The author, second from the right, proudly holds the March of the Living banner.
In the dark crematorium I could trace my fingers along the scratch marks on the walls. I could imagine the heat from all the burning bodies and how the Nazis would bathe in water made hot by those flames. And I could almost smell the stench from the smoke.
This spring I had the opportunity to go on an incredibly life-changing experience. The March of the Living is a journey comprised of a week in Poland visiting concentration camps and seeing the physical reminders of the Holocaust, followed by a week in Israel celebrating the enduring strength of the Jewish people. For over 20 years, thousands of teens and adults from around the world have come together in solidarity during this revelatory trip. Now I was joining them.
I took this journey with BBYO Passport’s National Teen Delegation, made up of Jewish teens from across the United States. In addition to chaperones and guides, Trudy Album, a Holocaust survivor from Suffern, N.Y., accompanied us. This was not her first year revisiting the places of her torture. For seven years, she has returned to Poland — the place where she lost friends, family and was denied all basic human rights. For Trudy the trip has become a painful, but powerful, way of teaching the next generation about morality. (Photo: Trudy Album, center, with BBYO Passport: March of the Living participants.)
The most horrific and transformative day of my experience was when we toured the Majdanek concentration camp. This was where I could feel the scratch marks in the crematorium walls and imagine the burning, it was so well-preserved. We learned that the Nazis fed Jewish babies to their dogs and created lampshades from Jewish flesh—though the consensus of historians is that these practices may not have actually happened. And we learned that the church and row of houses sitting 10 feet outside the camp’s perimeter had been fully inhabited during its existence.
At the end of our visit we hiked up a steep hill overlooking a pile of ashes of 68,000 prisoners. Members of my group cried, huddled around the silent, resilient figure of Trudy. After a moment she said, “It’s OK.”
I could not believe this. Now I, too, burst into tears. No, it’s not OK. It’s not. I was indignant about the atrocities Trudy suffered; about the horror she feels coming back each year to the place where she lost friends and family, where she saw such maniacal torture. But there she was, standing in front of us, telling us it would be OK. Telling us to walk away smiling.
Our week in Israel was a dramatic change. We bought chocolate milk sold in bags and ate chocolate candy infused with pop-rocks. We saw the pride and love of the country’s people on Israel’s Memorial Day. When Israelis turn 18 they all are required to serve two years in the army, making it impossible for citizens not to be one or two degrees removed from someone killed in combat. The day of remembrance was entirely different from ours back home. At the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery every grave and plaque shone with flowers, letters and illuminated candles.
Memorial Day — arguably one of the saddest of the year for Israelis — is followed by Independence Day, one of the happiest. Every March of the Living delegation from across the globe gathered in a march from Jerusalem’s City Hall to the Western Wall. A week before this, every delegation had participated in a march from Auschwitz to the Birkenau concentration camp in a similar proclamation of unity. The Israel march was joyous. In the heart of the country of the Jewish people, we marched because Hitler did not win.
I was a changed person when I returned home from my journey. First and most importantly, I’d learned that tolerance is invaluable. Every horrible thing that happened in the Holocaust stemmed from a small prejudice. And in my own sphere, I thought if people could hold back that one comment, if they could stand up for that one person, the Earth’s scale would tip in a positive direction.
Secondly, I realized how vital it is to be proud of yourself and your life. No matter what adversity you have or continue to face, you are still here. Embrace what makes you who you are.
This trip will never end for me even now that I’m back in my own home, in my own bed and have updated my Facebook pictures. This is a journey that I will march in for the rest of my life. Twenty years from now, I will still be struggling with the pure atrocity of the Holocaust, but I will also be sharing my stories with those I meet. I’ll tell them about the crematorium and the scratches and the piles of ashes. Then I’ll say that when we left the camp I saw a butterfly, climbing higher in the wind.
Every year, BBYO sends a national teen delegation on the March of the Living with BBYO Passport where teens from around the world come together to bear witness to the destruction of the Holocaust in Poland and then travel to Israel to rejoice in the Jewish homeland. The program commemorates Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, marching from Auschwitz to Birkenau and celebrates Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, in the streets of Jerusalem. For more reflections from this year’s delegation, click here. Teens interested in attending next year can pre-register here.