Original Article Published On The Jewish Ledger
New Haven Federation participates in March of the Living
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Raisy Sessel of Orange, 12, traveling to Poland and Israel with her mother, Deborah, was struck by the hundreds of shoes confiscated by the Nazis, now in a display case in one of the barracks.
Other cases display human hair, suitcases, combs and brushes and eye glasses. Eric Smith, president of Interfaith Cooperative Ministries and pastor of the Adoni Spiritual Formation Center in New Haven, was struck by the enormous size of the two camps.
Since 1988, March of the Living International has been bringing Jewish high school students from every religious and educational background and every part of North America to both Poland and Israel, over Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut. This year, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps, adults and teenagers have come on the March of the Living, which retraces the “March of Death” which thousands took from Auschwitz to the gas chambers of Birkenau.
On the long drive to Auschwitz, Pierre-Joachin “Jo Jo” Mubiri of France and Damian Rosset, both students in Professor Praszalowicz’s Polish language and history course at the Jagiellon University in Krakow share thoughts and answer questions about their own knowledge of Jews and the Holocaust.
Polish tour guide, Agneshka Novack told the group that she has personally been to Auschwitz “between 200 and 400 times” with groups of all ages.
“Each time I go, it is as if I am there for the first time.”
In the parking lot of the March of the Living, Connecticut residents are struck by the number of buses – with signs in the window indicating they are from Kiev, Odessa, Boca Raton and Savannah.
Laury Alderman Walker, traveling with her mother, Lucille Alderman, and sisters Susan Buxbaum and New Haven Jewish Federation executive director Sydney Perry, spots a bus from Riga, and is touched by the fact that her family is from that same town.
The New Haven delegation, in bright blue hats and carrying a blue “Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven” banner, joined an estimated 22,000 marchers from nearly 60 countries, including Uruguay, South Africa, Germany, France, the Ukraine and Panama, on the three kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Many clapped as Elie Wiesel, the keynote speaker, and other dignitaries walked past, and marchers seemed touched to see nearly 200 Polish youth, carrying the flag of Poland, joining in the march. Participants, many clad in dark blue “March of the Living” raincoats, walked along the train tracks used 60 years earlier to transport so many to their deaths, pausing
briefly to reflect and to put in the ground mock miniature grave markers with names of relatives killed by the Nazis.
Thirty members of the German parliament, Israeli Knesset members and various dignitaries from around the world were in attendance.
As marchers awaited the start of the formal program, youth from around the globe conversed, played “Jewish geography” and “traded” hats, shirts and buttons/pins. One Israeli teenager was pleased to meet the New Haven delegation – she had just made a successful trade for a sought-after hat, and in the process learned that her next door neighbor in Afula, Ziv Abekassis, had been a young emissary last year to New Haven.
Footage of transports and of emaciated concentration camp victims, and the words “Never Again,” were projected on the large screens. A lucky few were close enough to the stage to see dignitaries up close. Most stood on the large field, muddy from intermittent rain and sunshine of the past few days, far away from the speakers.
Following the march, the delegation drove to the nearby Auschwitz Jewish Center for dinner, a presentation by board member and New Haven resident, David Goldman, and a panel discussion. Upon returning to the hotel, a particularly energetic few explored Krakow, a quaint town reportedly 700-1000 years old and home to 17 universities and 120,000 students.
Krakow to Majdanek
Friday morning began with a 5 a.m wake-up call. The early start allowed the group to experience the long, scenic ride through the Polish countryside, enroute from Krakow to the concentration camp of Majdanek, and on to Warsaw in time for Shabbat. As the group would learn, Polish roads are slow and often times in poor shape. Yellow and purple flowers and black birds were sure signs that spring has arrived in Poland. As the bus passed through Kielce, considered to be a medium sized Polish town, Israeli guide Hannah described a time when such towns had such a high percentage of Jews that the marketplace was closed on the Sabbath.
The bus arrived at last at Majdanek, the labor and concentration camp just outside of the town of Lublin. Before entering the “showers” and gas chambers, Hannah had Raisy read an account of Helena, a girl approximately her age, who survived the showers, but was confused when her mother never came out. As we walked on the wooden crates on the gas chamber floor, mission co-chair Dr. Norman Ravski tells the group of his father’s reaction several years ago visiting a similar gas chamber.
“This is the wood,” Ravski’s father told the group. He remembered the smell and feel of the wood from his days at a camp in Fluxenburg, Germany. The senior Ravski was lucky enough to survive the gas chamber due to what Dr. Ravski called “a fake out” by the Nazis – “they took him to a fake gas chamber to psyche him and the others out-and they survived.” According to Hannah, 360,000 were killed at Majdanek.
In one of the barracks, used to house memorabilia, confiscated items belonging to victims and lists, Lucille Alderman, traveling with three adult daughters comments, “The thing that amazes me is the records. Their precision is sick.” Following a difficult walk through the crematoria where many lit memorial candles, the group witnessed the trenches where 18,400 Jews were killed on November 3, 1943. The ashes of the victims are housed in a famous urn.
Shabbat arrived in Warsaw, ushering in a period of needed calm following three emotionally charged days. Rabbi Sheya Hecht of Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy, who had earlier taught his fellow bus passengers the history of the Baal Shem Tov and the rise of Chasidism, organized a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Warsaw Radisson, led by Dr. Michael Kligfeld.
The entire delegation – including people from Savannah, GA, Myrtle Beach, SC, and Berkley, CA, mission chair Bob Naboicheck of West Hartford, and Federation directors from both Hartford (Cathy Schwartz) and New Haven (Sydney Perry) ate Shabbat dinner together, accompanied by such notable community guests as the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, Helise Lieberman, principal of the Lauder Morasha School, and Yale Reisner, Genealogical Director of the Jewish Historical Institute, and Israel’s Ambassador to Poland, David Peleg.
Ambassador Peleg shared examples of Israel’s growing diplomatic and economic relations with Poland. He noted that seven top Israeli officials have visited Poland in the past year, and he said, “Twenty-five thousand Israeli tourists visit Poland each year, including nearly every single army officer.” [I was struck by the presence of Elite Coffee packets in each hotel room at the Radisson, and by the Elite coffee dispensers at gas station snack bars throughout Poland.
Peleg informed the audience of a joint effort by the governments of Poland and Israel to monitor and correct references in the media to “the Polish death camps,” noting that they were actually “Nazi death camps on Polish soil.”
Milton and Joan Wallack had expected their visit to Poland to be full of
only the horrors and depression of the concentration camps and death camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdanek.
Instead, both also witnessed renewal and hope.
On Shabbat afternoon, the Wallacks and many from Connecticut attended a panel discussion at the Nozyk Synagogue on Jewish renewal. Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich, director of the Joint Distribution Committee in Poland, Yossi Erez, and a Polish-Jewish journalist spoke of the rediscovery of Jewish roots among many Poles.
The delegates were entertained by a musical performance by the Tslil Choir, who sang songs in Hebrew and Yiddish. Following a standing ovation, Dr. Wallack, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council in New Haven, spontaneously stood to address the choir.
“Thank you. You have shown us that light comes out of the darkness,” he said.
While many were surprised at how upbeat and positive they felt by certain aspects of their Poland trip, others were happy that their Poland trip was winding down.
Roslyn Lerner felt that coming to Poland was important but said, “I would never come back.”
Martha Weisbart of Orange, also feels she took her “obligatory trip” to Poland and does not plan to return in the future.
“I’m still bothered that they still talk about Jews and Poles as if Jews are separate from the Polish people,” Weisbart said. “In fact, Jews were always part of the Polish people.”
No matter their reaction to Poland, the New Haven participants were all happy to leave behind the concentration camps for Israel, where they experienced Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut.