HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

To March or Not to March? Reflections on March of the Living

TOPICS : Israel

Five trips as a bus captain and historian with The March of the Living have left their mark: Those trips have profoundly affected my sense of mission and purpose. I spend my days (and many nights) dedicated to educating Jewish children. Caring for the emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical development of the teens in my school is part of a vow I made to those Jews who are no longer here. Each year, after two weeks of being “on” 24/7, I return from the March and think: Hitler did not win his war against the Jews!

Teenagers who attend Jewish day schools have read novels about the Holocaust and memoirs written by survivors. They have viewed feature films that deal with the horrors of the Nazi regime and analyzed black and white footage. They have gazed at photos taken by the Nazis, by official photographers of liberating troops, and by individual members of the armed forces. Some students have attended assembly programs, listened to survivors share their stories, or seen slide presentations. There are schools where Holocaust education is integrated into history courses; other schools offer electives focused on history and literature of the Holocaust. These students seem to know everything about the Shoah – why send them on a trip to Poland?

I have heard adults argue: Why spend the funds supporting Poland? Why take the students out of classes at a pivotal time of year? Finals and Advanced Placement exams are imminent (some years AP exams are happening during The March). My mantra? Education happens in and out of the classroom. History, Jewish pride, self-awareness and self-discipline can all be learned during the two week March of the Living program. This self-contained experience has a ripple effect that informs the rest of a participant’s life.

School administrators are clearly promoting much of the new pedagogical research on education methodology. We are training our teachers in Cooperative Learning and teaching them ways to differentiate instruction for a variety of learners. We urge them to address emotional intelligence and celebrate the achievements of all students. The March of the Living is a perfect vehicle where all of these things coalesce.

I eschew soapboxes, but I would like to share my impressions of The March of the Living and similar trips (e.g.: Heritage Seminars; NCSY and USY Poland/ Israel summer programs, etc). They are, in my view, among the most valuable programs in which we should involve Jewish young people.

Students who choose to go on The March of the Living begin a rigorous process once they receive the application. Essay questions and individual interviews make them consider their personal connections to the Shoah. There are pre-sessions where information is shared and journals are written. Students build community within the group that will travel to Poland together. They meet Holocaust survivors who will travel with the students back to the places where they personally grew up and lived through horrors.

As a bus captain who also organizes pre-sessions, I realize that the trip itself provides personal challenges that help the student learn lessons by extension. Because of space issues on Polish buses and to expedite luggage handling, students may only bring one suitcase and a small backpack for the two week trip. They will be in two climates and are instructed to pack wisely. Whenever I do the unit on ghettoization, students are asked to write in their journals, listing the possessions they would take if they had a backpack and 15 minutes before leaving their homes for an unknown destination. Some students wryly reflect on how they felt when they were told they could only bring one suitcase and a backpack on the trip, using it as a point of reference that drove the lesson home.

The food we serve in Poland is kosher – because it is all flown in from Israel. No one need go hungry, but it is not gourmet cuisine. By the third day, finicky students who have been subsisting on bottled water and granola bars (“Ooh, the tuna looks funny” “I want scrambled eggs for breakfast”) are really hungry and are eating the triple-wrapped-reheated schnitzel for dinner, saying it is the best chicken they ever tasted. It helps some of them understand why prisoners ate ersatz bread.

Those lessons are the “comic relief” but the most profound moments are at mass graves in the Warsaw cemetery, facing the crematoria at Auschwitz or walking past the gallows in the square where prisoners had roll call. Marvin Mayer, a survivor walking with a group of students on his first visit back to Auschwitz, stopped abruptly and pointed to the gallows. He told of being forced to watch men hang. “Their crime?” Marvin intoned, “They stole a piece of potato from the kitchen or did not salute a Nazi guard in a timely manner.”

The students get to visit places where Jews lived and where they died. They sit in the Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, now a medical college; they make a siyum Mishnayot and their singing reverberates. They leave the magnificent Sandomierz Shul and walk to the square where Jewish blood literally “ran in the streets.” They can see the holes where Zyklon B gas pellets were sent into the gas chambers and they can answer to kaddish at the mound of ashes, flecked with bone chips, at the mausoleum in Majdanik. Students pray in the Nodzyk Synagogue and dialogue with college students from the University of Warsaw who discovered they were Jewish through the “deathbed confessions” of their grandparents. And there is more…

When they can almost take no more, the students are on their way to Israel. On Yom Hashoah participants from all countries, 6,000 strong, gather in Aushwitz to walk the 3 kilometers from Aushwitz to the selection platform in Birkenau. They gather to hear prayers and speeches given by dignitaries, and to pray mincha with Rabbi Lau, himself a survivor. On Yom Ha’atzmaut they celebrate the independence of Israel with those same 6,000 (or more) teens at the biggest barbecue they will ever attend, hosted by the Israeli army.

They visit places where Jewish Holocaust survivors came to fight for the nascent state. These teens, many of whom are coming to Israel for a first visit, some who have traveled there many times before, have bent to kiss the ground as they deplaned (no longer possible in the new airport). Students who have been to Israel before always remark: “This time it’s different.”

As teachers we understand that primary source material, interviews, and documentaries enhance any lesson. The March of the Living and similar programs are the best laboratory in which to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. During the visit to Israel, fresh from the hours at Treblinka or Majdanik we can imbue students with the essence of Jewish pride in the accomplishments of our people over the past sixty years. Our students interact with the past, as seen through the eyes of their elders. They bond with each other and with Jews from around the world, learning that there are more things that unite us than divide us.

So, when a parent calls to ask questions about security issues, price and the need for a trip to Poland and Israel, I always remark: One and a half million children perished during the Holocaust. Mitzad Ha’Chayim; The March of the Living assures us that Jewish continuity is an important part of the agenda of today’s Jewish community.

Chaye Kohl is the Upper School Director of Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in N. Miami Beach, FL. Chaye can be reached at kohl@hillel-nmb.net

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