Coming into this program, we knew we would be in Israel for Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut (Days of Remembrance and Independence), but we didn’t know what they would be like or how they would make us feel. After a week in Poland at some of the most terribly sad and nihilistic places in the world, we needed a change of mood, and almost from the first moment in Israel, that change began to occur.
We flew to Israel from Warsaw on a charter flight with March of the Living delegations from across the world, and arrived at almost the same time as a few other flights. The atmosphere at Ben Gurion airport therefore was festive and chaotic from the start, and even a lack of sleep couldn’t dampen our spirits. To understand the complexities of this land, we began our time in Israel at Tel Aviv University’s ANU Museum, which is an interactive and very technologically advanced exhibition space about the Jewish people and many of their stories. We then drove to a kibbutz and joined the locals for their sombre but very poignant ceremony to commemorate Yom HaZikaron. Unlike similar such ceremonies at home, there were no speeches by dignitaries or anything extraneous; just a few readings, appropriate musical pieces and stories about the fallen, along with the recitation of a prayer and the lighting of a memorial candle. We were then privileged to meet some of the soldiers from the kibbutz and heard some of their stories.
During the day on Yom HaZikaron, we visited Caesarea, the Atlit detention camp, a Druze village and then Nirim, an educational organisation for at-risk youths. We then followed this up with an Anzac Day ceremony, and though it wasn’t at dawn, the location on the banks of the Mediterranean just south of Haifa was very picturesque and memorable. The day was not entirely about remembrance, but finishing with an Anzac service made the entire day much more relatable and meaningful for our Aussie group.
Back in Tel Aviv, as soon as the sun set the atmosphere changed. Israel is probably the only country in the world that has its independence day immediately preceded by its remembrance day, but the change of mood is palpable and all encompassing. From the electronic billboards proclaiming independence, to the cacophony of noises on the streets, it definitely felt like the city and the country was ready to party. Even though we split up and enjoyed the town in small groups, each of us found a party, some music or the right kind of atmosphere to enjoy the night.
The following morning we headed to Jerusalem for the first time, and started at the Tayelet, a site that has seen tour groups come for as long as any of us can remember. It is one of the few places in town that allows for almost uninterrupted views of the old city, west Jerusalem, the Silwan valley, much of the east of the city and all the way to Jordan. We then joined thousands of other people from various March of the Living delegations for a concert ahead of a march into the old city, culminating at the Western Wall. The atmosphere was entirely festive, with drummers, music blaring throughout the route, and lots of spontaneous singing. A couple of hours later we all gathered again at Latrun for a concert to mark both the official end of March of the Living for some delegations, and Yom HaAtzamaut. It felt a little like the closing ceremony of a sporting event crossed with Eurovision, and in fact Netta – the Israeli winner of Eurovision from 2018 – performed at the concert, along with a host of other singers. A highlight for many of us was seeing an Israel-loving Japanese choir perform a medley of Hebrew songs. Just a week earlier they waited next to us ahead of the march in Auschwitz, and it was almost hard for many of us to reconcile that the two things happened just one week apart.
The truth is that the dichotomy of the story between dark and light is one that so many of us are struggling with, but equally, is one of the things most of us will take away from this experience. Though the actual March of the Living was only one week ago, it feels like it was ages ago or certainly on another trip. The fact that the concentration camps of Poland and the festivities for Israel’s Independence Day can occur in the same world is mind boggling, but even more so that the people who escaped the clutches of the Holocaust were the ones who were the original pioneers of this land. Of course there are many complexities and competing narratives in Israel, and we will be exploring these over the next few days including during Shabbat in Jerusalem, but for now, the mood is joyous and exhilarating.
Written by Alex Kats - Participant, MOTL 2023