For most thinking people around the world, the name alone conjures up images of death, destruction and annihilation. For the last two days, the March of the Living Australia group had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, both for the march itself on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and then on our own.
Coming into the site didn’t initially feel real. We entered with several hundred others, and after passing through security, we were suddenly walking along the path under the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign. Most of us have seen this sign in pictures for decades and have read about its meaning, but to walk under it felt surreal and almost otherworldly. In fact, the entire experience felt somewhat like that, in part because we were doing it with so many others as we were preparing to march to Birkenau. To some extent it felt a little like organised chaos, and as it got closer to the march itself, a bit like a controlled spectacle too.
While waiting for the 10,000 or more people from all over the world to enter the complex so that the march could begin, we did what our tour guide called ‘hurry up and wait’. We were ushered quite speedily to our holding space, between two of the barracks, and then for more than an hour, we waited. On one side of us was a large contingent of Argentinian Jewish students, whilst on the other side was a small group on non-Jewish Japanese Israeli lovers who come on the march each year. There was truly an international feel to the affair, made all the more so by Israeli boys from Chabad who came and offered to put Tefillin on many of the Jewish males amongst us.
Eventually the time for the march began. What surprised me was how pedestrian it was. We left the complex of the barracks and then stepped onto a suburban street that connects the two camps. Most of the march actually was on closed off roads with police directing traffic rather than through camps. A groups of Poles lined some of the streets in support of the march, but for much of the way there was a festive atmosphere, with some groups even singing as they marched. At one point, one of the younger members of our group got separated from the rest of us, but that is because she found some members of the Los Angeles contingent who studied with her father, and they shared stories of their two families. The suppleness of Jewish geography never ceases to amaze, and no doubt that was one of many such stories on this day where so many Jews from around the world altogether in one place. In our hotel alone we often bumped into groups from Costa Rica, Venezuela, Mexico and various American states.
The march ended with a ceremony conducted mostly for the American audience, but that was certainly not the highlight for us. We actually spent most of the bus ride back criticising it. But the march was nonetheless impactful and meaningful, if only because it had such a global feel on such an important day.
The following day we came back to the same site with fewer people and less of a celebratory atmosphere. In fact, it finally felt – to me at least – poignant and sombre. We did a guided tour through Auschwitz I and then, though we slightly rushed through Birkenau, we held a ceremony of our own in one of the barracks with personal stories, prayers, some appropriate songs and the lighting of memorial candle with the recitation of a memorial prayer. No one left that site with at least a tear in their eyes.
Auschwitz-Birkenau has connotations for anyone who has ever learned anything about the Holocaust. It is the epitome of torture and a synonym for every death and concentration camp in Europe. It might feel a little touristy and almost ‘Hollywood’, as our guide said, but that doesn’t take away from its poignancy, relevance and significance. It is hard to walk past the piles of children’s shoes, luggage with address tags and piles of hair, without feeling the enormity of the horror and the utter disregard for human life that happened here.
To counter balance the experience, we finished the Krakow portion of our tour with a visit to the JCC (Jewish Community Centre), which is responsible for the revitalisation of Jewish life in Krakow. Whilst they don’t go out actively searching for Jews, they have become the one-stop-shop where people who re-discover their Jewishness after years of dormancy, come to learn and feel Jewish. After all, Jews have been part of the Polish lands since at least the 14th century. Some come for Jewish and Hebrew classes with the rabbi, whilst others come simply to have yoga classes with fellow Jews. The JCC is highly aware of its position as the closest Jewish centre to Auschwitz and conducts its work with appropriate dignity and poise.
While it is hard to count the number of Jews in Poland because so many are still scared to admit that they are Jewish, the census in Poland has shown the number of Jews doubling from around 8,000 in 2011 to close to 16,000 in 2021. The majority of those are spread across seven cities, and though Krakow only has between a few hundred and a couple of thousand Jews, it is exciting for the JCC and other organisations like it to be part of potentially one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world, less than a hundred kilometres away from Auschwitz. Seeing that revitalisation allowed us to leave Krakow feeling positive despite the connotations that so many associate with the city and its proximity to Auschwitz.
Written by Alex Kats - Participant, MOTL 2023