By Stuart MacDonald
How can one grasp the vast scale of the Holocaust? There were six million Jewish victims alone. A minute’s contemplation of each one would take 11 years. At Madjanek outside Lublin, the first concentration camp we visited on the March of the Living, we shuffled into one of the wooden, unheated barracks where the victims were held, dimly lit and lined with cages, each holding hundreds of shoes in different colours, no, thousands upon thousands of them, all tightly packed, but every one a story within and unto itself.
“Each of you, try to focus, not just on everything that you see before you. Try to focus on just one shoe.” Thus, our guide, referred to as Educator, helped us to bring the enormity of what happened down to a single point. “Think of the particular person’s life that each shoe represents.”
The UK contingent of the March was 300-strong and mainly Jewish – cross denominational and including a group from one of the communities in India. It was joined by some prominent non-Jews, both from different religious groups and secular backgrounds and split into buses – mainly students and young people, but also many older people from all over the country.
Each bus had an Educator – highly trained and personable. Bus B was led by renowned educationalist, Clive Lawton and Bus D by the Board’s very own former Senior Vice President, Richard Verber. On Bus C, our Educator was the infectiously thoughtful Rabbi Gideon Sylvester from Jerusalem, the United Synagogue’s representative in Israel. He led us through four intense days, starting in Warsaw with the line of the Ghetto Wall, an illuminating and poignant tour of the Polin Museum of Jewish Life – showing what was lost- and the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw containing 150,000 graves of intellectuals, mohels and Resistance heroes. There was also a tragic patch of grass, no bigger than an inner-city garden, that made one wish to weep. This is where 9,000 victims of a Nazi shooting rampage lie in anonymity.
From early morning till late at night, we were immersed in the contrast between the brutality and horror of what Jews suffered and the richness and diversity of Jewish life before the Shoah – from the Charedim to the functionally secular. Our Educator read us passage after passage of contemporary accounts that bore witness to what happened and our sense grew of the sheer sadism and senselessness of what was perpetrated. Indeed, at the commemorative ceremony on the final day at Birkenau (focused this year on the destruction of the Jews of Thessaloniki), following a moving speech by the Metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox Church, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau spoke tellingly of the sheer irrationality of antisemitism.
We moved from Warsaw to Lublin and Krakow, visiting old Jewish quarters and synagogues, massacre sites in dripping birch forests and most of all the camps. Madjanek, the size of a medium sized shopping centre, with rows of long, low wooden barracks framed within jagged barbed wire and dark watchtowers, conformed to the image of a camp that one has from books and documentaries. Belzec, where up to 600,000 were killed, was stark and to-the-point: it is the size of a supermarket car park, just a field containing the site of a dropping off point, a ramp, a gas chamber; no more. Auschwitz, itself, is larger, with its red brick barracks (built originally for Polish army officers), the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign over the entrance and a well-preserved gas chamber (for which all, all adjectives fail). It is insignificant compared to Birkenau.
At Birkenau, the phrases conventionally used to describe the killing, like “on an industrial scale”, cease to be cliches when seen at first hand. It is the size of a town (housing up to 50,000 people) and it is surreal and horrible to see the remains of shower rooms and gas chambers and the buildings where the victims’ possessions were sorted for re-use and exploitation. Words cannot describe how it feels to see piles of spectacles, shaving brushes, prosthetic limbs, pots and pans in metallic grey, milky blue and faded fleshy red, yet more shoes, 1,950 kilograms of shorn human hair and a roll of cloth made from hair…
Yet, the greatest impact of all comes from the words of the survivors who accompany the tour and they are not necessarily what one might expect. They shared their experiences on the buses (on which we found ourselves bonding into remarkably cohesive groups), in the camps and back at the hotels at night. Each one conveyed the same message: it is vital to remember what happened, it is crucial never to forget, but hatred serves no constructive purpose and is not the same as defiance and determination. What matters is to keep hold firmly of hope and look forward to the future. The victory resides in the act of living. In spite of their advanced years, the survivors’ extraordinary vigour and optimism mean that, for all the sense of boundless tragedy that pervaded the March of the Living, it ended with an upward inflection.
The March of the Living finishes on the fourth day with the March itself, from Auschwitz to Birkenau. It is 3km long and populated by more than 10,000 people from all over the world (France, Morocco, Canada, Mexico, Dade County, Los Angeles…) waving banners and Israeli flags, singing, laying out memorial messages along the infamous railway tracks leading into the death camp, marching in a way that sticks two very effective fingers up at the Nazis and their collaborators.
Three days after my return to London, I am sitting with the other Board of Deputies’ Honorary Officers in the Dell in Hyde Park. It is the annual Yom Hashoah commemoration which is supported by the Board of Deputies, attended by the Chief Rabbi and other denominational leaders, senior politicians and public figures. Henry Grunwald, our former President, officiates, while Marie delivers the opening speech beautifully. The twitter and chirping of birds in the surrounding trees takes me back to the camps and then it hits me. They say that at Auschwitz no birds sing, but this is untrue and I have video footage to prove it. At every camp, birds fly and hop around as birds do and if you listen closely, they are singing. Like the marchers, the brave survivors and all those who remember, their song seems to say to all who wish us ill and to any of our own who despair, We Live: Am Yisrael Chai!
Stuart MacDonald is Board of Deputies Treasurer