By Rabbi Shena Potter Jaffee, JCC Director of Jewish Family Life
On this 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I take time to remember a walk I took with my father and 24 Cincinnati teens four years ago through the world’s largest and perhaps most notorious factory of death. In 2011, I was fortunate to be the rabbi on March of the Living– an international 2 week experience, organized locally by the Mayerson JCC, that unites teens from across the world on a journey of remembrance and of hope.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, we walked through Auschwitz’s infamous gates that still read, “Work makes you Free.” We crossed an impossibly large swath of land that was actually a fraction of the enormous camp. With my father, who as a young boy, escaped from Poland just weeks before the Nazi invasion, and with our wonderful teens, we walked along train tracks that 70 years ago lead directly into the center of the camp. As we walked, our guide helped us remember: As soon as the human cargo was released from the train cars, decisions were made – left or right – life or death.
As we walked, I watched our teens stop along the tracks. They held onto one another, they stood off by themselves, they felt the history deep in their bones. They knew that every blade of grass, every stone, contained a story, and held inside it the last breaths of more than 1.1 million people. The tracks now lead to a sort of plaza – a stage made of stone – built for large ceremonies. Our teens gathered there. They stood arm in arm with teens from around the world, and they gazed up at a huge flag on the stage – the flag was blue and white.
On the day of the March, the flag of Israel waved over Auschwitz. It was amazing how much comfort that flag brought to us. To know that on this spot where so many Jews and others suffered and perished, there is now hope. With my father and our Cincinnati teens, we stood with thousands and thousands of teenagers from all over the world. We sang, we cried, we prayed, and we bore witness. People lived here, and people died here. Many of the teens standing there that day were descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors themselves. Though today, they are citizens of a myriad of countries on a number of continents, most can trace their heritage back to some of the same villages as one another, right there in Poland only a few miles away.
The Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony included speeches by dignitaries, performances, and readings. But, the most powerful moment was when at the conclusion, every member of the audience sang, Hatikvah, “The Hope” Israel’s national anthem, as the sun broke through the clouds. And then, and most importantly, the entire audience of more than ten thousand slowly walked back OUT of Auschwitz. In doing so we honored the memories of so many, including my great-uncles, whose fate was so tragically different from our own.
The trip continued on for another week on another continent. After Poland, we flew on to Israel for another march, this time for Israel’s Independence Day.
In Israel, our teens were hosted by families in Netanya, Cincinnati’s sister city. They celebrated, they made new friends, tried new foods, and gained a deeper sense of their own role in the history and future of the Jewish people.
The March of the Living sojourn through Poland and Israel doesn’t provide answers for our teens. They don’t suddenly comprehend the incomprehensible. But, they do learn something incredibly powerful — how to respond to evil and injustice.
On our journey, our teens learned to respond with love, with laughter, with joy and with hope. Our teens continue to respond by knowing their history more deeply and committing themselves to being an “Or l’goyim,” a light unto the world – a beacon of kindness and of hope. Many of these teens are active as summer counselors at Camp at the J. Others have started service organizations on their college campuses, and still more stop in at the JCC every so often to reminisce and to talk about what they are doing now to honor the legacy of their ancestors.
March of the Living delegations come from entire states or regions of the country. Of the more than 10, 000 participants, Cincinnati is the only city-based delegation. Thanks to our community’s dedication to Jewish memory and financial commitment to assist students, we have been able to maintain a continued presence at March of the Living for more than 20 years.
This April, the Mayerson JCC will once again be sending a delegation of more than 20 teens on March of the Living to continue to bear witness, to remember, to hope, and to respond to anti-Semitism wherever it exists, and to never forget. Follow their travels and learn more about March of the Living here.