March of the Living 2013

March of the Living with Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg

Thursday, April 18

Group picture in IsraelIt would probably be more typical as a final blog segment to talk about the many places that I visited on the March of the Living. However, I’d like to dedicate this space to the many heroes I met, that is the impressive individuals who to this day stand in the face of evil with acts of distinct kindness. Each serves as a reminder of the overpowering good in the world.

In Warsaw, I met an elderly lady who hid a number of Jews in her home. Her residence was often raided by the Nazis, but she successfully kept them away from her hidden tenants. The Canada Israel Experience awarded her a plane ticket to Israel so that she could be reunited with these friends, meeting their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This will be her first trip on a plane! I thanked her for her courageous acts. She brushed off my thanks, replying in Polish, “My acts should be normal.”

By the KotelOn our first day in Israel, we visited an air force base. A young soldier gave us a tour. Of course we were wowed at the sight of the F-16. I was equally impressed by his commitment — as a pilot, he will serve until he is at least 30 years old. Our day to day lives are very different, yet there was much that connected us. We joked about the TV show Homeland. He noted that we looked tired, and that we had travelled a long way to Israel that morning. He announced, “Do not worry, never again will we be threatened like the Holocaust. If there is danger to the Jewish people, Israel is ready and prepared.” I have to admit, leaving Poland I felt fragile, but this hero had restored my confidence.

Group in IsraelAnother soldier was equally inspiring. We met a handicapped veteran at his home in Northern Israel. Forty years ago, he was injured in the Yom Kippur War and has not walked since. But there has been no keeping him down! He exceeded all expectations with rehabilitation and went on to work as a nature specialist and raise a beautiful family. He repeatedly assured us that nothing should be deemed impossible and that we ought to go after our dreams. His son recently completed his army duty. Many Israelis opt to travel after their service. He invited his father to join him, on an expedition climbing the vast hills of Turkey. Together, with the help of a team of friends, they reached the highest peak.

Group in Tel AvivJust three of the many people who left me in awe over my recent travels. Earlier in the week I experienced Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut in Israel. Yom Hazikaron was somber and reflective. The country stood still as the siren rang — we ought never forget the many who have passed so that we could live. Yom Ha’Atzmaut was a display of this life. We literally danced in the streets, embracing with joy our great accomplishments. After 65 years, we have much to celebrate. As the words of Hatikvah illustrate, we are a people guided by hope, consistently strong and marching forward. This journey was heavy and tolling, but as it came to a close on Israel’s birthday, I could sigh with relief, I could embrace the day, I could dance with joy.

Again, my thanks to Lawrence and Beverly Fein and family for honoring their dear friend Seymore Obront by making this trip possible for the Temple Sinai delegation.

Monday, April 15

Arrival in IsraelI often look to my faith to give added meaning to transitions. The last few days have been full of sharp contrasts. One day, reminders of death surround me. The next day, hope reigns strong on the shores of the Mediterranean.

I felt a weight lift as our El Al plane took off for Tel Aviv. These days in Poland were heavy, misery sitting deep in my soul. Landing in Ben Gurion, I was home, a land of promise, a haven from the pain of the past. We landed in the early hours of the morning, but this was no time for sleep. The plane burst out in song — heveinu shalom aleichem, time to bring in the shalom!

At the northern border in IsraelUpon arrival we went to the beach. The waves of the sea demanded our attention. Once we were caught in the wake, but no more. Our first day included a visit to an Air Force base. We were greeted by the deputy captain and the F16 that he was trained to fly. The fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising would be proud. Never again would we be overpowered by the forces of evil. A further stop was a water pumping station — a modern miracle of sorts providing sustenance to the north of Israel.

We welcomed Shabbat on Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov. As we lit the candles, I could not help think of the complicated imagery of fire. Scary and scorching, fire has been used for destruction. Yet the flame of the many Kaddish candles that we had lit over the week represented legacy, the flame would not die. On this evening the flame represented Shabbat, we were welcoming in holiness. In fact, we were reigniting the light of our Jewish soul.

Next stop, Jerusalem where we will commemorate Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

Wednesday, April 10
A Message from March of the Living Participant Luke Carr
Luke joined Temple Sinai with his wife Daniela in 2010. Luke is originally from Port Hope.

Today marks the halfway point of the 2013 March of the Living trip. As I look back and try to summarize my experience so far, I believe that even though I didn’t lose family in the Holocaust, my feelings echo those of my tripmates who, as a result of the evil that occurred in the war, didn’t have the opportunity to meet many members of their families.

When looking back and trying to make sense of the brutal stories we’ve heard and places we’ve seen, it’s difficult to find words to describe how these things could have happened and how to make sense of this experience. As a result, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to trying to put what we’ve seen and heard into context.

While travelling across Poland with a busload of about 40 people, I quickly learned that there is an abundance of different outlooks on the things that happened during the Holocaust and how those events shaped individuals and their families. Everyone in our group has been incredibly generous in regards to sharing their unique stories and background, as well as being there to help others when they needed a shoulder to cry on or to search for understanding.

On our journey, we learned about the story of the Jewish people in Europe prior to the war, all the way up to when what remained of the population was liberated from their oppressors as the war ended. This process of discovery included seeing numerous sites in Warsaw such as a, still intact, Jewish cemetery and the ghetto that the Jews were relegated to as the Nazi’s took over control of Poland. We learned about how the Jews dealt with their new realities living in the ghetto, how things got more desperate with more and more people being transported to killing centres and how the remaining population of the ghetto rose up and fought back. After having visited those places and others, I know that what I saw there will stay with me forever.

Although I believe that many of us on this trip have tried to actively walk in the footsteps of those who perished before us, there is no way to understand or identify with what the Jewish people who lived through and died in the war experienced. Hearing specifics about what went on in the various camps that we visited is nothing short of baffling and tragic. As many opportunities as I have had to try and rationalize what happened to the Jewish people, the more I realize that there probably aren’t words or descriptions available for such a thing. At this point, I feel that the best way to move forward is by recognizing what happened while thinking of ways that I as a Jew can contribute in a positive way to help shape our future.

On Monday, we had the privilege to take part in the march that gives the March of the Living its name. It was an incredibly powerful event in which roughly 10,000 Jews walked freely out of the Auschwitz 1 camp to Birkenau. This walk culminated with a ceremony that included Jewish officiants and high ranking officials from the State of Israel who paid respect to all those who didn’t have a chance to live through the Nazi brutality. As much as this event was meant to look to the past, there was a clear call to action made for the future. The challenge went out to all Jews to keep the Jewish faith strong by teaching our youth, as well as non-Jews, to protect all that our nation has fought for. It’s up to all Jews to participate in continuing to promote and do their part to strengthen Israel.

With today being our last day in Poland, our last stop prior to leaving for Israel was Majdanek. Majdanek is a place where the camp was so close to the general population that people were able to sit at their dinner tables and in their backyards and see thousands of Jews being forced to do hard labour and wheelbarrows of dead bodies being wheeled off to be cremated.

As much as it is clear that the Nazis were the primary perpetrators behind what happened to the Jewish people, the fact that months and years passed while smoke rose out of chimneys across Poland as millions of Jews perished, tells you that there is always a danger in not asking questions and not taking an active role and interest in helping those around you. I know that as I board a plane to Israel and later to home, I will be a different person and I hope the world will be at least a marginally better place as a result.

Monday April 8, 2013

Conclusion of the MarchIt is said that every rabbi has a favorite term that is often emphasized in teachings, sermons, articles, etc. Mine would most certainly be “Jewish Journeys!” As Jews, we are all on a journey, both an individual path and a communal route. Our personal travels include life cycle events, times of joy and sorrow, soul searching. Our communal narrative begins in the Torah and travels across lands and time periods. As part of the March of the Living, we spent a day visiting one of the darkest places in our communal story — Auschwitz.

Our Canadian delegation gathering for the MarchOf course Auschwitz is a place that I had known of since I was a young boy, but words cannot convey the horrors of this facility. Never before had a people been systematically targeted with such efficiency and brutality. The Nazis prided themselves on this evil. In order to appreciate the terror, our tour guide simulated the pathway that our brothers and sisters would take. Our people were unloaded like animals, stripped down, robbed of belongings, and sent to be gassed. There are collections of countless shoes, glasses, kitchen utensils and suitcases. I found these travel bags especially painful to see. Every bag had a name on it and an address. It was as if the carrier expected to be on a short trip, eventually to return home. But these Jewish journeys came to a shocking end.

Luke and Daniela with survivor Pincus GutterOn Yom Hashoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day, we made a return visit to Auschwitz. This time we marched into the facility with 11,000 people from around the world. This was not a death march, rather it was an affirmation of life. We walked in silence, honoring the memory of our loved ones. We draped ourselves in Israeli flags, proud to be Jews. We linked arms, supporting one another as extended family.

At the end of the day, we did what our brethren could not. We walked out of the gates. No doubt, we were not the same people that we were earlier in the day. We were bruised yet strong, sad yet confident. Six million of our people were murdered, but their journeys continue. We carry them on our shoulders each day. From the pit of darkness, our Jewish narrative continues. We march forward!

Friday April 5, 2013

Outside Tykocin SynagogueIt’s been just two days since beginning the March of the Living, and already I have countless thoughts to share. However, the overarching expression that I feel is one of silence — there are no words.

It was appropriate that one of our first stops in Poland was the Genscha cemetery. This is the main cemetery of Warsaw. The cemetery, more than 200 years old, is estimated to be the burial place of 200,000 of our brethren. It may have been freezing and covered in snow, and yet this was an enlightening visit, a taste of what Poland was and could have been. I struggled as I often do determining if the best way to describe the cemetery was a beit kvarot — a house of graves, or a beit ha’hayim — a house of life. In fact, this juxtaposition seems to be a common theme as I travel across Poland with the Young Adult March of the Living. There are six of us from Temple Sinai on this delegation.

Cemetary Picture

There were many notable headstones at Genscha. Gravestones are traditionally inscribed in Hebrew, but here, for the first time, Yiddish and even Polish was used, speaking to the lives of the deceased. Sometimes the gravestone would have an intricate story engraved, precious to note, all too often missing since most victims of the Holocaust were denied a proper burial. Buried at Genscha are many notables, including activists, scholars and artists — a reminder of the days when the Jews of Warsaw numbered close to the Jews of New York. Once upon a time, this was a Jewish centre. You would not know that from looking at life at the present.

Inside Tykocin SynagogueYearning to get a taste of shtetl life, today we travelled to Tykocin. The synagogue of Tykocin is over 500 years old! No more Jews live in this historic town, but we showed that Am Yisrael Chai as we sang and danced inside. Especially touching was watching the younger folks dance with the survivors. Such courage it takes to return to this land that holds such sadness, robbed of its potential. This shul will not be full again for another year.

Warsaw Ghetto

Our final stop of the day was Treblinka. We marched to the place where the barracks stood. This was a silent march that 850,000 Jews took just before they were killed in this place of evil. Never again we promised. A nearby group was singing Debbie Friedman’s melody to the psalm, “Those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap in joy, will reap in joy.” Retracing our narrative, I pray that we can take our tears and honour the legacy of our loved ones. As difficult as this is, we can do so by affirming life, by standing proud, by continuing our Jewish journey near and far. With Shabbat approaching, I look forward with hope. But mostly I am silent. There are no words.

A special thank you to Lawrence and Beverly Fein and family for honoring their dear friend Seymore Obront by funding the March of Living experience for our young adult community.