March of the Living 2019 – The March

James Milton, Holocaust Educational Trust Regional Ambassador shares his thoughts on the March of the Living 

 The day had finally arrived. The itinerary of the entire experience was designed to build up to this moment; the eponymous March of the Living. By this point in the week, we were fatigued both physically and mentally, but our excitement of what was to come maintained our spirits. The aura around it was one of mystery; we knew very little about the march apart from the logistics, and we had been warned about what we might witness. We were told that people react in different ways, and it sometimes takes people two or three visits before they become comfortable with participating. It is fair to say that we all felt a little bit of trepidation amidst the anticipation. When we arrived at Auschwitz, we started to capture a sense of the atmosphere. Strikingly, there was noise; not a lot, but noticeable enough to distinguish from the silence that usually accompanies visits to Auschwitz. For me, Auschwitz has always been a haunting site, leaving an indelible mark on all those who visit. I have always treated it like I would treat a cemetery; a place to commemorate, a place of mourning, but most notably a place of silence. This perspective was set to be challenged over the next few hours.

March 1

The March had three stages: a prolonged period at the beginning where everybody congregates with their compatriots; the march itself from Auschwitz I to Birkenau; and a closing ceremony at Birkenau. We made our way to the Union Jack, which was sandwiched in between barracks and the meeting points of other countries. All participants were encouraged to wear the same blue waterproofs, creating a sea of blue across the site. The paths of Auschwitz were packed, and here we waited for about an hour, maybe longer. We were encouraged to socialise with participants from other countries, and were given a bag of March of the Living UK badges to exchange with the badges of those from other countries. The intention of these were to allow us to start conversations with other people, and they served this purpose well. However, most of the conversations I had with others seemed to be about anything other than where we were, which I initially found quite strange. You quickly realise that in itself, the benevolent conversations were an act of defiance from the Jewish participants – a theme that would recur throughout the day. The wait was a form of benign chaos, with groups of people dancing to your left, and singing to your right. I assumed the role of an observer, watching the buoyant scenes taking place around me. The experience was certainly living up to how it had been described.

Before long, the crowds of people started to move towards the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gates and out of Auschwitz I. I knew this would be a significant moment, and the name of the event echoes the powerful collective feeling that over 10,000 people embraced together. The March of the Living. We were marching as one, together - but we were marching safe in the knowledge that we would still be living when we reached our destination. We knew that we would be able to walk through that gate alive, alongside over 10,000 other people, and that was the ultimate act of defiance.

March 2

The march was shorter than I expected, maybe around half an hour. Throughout the day, I had to keep reminding myself where I was, as it was easy to get caught up in the atmosphere and forget the context. Every so often, I would look around me and see the long line of thousands walking with us; the line of blue jackets went on for a mile. It was surreal. Occasionally, we marched by groups of people from other nations who you would not have expected to be involved with the Holocaust. Most memorably, we passed a group of people from South Korea at the beginning and end of the march who were begging us for forgiveness. Many of our Jewish counterparts thought it was a nice gesture, considering South Korea was under Japanese rule until the end of the Second World War. It was easy to get involved, and I soon relinquished my role as an observer after being given a banner which had written on it ‘Say No to Antisemitism’, and I carried this until we got to Birkenau. Looking around, I noticed the disproportionate amounts of Israeli flags amidst the others, and realised just how important Israel was to the liberty of the Jewish people. For many, it is not just a country, but a symbol that represents freedom from the persecution of Jewish people, and that was reflected by the sheer number of people marching across Auschwitz carrying the Israeli flag.

We shortly arrived at Birkenau, ending the march. Anyone who has ever visited Birkenau will recognise the feeling of entering the complex as being both humbling but awe-inspiring. Walking through the entrance alongside thousands of people, united in the memory of those who could not make it out alive, was an incredibly profound experience. To know that people from all around the world were committed to remembering what happened here was truly vindicating, and made me recognise that no matter how alone we may feel in our mission to remember the Holocaust, or in tackling antisemitism, we are supported by so many across the world.

March 3

We made our way towards the back of Birkenau, where a stage had been assembled for the ceremony. The whole day was unorthodox, but the ceremony was the part that I was the least prepared for. Once the ceremony began, the atmosphere became similar to that of an open-air concert. The ambience was very relaxed, and almost nonchalant. It began with the reading of a selection of names of children who died at Birkenau; the very grounds we were sat on. We later heard from speakers, including musical performances, and survivor Edward Mosberg. The ceremony ended with the crowd of thousand’s reciting the Kaddish - a mourner’s prayer, and the Hatikvah – the Israeli national anthem. The atmosphere made me a little uncomfortable at first, but this was simply a different way of remembering; perhaps a way that I would never be able to appreciate by not having the personal connection to my surroundings that the thousands around me had. It took me some time to appreciate the message that the ceremony was trying to convey – we do not have to abide by the rules that the Nazi’s tried to impose on our ancestors in this place, because we survived. I am still not sure that I have come to grips with this atmosphere, but it certainly was an experience that gave me a new, more personal understanding of the Holocaust.

March 4

Our job is a demanding one, but it is experiences like the March of the Living that keeps me going. To see so many people so passionate about remembering the victims of the Holocaust makes it incumbent upon us to continue in our mission, especially as we have the privilege to hear survivors share their testimonies. I would advise anyone who has the opportunity to take part in the March of the Living to do it. Sometimes I consider returning at some point in the future, to re-evaluate the memory of this evocative event and my increasingly confused emotions. I am still not sure if I have come to terms with my emotions throughout the trip, but I am sure that the experience of the March will remain with me, and will continue to shape how I view the Holocaust for the rest of my life.