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 – with more than 12,000 people participating from all around the world – to mark Yom Hashoah, Israel’s 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.
Described by Harry as “The Pearl of Poland”, we started the day by visiting Zamosc. Another example of how Jews lived in harmony in the country, the city may have had two squares, one for Jews, one for non-Jews, but that was where their ‘divide’ ended. Bathed in sunshine, taking in the picturesque sights, it was another warm reminder of times gone by.
From the brightness of one period to the sheer horrors of another, our next place of visit was the Belzec Death Camp. Scene of the killings of 434,000 Jews in just nine months, the site was demolished by the Nazis to try and erase any memory of it, and what stands there today is an eerie monument, a large space of land filled with rocks and rubble, with plaques on the ground of each town and city its victims came from. Hard to describe exactly what it [the monument] represents – as is the question posed by several monuments we’d already visited, to try and determine and come up with a definitive answer isn’t important. Firstly, because there isn’t necessarily an answer, it’s open to interpretation, it’s rather how the individual views it and interprets it, and like the atrocity’s that we were learning about, there’s no logical interpretation to that either.
Belzec was where Harry lost his mother and sisters, and following him down the memorial, we watched him recite Kaddish. One of the most moving and emotional things I’ve ever seen, the last part of the recital understandably got to Harry, as it did with members of the Delegation, as it did to me. Silence, was followed by some comforting arms, sometimes there are simply no words to use.
What isn’t so well known to people – and certainly wasn’t to me prior to the trip – was how many Poles have been rewarded as Righteous Among the Nations. Poland currently has nearly 7,000 awards – over 1,000 more than second-placed Netherlands, and our next visit took us to the Markowa – an equally, if not more so unknown village, in where we were now, south-eastern Poland.
Visiting the Ulma-Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews in World War II, it is named after the town’s Ulma family, Jozef and his wife Victoria, who were murdered having hidden eight Jews. The story of how their seven children were subsequently murdered – on the basis that it would give the Germans ‘less trouble’ having killed their parents, was just met with a silent disbelief. The only good thing that could possibly be taken from this memorial – and I use this in its loosest possible terms – is that the memorial and its museum were built by the local Poles. They didn’t want to hide its past, they wanted people to know about its Jewish history, how its non-Jews tried to help their Jewish friends.
The final trip of the day took us to Zbylitowska Gora, and more specifically, the Buczyna forest which the Nazis used as a mass execution site. A series of mass graves spread over the uneven land, a place surrounded by greenery and trees. Up to 10,000 people were slaughtered there. Hard to hear and comprehend what we were standing next too, finding out one of the graves was of 800 young children and babies was again too much for some people.
The day ended with another talk from another Holocaust Survivor, Arek Hersh, who lost his family at Auschwitz. Listening to his story, what he had to endure in the camps, we heard how starvation had turned him to eating his own shoes, while others turned to cannibalism, eating the flesh of their dead inmates. I’d read about this in books, seen it in TV documentaries, but never heard it first hand. Arek’s talk to us was planned given that we were visiting Birkenau and Auschwitz tomorrow. As we prepared for that in our final group session of the day, ‘traumatic’ was one of the recurring words people came up with when discussing what they were expecting from the day.