[by Justin Sadle]
When I began working with BBYO three years ago, I knew that staffing the March of the Living was something I had to do during my time with the organization. Holocaust education has always been extremely important to me, and I strongly believe that there is no time in life when it is better to learn than as a teen.
This year, through luck and perseverance, I was able to fulfill my goal and staffed the BBYO delegation for the 2012 March of the Living. While many of my colleagues and friends who had been on the trip tried to prepare me for the experience, it’s something that simply cannot be put into words.
To provide some background information, the March of the Living is a two-week trip to Poland and Israel, taken every Spring by more than 10,000 individuals, ranging from teenagers to Holocaust survivors and everyone in between. The trip is scheduled to coincide with Yom HaShoah, which is spent in Poland, and Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, which are spent in Israel. BBYO’s delegation is one of the largest, and the only one that encompasses teens from across the country. This year, there were 190 teens and staff that went with BBYO.
Our experience began in Poland, arriving around 9 a.m. after an all-night flight from New York. The first day was fairly easy in comparison to the rest of Poland, as we toured the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, which still boasts several Jewish restaurants and synagogues that are in operation today. We also saw part of where the Krakow ghetto once stood, and the area from which Jews were deported from Krakow. (Most were sent to Auschwitz.) We also drove by Schindler’s factory, and saw the monument at what used to be the Plaszow Concentration camp.
From that point on, the trip was emotionally challenging each day.
The second day, we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, which was our first true exposure to remnants of the Holocaust.
Auschwitz today is more of a museum than anything else – most of it was destroyed. Birkenau, which was the extermination camp at Auschwitz, was also mostly destroyed, but still presents a more haunting effect than the main camp of Auschwitz.
What also made Birkenau a powerful experience is that Trudy Album, a survivor of Birkenau who participated in the trip with us, told us all her story of survival in one of the barracks there. Even more powerful is that the only point in her story where Trudy became emotional was when she was talking about the teens on the trip, and how proud she is of them for the journey they had chosen to take.
I have been fortunate to have known several Holocaust survivors during my lifetime, and each one of them has been an inspiration to me. Unfortunately, in recent years, several of them – Ernie Marx, Ilse Meyer, Ann Klein, and Irma Strauss, z”l, have sadly passed away. Trudy not only reminded me of how influential those individuals had been in my life, but also inspired me by her will and determination, and her relentless positive attitude and spirit. Her presence made the trip an even more powerful experience, and she is easily one of the most inspirational people I have ever met.
The day after our initial visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau was the headline “March of the Living” event on Yom HaShoah. The March itself is a solemn walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau, followed by a moving ceremony on the grounds of Birkenau.
The most incredible thing about the March was seeing tens of thousands of people from all over the world. There were representatives from countries that I did not know had active Jewish populations – Panama, South Africa, Germany, and Brazil all had delegations, among many others.
The ceremony itself was incredibly powerful. Topol, famous for his portrayal of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, led the event beautifully. His rendition of “Eli, Eli” was incredibly moving.
Unique to this March of the Living, we honored approximately two dozen World War II veterans who helped liberate concentration camps. The reunion between a liberator and one of the survivors he liberated was beyond moving.
The ceremony concluded with a stirring rendition of “Hatikvah” – a thunderous affirmation of Jewish survival and hope in a place known as “the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.” To say it was moving and powerful would be a tremendous understatement.
After the March, we went to Warsaw, and then to Treblinka. While all buildings there were destroyed, a memorial consisting of 17,000 monuments, each dedicated to a Jewish community destroyed during the Holocaust, creates a haunting memorial to what was lost at this remote place in the woods of Poland.
We then spent a nice Shabbat in Warsaw, attending Friday night services at the Nazic synagogue, a spirited affirmation of renewed Jewish life in Poland. We spent Saturday taking a walking tour of where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood.
Our final day in Poland was spent at Majdanek, a concentration camp many may be unfamiliar with. Majdanek is set apart by the fact that it is not hidden – it is located in the middle of the city of Lublin. Additionally, it is completely preserved and could be operational within 48 hours.
In the midst of this camp, which was the most devastating part of the trip, I witnessed one of the more touching moments – Trudy with her arms around two teens, who were both crying, comforting them amidst the horrific sites they witnessed. The strength of Trudy, not only to return to scenes of horror, but to be a comfort to others, was uplifting in this place of pure darkness.
After Majdanek, we went straight to the airport for Israel – which was certainly a welcome feeling. Going from a country where Jews have suffered more than any other place on earth, straight to our homeland and the place of refuge for all Jews was a complete emotional 180.
This was not, however, your typical Israel trip. Being in Israel for Yom HaZikaron – the nation’s most solemn day – and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, its most celebratory day, was incredible. Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, is a solemn and moving day of remembrance. For us, Memorial Day is about barbecues and sales; for Israel, it is about remembering loved ones lost. Seeing families mourning their sons, brothers, daughters and parents at Mount Herzl truly put things into perspective for all of us.
The next day is Yom Ha’Atzmaut – a day of a celebration, as all Israelis celebrate our Independence – coming after a day where we remember those who died to preserve it.
In addition to commemorating these two holidays, the teens were able to see much of the country, climbing Masada, praying at the Western Wall and shopping at the market in Tel Aviv.
This trip was a great experience for me, not only because of the trip itself, but because I shared it with an incredible group of teens and staff. Experiencing it all for the first time while leading and educating teens through the trip was at times difficult, but at all times, rewarding. Watching them learn and gain a fuller understanding of the horrors that Jews suffered and the struggle we faced establishing Israel was motivating and inspiring. Going home knowing that 180 teens will carry this knowledge with them for the remainder of their lives was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.
To both teens and parents, I cannot recommend this trip enough. While I hope to staff it again soon, I am satisfied knowing that I fulfilled this personal goal. For any teen or parent who is interested in this trip, I highly recommend starting to prepare now. There are funds out there to help with the costs, and schools are usually receptive to helping teens attend the trip, as it does require missing some school. But the costs and the effort are more than worth the reward this experience provides.
I am happy to answer any questions about the March of the Living, and how teens can plan to attend this trip. I can be reached at email@example.com or (424) 274-2296.
Editor’s note: Justin Sadle is currently the Program Director for Pacific Coast Region BBYO in Los Angeles. Raised in Louisville, he served as Jewish Community of Louisville Teen Director and Kentucky-Indiana-Ohio BBYO Director from 2009 to 2011.