Tucsonan Irving Silverman, a participant in the 2005 March of the Living, visits the memorial to the Jews killed in the concentration camp at Plazow, Poland. Photo courtesy Irving Silverman.
Five Tucsonans, ranging in age from 18 to 84, arrived in Poland on May 3 to participate in the March of the Living, an annual event that in previous years brought Jewish teenagers to Poland on Holocaust Remembrance Day to march from the concentration camp at Auschwitz to the death camp at nearby Birkenau. During the second week of the trip, they travel to Israel to mark the Jewish state's Memorial Day and Independence Day.
Seconds after landing, some participants boarded buses that took them straight to Auschwitz. Although the SS had dismantled parts of the camp at the end of the war in an effort eliminate evidence of their crimes, rendering what is now the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum "very sterile," it was nonetheless frightening, says Ronnie Sebold.
Shayne and Ronnie Sebold at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Sebold and her 18-year-old daughter, Shayne, traveled with teens and adults from New York and New Jersey, while the other three Tucsonans, Irving Silverman, Rabbi Stephanie Aaron and her husband, Dr. Jack Aaron, joined an adult group from Los Angeles. "I didn't feel the emotions I expected then," says Sebold of that first visit to Auschwitz. "It started to get to me when we visited the town of Tykocin." Sebold's group went by bus through "peaceful forests to a lovely little town with beautiful gardens" where 1,400 Jewish residents had "lived in harmony with their neighbors" until 1941, she recounts.
Then the entire Jewish population was marched out to the forest where a hole had been dug, she says. "The Nazis shot them, bayoneted them until they fell into the hole." Two residents who managed to get away ran back into town and were killed by their neighbors, Sebold says - neighbors whose children had played with the Jewish children.
Sebold says that she's always believed, "If people appreciate the beauty of flowers, they have to have gentle souls." But in Poland, with all its beautiful gardens, she recognized "a definite anti-Semitism, a definite hatred on every street." Several Tucson delegates spoke of the stark contrast between the "heart-rending" experience in Poland and the "joyful, safe feeling" they had in Israel. "The weather mirrored my emotions. In Poland, it was nasty, miserable, cold and biting to the bone ... in Israel, it was warm, sunny, freylekh (cheerful)," reflects Sebold.
Sebold's son, Jordan, went on the March of the Living 12 years ago. "He was so totally blown away, it changed his life," she says. Six years later, it was her older daughter, Brooke's, turn. Sebold always wanted to participate, but in past years only a few adults went as chaperones for teens. Since this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Allied defeat of the Nazis, march organizers opened the trip to adults, allowing Sebold and Shayne to go together.
For mother and daughter, the emotional intensity of the trip increased with each day in Poland, each confrontation with history. At Maideneck, a concentration camp where 800,000 were killed in less than a year, they learned that even today, the camp could be up and functioning within 48 hours. "You can touch the scratch marks of people trying to get out of the gas chambers, you can feel the energy," says Sebold.
In a speech to Hebrew High graduates on April 26, prior to the trip, Shayne spoke of her older siblings' participation in previous marches. This time, she said, "I will be walking the streets of Poland with thousands of other Jews, we will hold hands, unite, but most importantly we will show that we are alive, and stronger than ever."
For Shayne, there was a "connection to home having mom there, but at times I wanted to be alone to experience it all, cut off from the rest of [my] life." On May 6, the day of the actual 1.8 mile march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, which included some 18,000 people, two men marched with their grandchildren as they held up photos of themselves at Auschwitz - an image Shayne says she will never forget.
And another one: That night, at their hotel in Warsaw, 300 to 400 teenagers were "jumping and singing every Hebrew song they ever learned," says Shayne. "It was a huge celebration from every country; Hebrew became this international language."
Speaking to the AJP the day after coming home, Shayne was adamant: "I need to tell every single Jewish kid to go [on this trip]. Tell your parents ÔI need to go.'" She says she wishes there were more scholarships available to reduce the trip cost "at this time you're blossoming into an adult." The happiest part of her March of the Living participation, she says, was realizing "the Jewish faith is in good hands" after seeing so many dedicated young people with such passion for Judaism.
"I've been a student of the Holocaust for 50 years," says Irving Silverman, 84, the oldest member of the delegation. "I wanted to feel the Holocaust. I put my hand in the oven and felt the heat.... I suppose that's mystical."
The "trip did much more for me than I ever could imagine," Silverman says. His father had left Poland for America in 1908; a year later he'd sent for his wife. Silverman fulfilled a long-held dream with a "life-changing" side trip to Tykocin, where his father had grown up and where his parents, in 1905, were married. "I wanted to walk the streets where they walked," he says. He went to the town's well-kept synagogue and sat on a bench. "I felt an intense attachment," he says. "I heard my father say Ôthank you for coming.'"
"My credit goes to the Poles for maintaining this synagogue, as well as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maideneck and other museums. I went to Poland with a strong bias, almost a hatred. It has been softened to a point where I'm confused," says Silverman, who observed many Poles visiting the Holocaust sites. "Something is going on. I'm willing to say, that was then, this is now." Silverman says he asked dozens of Poles how they felt about the Holocaust, and they often responded, "It's a black page in our history."
"I would like to feel that their answers are true," he says. Before the trip, Silverman says, "I hated the Poles, the Germans, but I decided I'm never going to hate again. Can I forgive? I don't know."
Several Tucson delegates noted the powerful presence of Elie Wiesel and other survivors at the march in Poland. Although many survivors did not travel on to Israel for the second week of the experience, Tucsonans say that in no way lessened the joy of being there.
"Israelis have a capacity for remembrance," Silverman says of his second visit to Israel. At Yad Vashem's "Community of Lost Cities," which memorializes 400 to 500 cities where entire Jewish populations were decimated, he says, "I cried like a baby." Asked to lead the group in reciting the Kaddish, Silverman says he requested various delegations to offer prayers of remembrance in their native languages: Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Polish and Greek.
"We're all responsible for doing the work of memory," says Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, who chaperoned Tucson teens on last year's March of the Living. Her husband, Jack, who had served as a chaperone when their son, Josh, went on a similar trip one week after 9/11, accompanied her this time. Before their departure, the couple printed pages of Holocaust victims with the surname Aaron from the Yad Vashem website; they read them while standing at a crematorium that Jews had blown up in an uprising at Auschwitz. In addition, Aaron carried names of Congregation Chaverim family members killed during the Holocaust, as well as stones from Tucson to lay on the ground in their memory at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
"What will we do as survivors age and die?" asks Aaron. She is working on a project she tentatively calls "Giving Names to the Numbers," which will give responsibility for a set of names to people who wish to say Yahrzeit for Holocaust victims. "Six million is an overwhelming number - too many to grasp," says the rabbi. Halfway done with collecting all the names from the Yad Vashem website, Aaron says that people can take on their own family members, adopt other names from the list, or make a connection with victims through books that have moved them. "What I'm suggesting is a way and a place within yourself to do the work of remembering," she says.
When Wiesel was recently in Tucson, Aaron notes, he talked about Darfur, Sudan, where genocide is taking place now. "I'm struggling to figure out what do [about it] within our community. To a certain extent you try to protect yourself from pain because it's pretty overwhelming," she says. But after her recent experience, Aaron says she is even more convinced that we have to take action. "How do we keep this from happening to other people?" she asks. Part of keeping our own faith and remembering Holocaust victims must be to extend that concern outward, she says. "It doesn't diminish the tragedy of Jewish people to look out and say we must do something about other genocides."