Jewish News’ Andrew Sherwood is among nearly 300 Brits who have travelled to Poland for this year’s March of the Living trip.
The fifth and final day was all about the March itself. Enjoying a relative lie-in, leaving the hotel at 7.45am instead of 6.30am, we did though first pay the most fleeting of visits – and posed for a photo – outside Oskar Schindler’s factory.
Back on the coach and taking a slight detour to Auschwitz Birkenau, my mind was initially side-tracked having tried to set up a series of interviews with members of the Chelsea delegation the Premier League club were sending, for the past few weeks. Fortunately, having gained a press pass, on the basis that the two security guards thought I deserved a break for being an Arsenal supporter, I had free access to the most cordoned off of places and as a result, was eventually able to secure interviews with Chairman Bruce Buck, former Chelsea and Israeli manager Avram Grant, youth team manager Jody Morris and Sir Steve Redgrave, who was acting as a club ambassador. Grant had gone AWOL which allowed me the opportunity to ask Buck, over a packed lunch, why it was so hard to secure an interview with Roman Abramovich – let’s just say, watch this space.
By mentioning football, I’m not trying to detract from the importance of the day and occasion, if anything it provided some form of light relief from what had been one of the most energy-sapping and emotional weeks, quite possibly of my life.
Once the interviews were over, I snaked my way past the first two blocks, navigated past the UN Ambassador section, cut across several now empty pathways and made my way to Block 6 to find the UK Delegation. A long (relatively long) wait ensured, before we set off, ever so slowly, in the direction of the famous/notorious Arbeit macht frei gate. A flash of the press pass saw the stewards part like the Red Sea, allowing me to be in the privileged position of being in front of the delegation as they edged ever closer, before passing underneath the gate.
While grateful to be there and catch the moment on the video camera, it did mean that I wasn’t able to appreciate the significance of the moment, something that as I type this at 2.25 the following morning, is beginning to play on my mind. Once the delegation were past the gate, another 100 yards or so saw them out on the main road, before the procession basically fragmented and turn into a stroll to Birkenau.
The sight of young Polish kids waving flags, people from the likes of Korea handing out leaflets, apologising for The Holocaust, was touching, but that – for me – was that. Any sense of occasion had gone and I spent the next 15-20 minutes, until we got to the stage, chatting to a fellow member of the delegation.
The ceremony itself was a strange affair. Again, not wishing to press home how obtaining this press ticket was akin to winning a golden ticket a la Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, but it did give me a privileged position of viewing the speeches from an elevated stage, in contrast, my fellow delegates couldn’t even hear or see properly the subtitles on the screen. I would personally describe Polish Holocaust Survivor Edward Mosberg’s account as being the most stirring thing I’ve ever heard – which is why I’ve put it up in full on the JN’s YouTube channel. A long watch – it’s in two parts – (and apologies for the shaking & out of focus early on), but from 8-9 minutes on, the anger, emotion and sheer outright hatred – all of which is justified – is something, as I say, I’ve never seen before.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda, then gave their speeches, by which time, and I truly hate to say it – my – and a lot of people around me – interest was wading. Moving out of the press section and joining my fellow group members on the grass behind, there was – and I appreciate it it’s the most unfortunate word to use – a summer camp feeling to it. People (the younger element of the crowd) were swapping badges, caps and bags from different countries, teens were playing on the grass, people were posing for photos on the railway tracks and around the cattle car. People deal with visiting Auschwitz in different ways, in fact we discussed this the previous evening and agreed there was no right or wrong way to react to it. For me though, it left something unsavoury in the mouth. I was just a big a culprit as anyone else, going off to take a look at the barracks, as the ceremony played out in the ever-increasing background and there was more than a tinge of sadness when I heard kaddish read over the loudspeakers, only to be standing by the entrance.
Reflecting back on the trip on the coach home, together with our final processing session, the first comforting thought were the words used to describe the ceremony, which weren’t exactly flattering. But much more importantly, I knew in myself what a worthwhile six days this had been.
Grateful for having the chance to attend this event, even more grateful for the wonderful educators we had on hand – Richard and Jude, together with bus leaders Talia and Phil, and the relentless work of Scott Saunders, for without whom, this visit wouldn’t even be in existence.
The trip was entirely what I had expected – and more. It’s hard to sum up in words, but painful, hurtful, emotional, shocking and raw anger are a start. I saw things I didn’t want to see, saw things I’ll never forget, and yet at the same time it made me more proud to be a Jew than I ever had before.
I made two vows as the day ended. One, to return to Auschwitz, and secondly to become a Survivor volunteer. But one thing this trip did make me do – and I don’t really care if it sounds corny – is to quite simply Never Ever Forget.