Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Blog

Taking part in March of the Living

March of the Living is a five-day educational journey, which takes place in Poland, where students, and adults join educators and Holocaust survivors to learn about one thousand years of Jewish life in Poland, and the devastation and horrors of the Holocaust. On the final day of the visit, participants join thousands of people from around the world on a march from Auschwitz I to Birkenau to mark Yom HaShoah – the annual Jewish remembrance day for victims of the Holocaust.

When I took part in March of the Living in 2019 I did not know what to expect. During that week, however, I recognised many symbols of both death and destruction, as well as survival and resistance.

Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto

Milk jug used to store evidence as part of the Oneg Shabbat archives.

In the milk jug (left), details of just some of the lives of Warsaw's Jews were stored as part of the Ringelblum/Oneg Shabbat archives. The archive is a collection of documents from the Warsaw ghetto that sought to preserve Jewish life, and was collected by a group led by Jewish historian Emanuel Ringeblum within the ghetto. The archive is a remarkable testament to the spirit of resistance in the Ghetto.

On my bus, we were lucky enough to be joined by Holocaust survivor Mala Tribich MBE. Seeing Mala read from the Oneg Shabbat exhibition was very moving, as she provided us with a living link to that period, and reminded us that the Holocaust was not an abstract piece of history, but an atrocity committed by human beings, which impacted millions of individual lives. I look forward to seeing the exhibition again.

Majdanek: Visiting the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp

Majdanek was a concentration camp established in the Autumn of 1941 on the edge of the city of Lublin in German-occupied Poland. By late 1942, Majdanek had been transformed into extermination camp, with the construction of gas chambers at the site. In 1943, SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the elimination of all remaining Jews in the Lublin region. 3 November 1943 saw one of the largest mass shootings of the Holocaust with the killing of approximately 18,000 Jews at Majdanek.

Visiting Majdanek was a very sombre experience. When the Nazis left the camp in 1945, with the rapid advance of the Soviet Red Army, they were left with little time to destroy the harrowing and incriminating evidence of the atrocities that had taken place, including the human remains of those murdered there. These remains now lie beneath a large concrete dome (pictured below on the left), a mausoleum which dominates the surrounding area. Walking through the camp gave you just a glimpse into the scale of the atrocities.

Concrete Dome Mausoleum, below which sits a mound of ashes of the victims that were murdered at Majdanek (L) A view of the old watchtowers and fences that still remain in the camp.(R)

Belzec: Visiting the former Nazi extermination camp

Belzec extermination camp was constructed at the end of 1941, and was the first to have stationary gas chambers. The murders at Belzec took place over the course of just nine months from March to December 1942. Almost 500,000 Jews were sent to Belzec. Only two are known to have survived.

At Belzec, we were privileged to be joined by Holocaust survivor Harry Olmer BEM. We held a memorial ceremony here in memory of Harry’s family, many of whom were murdered at Belzec. It was extremely moving, and we will be attending a similar memorial on the march this year.

The site of the former Nazi extermination camp Belzec. There is nothing left of the original camp and as such the whole site has been turned into a large memorial.

Memorials of mass graves

A memorial at a mass grave site.

Something I found particularly harrowing during my visit was the absence of reminders. We visited several mass graves during the visit, but all that was left to tell us of these massacres were our educators and the memorials which marked the graves. These were otherwise peaceful green surroundings that seemed so unassuming. It was something that I found difficult to process.

March of the Living

Our group of Holocaust Educational Trust Regional Ambassadors with survivor Mala Tribich MBE, about to take part in the march.

On the last day of the programme, we took part in March of the Living – the march that gives this whole five-day educational visit its name. Beginning in Auschwitz I before walking to Birkenau, we were amongst 12,000 people from all over the world. It was a surreal experience, with members of the march demonstrating a variety of emotional responses. Some were cheering – celebrating that the Jewish people are still here and alive today. Some were silent – conflicted by being in a space where so many people were murdered. What is for certain is that the March is a significant act of resistance to the Holocaust – thousands of people including survivors and their descendants marching in a place where 1.1 million people were murdered simply for who they were.

The processing sessions, held each evening, were for me the most engaging moments of the trip. These meetings allowed us to explore our thoughts and feelings from that day, and is the main reason why I have chosen to return to March of the Living, this time as a bus leader, looking after a group of around 40 students from the UK (including some of the Trust’s Regional Ambassadors). I am keen to help new participants express themselves while taking part in the visit, which can be a difficult process.

By Jack Nicholls