I think it is totally accurate to say that, at seventeen, I was a very different person than I am now. After a lot of reflection, the shift from who I was as a child to who I became as an adult happened about 20 years ago. I want to be honest about my experience on the March of the Living. In fact, I have written this post a few times and each time it comes off angry and cynical. I don’t want to imply that the MOTL is a bad program. This is probably the most important thing I have ever done with my life. It redefined who I was in the immediate aftermath and it shaped who I would become years later. I have to be honest though.
The March of the Living (MOTL) is a trip that jewish teenagers can participate in. When I was seventeen it was done every other year and only open to high school juniors and seniors. I believe now it is done annually. A rare sophomore was allowed to attend if they showed they were mature enough to participate. Why would maturity be an issue? You spend two weeks immersed in the Holocaust and the State of Israel. First, participants spend a week in Poland seeing increasingly powerful representations of the Holocaust. You spend time in the, now destroyed, Warsaw Ghetto. You go to numerous concentration camps. You walk the mile from Auschwitz to Birkenau camps just as prisoners walked to their death on the same path. You see some of what remains of Judaism in Poland. You do this all over a week before you fly to Israel and spend a whole week immersed in modern Judaism and Israel.
The second week is spent seeing the holy sites, climbing Masada, extensive time in Jerusalem, seeing museums and famous spots. In each location you celebrate holiday. In Poland you are there for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is the day you walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau in memorial to the walk of death. The walk is called The March of the Living and this is where the program name comes from. You are one of thousands of people in blue jackets walking through the town. We all look the same as we silently walk from one camp to the other. All of us are in matching blue jackets. In Israel you celebrate Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). These are actual celebrations in Jerusalem.
The cynic in me wants to say this is all merely pro-Israel propaganda. The cynic in me sees how the horror of the Holocaust was increasingly pushed upon us before we arrived in Israel. We were isolated in Poland. We were not allowed to go out on our own. In Israel we had plenty of free time to roam about Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
There is also a voice, equally as loud as my inner cynic, that knows this program was critical to me understanding who I was and what I wanted out of life.
I remember the first camp we visited, Treblinka, which is nothing more than a memorial to those who died there. I remember walking through Auschwitz thinking it was more like a college campus than a work camp. I remember the rubble of Birkenau and the discussions our chaperones and Rabbis led about maintaining the camps in memorial or letting them fall apart because of what they actually did in them. I remember Majdanek, the camp that could be up and running in 24 hours. This was the last camp we visited and the worst of them all. I walked through barracks full of shoes, suitcases, and hair. There were three barracks full of shoes and the last one was just children’s shoes. That was when I finally cried. I could not maintain my stoicism any longer. I remember Poland being cold and grey and lacking any color. I know there was color. I see it in the photographs I took. I just don’t remember color in my memories.
I also remember the variety of color in Israel. It was green and sunny. We went from our blue jackets and warm clothes to shorts and t-shirts. We drive up the Golan Heights where we discussed the struggle Israel had with surrounding nations. We shopped around Jerusalem picking up things to take home to people we loved. We ate anything we wanted rather than only the items supplied for us. We went to the Wall and put in our prayers. We left our hotel in the middle of the night so we could arrive at Masada before dawn. We climbed up and watched the sun rise from the top of the destroyed fortress. The cynic in me reminds me that this was all a sales pitch.
For weeks before we departed we met weekly to prepare up for what we should expect. We read about each place we would visit. We discussed what life was like for modern Polish Jews and for Jews in Israel. We talked about the hidden Israel: bombings, battles, death, and depressions. We were middle class, American teenagers. We had no idea these things existed in the world. It was our Judaism that prevented us from wearing rose colored glasses. No matter how many jewish friends we had (and in Miami, I had a lot), we were always confronted with anti-Semitism and hatred. The Holocaust had always been part of our lives. We were desensitized to the talk. We needed to see in order to understand.
There are things I associate with this trip that have nothing to do with it. I was in Israel when the girl sharing my hotel room told me Kurt Cobain had killed himself. Schindler’s List came out just a few months before we departed. I read the book and saw the movie many times. We were excited when we merely passed by this camp on the way to another.
I made and lost friends because of this trip. It shifted how I saw the world. I came home with no desire to engage in the planned activities of my senior year in high school. I gave up a spot on a trip to Disney that all seniors went on. I decided I couldn’t be bothered to go to prom. I realized the people in my high school had nothing in common with me. I didn’t actually like them and I didn’t want to be around them. The friends I had outside of school began to push my buttons as well. I had no desire to be in fake friendships. Even a friend who went with me was not someone I wanted to be around anymore. I saw some friends from the trip develop, what seemed to be, PTSD. They claimed they were sleeping with their jackets and having nightmares about the camps. For some, I knew this was true. For others, I felt they were simply trying to demonstrate depth that didn’t actually exist. I did cling to my old point of view sometimes, but more often than not I was reminded that this was not who I wanted to be.
I had a resurgence of faith after the trip. It was more of a devotion to the idea of Judaism rather than faith in a higher being. I had struggled for many years with faith in god. I thought I had figured it out at seventeen, but it would take me years to realize I was wrong about that too. This trip did result in me being honest with myself about what I didn’t want. That distinction is important. I only knew what I didn’t want, not what I did. I didn’t know myself well enough to know what I wanted. I had always just done what I was told and this trip pushed me to realize that I didn’t like doing what I had always done. To be fair to the teachers and my parents who told me what to do, it wasn’t like I had an idea of my own. I wasn’t fighting to do what I wanted or forced to do what they wanted. It was simply the way I thought it was suppose to be.
It doesn’t matter that there is an underlying tone of propaganda about this program. The March of the Living was the first step in changing me. It was the first time I thought about who I really was and what I wanted to be. It was the first time I tried to get comfortable with who I really am. It was the first time I began to recognize that I wasn’t like my peers. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time either.
You can see some of my photos on Flickr.