Ben Rich has recently returned from Poland where he participated in the March of the Living, an annual symbolic march between the Auschwitz concentration camp and its twin death camp Birkenau. Here, he describes the experience…
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the symbol of pure evil. Over a million Jews – nearly a quarter of them children – died here in the Nazi gas chambers, along side tens of thousands of Poles, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, political prisoners and others. To say it is a strange place for a Jewish gathering is an understatement but here I am along with 11,000 young Jewish adults and others from across the globe.
Sitting on the grass between the barracks, the UK delegation’s youth movements strike up a song in the sun – Am Israel Chai – the people of Israel live. Others chat while they eat their lunch, while still more throng into the camp as other Jews did 70 years ago… This time they are noisy, chaotic, defiant, joyous.
One says: “This would really p*ss the Nazis off”. Laughter. And it’s okay, even here.
Everyone is swapping badges, T-shirts, hats, scarves. They read “Bet Hillel Synagogue, Minnesota, USA”, “Sydney, Australia” and Panama, South Africa, Gibraltar, Germany, many others.
A man parades a sign: “Polish Friends of Israel welcomes you” with extensive quotes from scriptures about supporting the Israelites.
Flags everywhere: Israeli Stars of David certainly, but there’s a Tricolore, a Maple Leaf and others I do not recognize. Our own delegations carry a Union Jack while others are draped in crosses of St George and St Andrew.
And then we march – only three kilometres between the two Auschwitz camps – a refutation of the death marches at the end of the way in which over 50,000 immates died. The first 300 yards crawl by and as we approach the gate “Arbeit Macht Frei”, roughly translated as “work makes you free” I understand why. There, photos of survivors – leaving Auschwitz – are being taken. We are led by six survivors now living in Britain – all in their eighties – all, heads high. All will march with us, for those that can’t.
We come to the railway tracks that run along the main road, straight into the heart of Birkenau. Between the sleepers every few yards earlier marchers have placed signs: “Not forgotten”; “March for six million”; a single name and date.
Now we move faster on the open road: we climb a gentle slope and as we come over the crest of the hill, ahead and behind we see a river of blue and white flowing to and through the gates of Birkenau: “I am no longer intimidated by those gates” says the young man next to me.
We squeeze under the arch on to the platform, where in my parents’ life time selections took place: life and labour to left; death to the right. Not shnell, shnell – but the Israeli urging forward “yalla, yalla” – hurry, hurry – a mass of young people walking, talking, sitting and standing – recording memories, even selfies, at the gates of hell.
Further and further into the camp to a stage hemmed in by the exploded remains of two crematoria where soon we will say Kaddish – the memorial prayer for the dead – sing – and leave again. No longer alone. Alive. Proud.
Ben Rich is the chair of York Liberal Jewish Community.