Jewish News’ Andrew Sherwood is among 300 Brits who have travelled to Poland for this year’s March of the Living trip.
The five-day journey culminates in a 1.5 mile march from Auschwitz I to Birkenau – which will see nearly 12,000 people participating from all around the world – to mark Yom Hashoah, International Holocaust Memorial Day.
Ahead of the march on Thursday – read Andrew’s reflections, as he learns about the history of Poland’s Jews, and prepares himself to visit the Nazis’ most notorious death camp.
While I didn’t appreciate it at the time, we were going to be given a chronological history of Jews in Poland during our six-day stay. I had prepared myself for an intense account of the sheer horrors of the Holocaust, and while that was going to unfold during the trip, day one was more or less setting the scene pre-1930, how Jews prospered – and enjoyed a good life – in Poland, one which would be in stark contrast once the country was invaded by the Nazis.
Our first stop was the Warsaw Cemetery, one of the biggest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, housing around 250,000 stones. This though was the aforementioned celebration, focusing on the lives of so many Jewish people, men and women, who flourished in the country. Opened in 1806, it features the graves of philanthropists, historians, doctors and publishers, it helped portray life for the Jew in Poland, and the picture it painted was of a prosperous one.
Of course that wasn’t to last forever, and learning how it was partly demolished during World War Two, with German forces using it for mass executions, burying the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw Ghetto Uprisings and other mass murders, we left the cemetery with a startling reminder of why we were here – two mass graves sitting, cordoned off, either side of our pathway out. Even more shocking for me, was how on the other side of the street, modernised apartments had been built overlooking a green area which hosted of upwards 9,000 dead bodies.
The theme of the past being integrated into the present was further illustrated when we paid our first to the Warsaw Ghetto. Walking through a housing development, it was only when I was leaning on a wire (which was actually the fence of someone’s back garden), that I then realised I was standing in the Ghetto itself. A pattern was emerging from me, and one which our excellent educator Richard Verber, assured me would be answered in due course.
The day continued with a visit to the Polin Museum – “1,000 years of Jewish Life in Poland” and as the Cemetery had alluded to, illustrated a rich tapestry of life Polish Jews had enjoyed. Dinner was preceded by British Ambassador to Poland, Jonathan Knott, speaking to a group from the UK Delegation.
With only one full day in the Polish capital, the day started with a more comprehensive look at the Warsaw Ghetto. Again – and not to put too fine a point on it – as we stood listening to accounts of what it was like to be there, the inhumane conditions people suffered, from the corner of my eye, I could see people leaving for work, kids going to school. The close proximity of their living surroundings, literally living on the doorstep of The Ghetto was something I – and others in my group having discussed it with them – found incredibly hard to comprehend.
From there we went on a Heroes Walk, commemorating those who led the uprising such at the Ghetto and culminating in the Ghetto Heroes Monument – located where the first armed clash of the uprising took place.
Leaving Warsaw, we embarked on a near three-hour coach ride to Lublin, particularly poignant as it was the birthplace of Holocaust Survivor Alec Ward, who I found out later in the evening had passed away. Arriving in what is the ninth largest city in Poland, we did our bit for maintaining tradition by studying a section of the Talmud at the Yeshivas Chachmei, before getting back on the coach to visit our first Concentration Camp of the trip at Majdanek.
The UK Delegation is this year divided into seven groups, with each one having its own bus and own Holocaust Survivor sitting at the front, to guide, advise and help educate. Our Survivor was Harry (Chaim) Olmer and he joined us for the trip. It was intense, interesting, grim and shocking in equal measure.
Again, while the Camp site is ‘segregated’ to the rest of the city, with barbed wire going round its circumference, 30-odd yards from the wire, overlooking the gas chambers is more modernised housing. A fellow Group F member told me she saw a young child playing on a swing in her back garden – yards away from one of the gas chambers.
Having learnt about the atrocities of the Holocaust since a young age at primary school, I knew (roughly) what to expect in terms of what a Concentration Camp site can offer. I’d wanted to come on the MOTL, for amongst other reasons, to experience certain places for myself and having witnessed this for a start, to say it was a new level of disbelief is an understatement.
The near three-hour tour of the site was everything I’d expected it to be. Although you know what you’re going to see, what you’re going to hear from your guide, nothing can prepare you for seeing 400,000-odd pairs of shoes stacked up in barracks, the sight of the ovens, showers, crematorium.
At our second hotel, after having had dinner, we had a session with Harry, who told us his, at times, miraculous story of survival. Things he told us tonight will live long – if not forever – in my memory, the nightmares he still carries with him to this day.