than ever to remember what happened and pledge to never forget. 

Before Shabbat we visited zbrodnia katyńska, a mass grave in a forest commemorating the lives of those who had been killed in a massacre. This was an emotional, moving experience which left me in anger of how these innocent people were treated. In order to uplift us after this horrific experience, we visited Dabrowia Tarowska. Our educator had discovered the remains of a synagogue 12 years ago, and in the last 3 years it was refurbished and made into a beautiful centre for people to visit. This gave me so much hope, and it was touching that people had taken the time to create this from what was a building site. We sang Hebrew songs as a group, led by JLGB volunteer Joshua Diamond, which began our Shabbat experience. We then welcomed in Shabbat with all of the MOTL UK delegation where a survivor recited Kiddish.

The bus that we travelled on between sites was full of such a diverse range of people, meaning that we were able to share and give an insight to non-Jewish people about all our customs and traditions. Many of the non-Jewish people also attended the optional Shul service at a nearby synagogue in Krakow. I felt very moved that they were so intrigued to learn about our religion. We were able to listen to a Holocaust survivor Arik share his experiences which made the previous places that we had visited so much more real by hearing first-hand how people were treated. Some of the Indian delegation of Jews also spoke about their experiences of being Jewish in India. Many of the non-Jewish people found the service so enjoyable that they went to the optional service on Shabbat morning in order to continue their learning. We then went to the Jewish quarter in Krakow where we visited the Jewish Community Centre. Here, we heard another survivor share their story of the Holocaust and were privileged to have Poles from the JCC speak to us about their experiences of living in Poland today. Olah, who was a non-Jew and who is part of the JCC, explained how appreciative she is of the Jewish religion and how she attends Friday night dinners regularly with other non-Jewish people. It made me really appreciate my identity as a Jewish person where many of us take it for granted. I find that a large amount of people including myself do not appreciate how lucky we are to be a part of such a welcoming and strongly bonded community. We ended Shabbat with Havdallah as a whole delegation where all 6 survivors lead the experience and we were able to sing and celebrate being part of the religion. This experience was such a positive experience and it reminded me of being on a JLGB camp where I could sing arm-in-arm with my close friends.

We then visited Auschwitz-Birkenau which was a very overwhelming and shocking experience. It was very poignant to be able to walk out of the gates and I felt thankful for this when 1.1 million people were unable to do so. I am still unable to get my head round what actually occurred at this camp and I find it so hard to believe that people could be so cruel to their own human race. I found it extremely hard to walk around this site where people were so awfully treated. All I could think about while walking round was how cold I was in April, with numerous layers of clothing on, compared to how they would have felt with their thin stripped pyjamas on, some even without shoes, in the middle of winter. It made me feel so bad that people were put through such an awful experience. Also, seeing a small cattle car where a few hundred people were packed into, and trying to imagine trying to fit my whole school year into that tiny space.

After this, we went to Auschwitz 1 where we were taken around all the barracks there. This part made it easier to conceptualise the 6 million people as there were numerous photos and exhibitions of names of people that were killed. However, I still find it extremely hard to visualise such a number. This experience made me feel very numb and angry at how such a large group of people could put others through such pain. So many emotions ran through me at this site, most of which I was unable to put into words, and many of which one had to be there to understand and feel. It was just such a surreal experience which I am still processing, and which I will never be able to forget.

After such a hard and intense day, the group all needed to do something uplifting to give us hope for the future and so that we weren’t dwelling on the past. The march the following day did exactly this. We began in Auschwitz 1 with 11,000 people from all different places around the world mingling with each other and speaking to one another. It was amazing to see so many people all in one place with the same intentions of commemorating those who did not survive the Holocaust, but also celebrating the existence of the Jewish faith. I went around with one of my friends from JLGB swapping pin badges with people from different countries. I felt I was connecting Jewish people all over the world together. It also reminded me of the amount of Jews that live all around the world. It gave me so much hope that if this many people were able to educate themselves about what happened in the Holocaust, and if all of those people pass on their stories and experiences to other people, then this will not occur again. I was honoured to be able to walk arm-in-arm escorting the survivors of the UK delegation through the gates of Auschwitz and walk with them all the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau amongst 11,000 other people. This was such a surreal, but uplifting experience and it felt completely different to when I entered the camp the previous day. It was such a positive feeling that I was able to walk back there on my own accord. There was such a strong feeling of defiance around, marching through the gates with an Israeli flag on my back showing how proud I am to be Jewish, and how lucky we are to be Jewish.

The experience as a whole taught me to be proud of my religion that so many people fought for. I would not change the experience for the world and I cannot recommend this trip enough. Whether you have been to Poland before or not, it was such a positive trip that is different to any other. I felt there were no other intentions involved other than to educate people and ensure they pass it on to the future. It is sad that the amount of first-hand information is decreasing but as long as we continue to be proud of the Jewish religion and keep traditions alive, we can ensure that the past does not repeat itself. May we always remember, and may it never happen again.  נזכור"

To register your interest to join the JLGB contingent on March of the Living 2018 email motl@jlgb.org 

If you would like to write a guest blog for JLGB email shani.reback@jlgb.org

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