Embarking on a journey to honour the memory those who didn’t survive

After Pesach, my wife Glenda and I will be embarking on a long-haul flight to Poland to join this year’s team for March of the Living.

The 2013 March of the Living is expected to bring over 10,000 young people, survivors and adults from around the world to Auschwitz-Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day. There they will march in memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah, and in memory of all victims of Nazi genocide.

image credit:jspace

image credit:jspace

The event will mark the 70th anniversary of the heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. During the uprising, a small band of Jewish fighters held off their German attackers for more than a month, after they had planned to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto in three days.

March of the Living Australia’s contingent will comprise approximately 50 Year 11 student group, accompanied by Survivors, Educators, Madrichim, Communal leaders and auxiliary staff as well as a 25-strong Adult group who will join Adults from South Africa, USA, Canada and other countries to form an International Adult group.

Whilst I have travelled extensively and had many experiences, I’ve never been to Poland or Eastern Europe.  When I was 18, I visited Dachau located outside Munich.  Having lived in South Africa with both sets of grandparents emigrating in the early 1900’s, unlike many who lost relatives to the Holocaust, I had no direct ties to the wars in Europe.  Our curriculum as a student in school also didn’t place direct emphasis on the Holocaust and its teachings. My knowledge therefore had been very limited.

I would have to say that my first real connection has been since moving to Sydney and living in a community with so many links to the Holocaust.  Being located so close to the Sydney Jewish Museum, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to the people who work in the Museum and meet some of the Holocaust survivors.  This has empowered me with a far better understanding of the impact that this catastrophe has had on our people as individuals, as families and as a community.

March of the Living brings students and adults from all over the world to Poland and Israel to mark the three most significant dates in the modern Jewish calendar.  In Poland, their program includes visits to once thriving sites of Jewish life and culture, culminating on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hashoah, participants march from Auschwitz to Birkenau in memory of all victims of Nazi genocide and against prejudice, intolerance and hatred. From Poland, the groups travel to Israel, the birthplace and homeland of the Jewish People, where they commemorate Israel’s fallen soldiers on Yom Hazikaron and celebrate Israel’s independence on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Since the first March of the Living was held in 1988, over 150,000 youth from around the world have marched down the same path leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Australia takes a special role in this year’s MOTL with a keynote address on spiritual resistance being delivered by Frank Lowy.

As a boy, Lowy was able to escape the Nazis, but his father, Hugo, perished in the Holocaust. Almost half a century later, Hugo’s story of faith and resistance was revealed. It was told by a man who was with him in the train to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. Beside the train, Hugo endured blow after blow rather than obey an order to give up his prayer bag that held his Talit (prayer shawl) and Tefillin (phylacteries). These were so sacred to him that he continued to defy orders as the guards beat him to death in front of many others who understood what he was defending.

Railroad car memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Image credit Pawel Sawicki

Railroad car memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Image credit Pawel Sawicki

Hugo was one of almost half a million Hungarian Jews to perish in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. After a long search, the Lowy family found a wagon that had been used to transport the Hungarian Jews and in 2009 brought it back to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The wagon is dedicated to the memory of the Hungarian Jews. Inside, it holds a blue prayer bag as a symbol of one man’s willingness to pay the ultimate price for his faith. 

The wagon and Hugo’s story will play a central role both in the 2013 March of the Living’s educational efforts and during the commemorative ceremony held on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In addition, Chazan Shimon Farkas of Sydney, Australia, who lost three grandparents in Auschwitz, will chant the memorial prayers at the ceremony.

I am privileged to be amongst this group attending the 25th anniversary of the first March of the Living.  Our strength as a people has been tested time and time again.  It continues with antisemitism rearing its ugly head daily worldwide.  The only thing we can do to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself is to continue to educate on genocide, bigotry and racism and to ensure that the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust is never forgotten.

I will be blogging throughout my journey in Poland – I hope you travel the journey with me.

Wishing you a kosher le Pesach


Ian Sandler is the Chief Executive Officer of JCA.