March of the Living changed the lives of five Louisville teens

The Louisville group finds a taste of home in the heart of Poland. (photos provided by Kari Semel)

Five Louisville high school seniors just returned from a two-week trip to Poland and Israel, an experience that they describe as the trip of a lifetime.
From April 9 to 23, they participated in the International March of the Living, a two-week educational trip that takes Jewish high school students through Poland and Israel to study the Holocaust with survivors of the Shoah acting as their guides and educators.
Abigail Geller, Gia Blum, Emily Rosenthal, Lilli Russman, and Julia Bessen came from very different Jewish backgrounds, but they all returned home with a new sense of pride in their Jewish identities.
The trip’s itinerary boasted a dense lineup in Poland, taking the teens to death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Majdanek, as well as the Krakow and Warsaw ghettos.
On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the girls marched with 16,000 other Jews from 52 countries through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau where they were greeted with speeches from diplomats and elected officials from Poland, Germany and Israel.
Rosenthal recalled her amazement at marching with nearly double the Jewish population of Louisville, calling the experience “a roller coaster of emotions.”
Hours after landing in Poland, the girls were taken to a mass children’s grave in the forest of Zbylitowska Gora, where they recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for the hundreds of innocent Jewish children buried there.
They toured multiple death camps and, on the bus, listened to testimonies from adult survivors and teens whose families had survived the horrors.
They visited the oldest remaining Jewish cemeteries in Poland and visited the Krakow JCC in the heart of the city’s old Jewish Quarter.

March of the Living participants enter Auschwitz.

Every day in Poland brought a new opportunity for the participants to understand the country’s terrifying history.
Bessen’s most meaningful memory of the trip came from the shared knowledge of Jewish music in Poland.
“Throughout the world,” she said, “Jewish songs and prayers have the same tune, so despite the language barrier I felt extremely connect to fellow marchers through music.”
The teens prepared heavily for the trip, attending seminars led by Fred Whittaker, Southern Region Director Jack Rosenbaum, Holocaust survivor Rosette Goldstein, and this author.
The trip also offered many opportunities for the teens to debrief and process their emotions with the other 28 students on their bus from Dallas and south Florida.
While some regional groups completed their trips in Poland, others, including Louisville, continued on to Israel, giving them a second week’s worth of tangible proof that the Jewish people are still strong.
The Israel week showcased the successes and continued struggles of the Jewish people. Highlights included testimonies from survivors who were sent to Atlit, the Israeli internment camp, a visit to Acco prison, rafting on the Jordan River and the opportunity to march with their Jewish brothers and sisters through Jerusalem to the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.
Blum was blown away on her first day in Israel, describing Caesaria as “The most incredible meal in the most beautiful place in the world.”
The trip overlapped with Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Erev Yom HaZikaron was spent giving back to the community, by visiting Beit Elizrahi, a local children’s home near Haifa.
On Yom HaAtzmaut the teens celebrated Israel’s 70th birthday by marching through the streets of Jerusalem, culminating in a ceremony at the Kotel. The experience was followed by a mega event at Latrun, featuring songs and dances by many of Israel’s famous performance companies.
The teens were inspired by their visit Israel’s national cemetery, Har Herzl, where they heard from the parents of Michael Levin, a lone soldier from Philadelphia who was killed during his service in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I have a deeper motivation to continue in my faith and be proud of my heritage,” Geller said. “After visiting he sites of atrocities to Jews in Poland and then seeing Jewish people thrive in Israel, my Zionistic beliefs have intensified.”
The trip proved to be a life-changing experience for the Louisville participants, who will all be graduating high school soon and preparing for their next chapters in life.
As Russman said, “I hope to continue gaining knowledge about the Holocaust to stand up for Jews and other minorities.”

(Kari Semel, Jewish youth director at The J, was the team leader for the Louisville group to March of the Living.)

March of the Living

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