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Mark Lazarovits




Mark Lazarovits (second from left) from Melbourne, a participant in this year’s Young Adult delegation, wrote this reflective letter to his fellow participants from Australia and Los Angeles after they had all gone their separate ways following their eight incredibly emotive days together in Poland.


Dear Mishpacha,
 
Today is Friday 20th April - it's my last day in Poland and my last day of this trip. It also marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Yesterday there were hundreds of volunteers handing out daffodils all over Warsaw. Why daffodils? It is because Marek Edelman, the last commander of the Jewish Combat Organisation, used to come to the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial monument outside the Polin Museum and lay bouquets of daffodils.
 
I have found Poland to be a country that is desperately trying, and mostly failing, to detach its past from its present. Even from just walking around in Warsaw, it is nigh impossible to not be reminded that it is a city that once housed the largest Jewish ghetto in Europe surrounded by 30-foot-high brick walls and that saw Warsaw’s Jewish population decrease from 375,000 to less than 10,000 in just 4 years. Every corner has this eerie feeling that something momentous happened there.
I've heard from messaging and speaking to a few people since the trip ended that they have found it hard to put their feelings into words for their family and friends upon returning home, so hopefully this letter will help. I've seen some really lovely posts on social media from some of you which really inspired me to put my own thoughts into words. In this letter, I've tried to summarise what I think were the recurring themes from the trip- that I've taken from both our group discussions and also private conversations - and unpack them a bit, but please let me know if you think I've missed anything. I've written this not just for myself and my own family in the faraway land of Oz, but most importantly for the mishpuchah with whom I have shared such a meaningful and powerful experience. Which brings me to the themes:
 
Magnitude
The theme that I remember coming up the most in group discussions was an inability to internalize the sheer magnitude. We can visualize up to 12,000 people (the amount of people at the March), maybe even 50,000 but when we get to 100,000 and beyond our imagination deserts us. Therefore, it is easy to see why 6 million is so difficult to comprehend. This was most striking when we saw the ‘piles of plunder’: thousands upon thousands of shoes, locks of hair, suitcases, pieces of jewelry. The piles we saw were only the ones that were still there when Auschwitz was liberated - the rest were sent back to Germany - for nothing plundered was wasted. (The idea of ‘piles of plunder’ is what inspired the poem I wrote, which I have added at the end.)
 
It was impossible not to be struck by the sheer size of Majdanek and Auschwitz; there were so many trains coming into Auschwitz that they needed to add two extra train tracks. Walking around Belzec, we walked past hundreds of names of towns, each with a Jewish community deported there. 500,000 people were killed there in just 10 months, the majority of that in just 8 of those months. The number 6 million is ubiquitous with the Holocaust, and when you start to really break down where the 6 million came from and what belongings each had – it only makes it harder to understand.
 
Dehumanisation
I once heard that if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if you slowly heat up the water the frog will stay as it slowly boils to death. Such was the aim of the Nazis of the gradual erosion of Jewish rights in Germany under the Third Reich. Some families predicted the devastation that would befall and were lucky enough to emigrate before it was too late and while there were still countries that would accept them. The ultimate aim of the Nazis was to dehumanise the Jews, slowly taking away everything they had before taking the last thing they had: life.
First, they banned Jews from entering the public service and government, then they closed Jewish schools. They banned Jews and non-Jews from getting married, and ‘transferred’ Jewish businesses to non-Jewish owners. Jews were barred from all schools and universities, as well as cinemas and theatres and they were forced to wear a Jewish badge or armband to identify them. Anyone caught hiding or helping Jews was threatened with not only their own death but death to their family - greater than any other crime - such was the Nazis' contempt for Jews and those willing to stand in the way of their annihilation. Throughout the Holocaust and particularly while the Warsaw Ghetto was in operation, the Nazis tried to justify what they were doing by using what are now very typical anti-Semitic tropes: that the Jews control the money and will take over the world. They explained to the population of Warsaw that the Jews had health concerns (generally typhus) and the ghetto was a means of quarantine. This idea stretched to the reference to the gas chambers as 'Bad in Disinfektation' (as seen at Majdanek; translates to ‘bath and disinfection’) and the Jews of a dirty people needing to be cleansed.
 
Upon arrival in a concentration camp, Jewish men and women were sorted into those able and unable to work, for the Nazis had no use for the invalid, the elderly or the children. Their belongings were plundered; clothes, wedding rings, family photos and heirlooms carried through generations. The possessions that everyone has that would be the last they would say goodbye to. They were crudely shorn of all their body hair, women - some of whom had never been naked in front of a man except their husband - were dealt the indignity of stripping in front of hissing and howling guards while they undressed. In the guards' eyes they were to be treated as animals, not people. They were subhuman. And for those who survived the initial selection, the dehumanisation only worsened. Prisoners were ordered to dig their own graves and were subject to random shootings and selection when the ability to survive hinged on the volatile mood of the guards. 
Prisoners were stripped of their human qualities – their identities, their names and histories replaced with a number forever tattooed onto their arm. Once these names were lost, many were never recovered- so much so that only 4 million of the 6 million murdered have been identified, the remainder possibly destined to have no one remember them.
 
Bystanders and upstanders
For me this is the theme that provoked the most questions – the idea that has been talked about by historians and psychologists alike in the years following the Holocaust was the idea of bystanders and upstanders. As the years pass, and with them the survivors, I have found it harder and harder to imagine what life was like all over the world while the Holocaust was happening in Europe. What did Britain know? What did USA know? What did Australia know? And hence the obvious question is brought up – why didn’t anyone in Europe stop the Nazis before it was too late? More knowledgeable people than me will debate why this happened, but for me it brings up the idea of being a bystander in any situation- and how bad does a situation that does not affect you have to be before you step in and try to do something?
As we were leaving Auschwitz, we saw a big fire probably only 200 metres (600 feet) away. It was impossible not to notice it, its smoke invading the entire blue sky. We saw in Majdanek how close the houses were to the camp. Did the people living near there just treat it as we treat construction work when it happens near our house - just look the other way?
 
Green terror
"Green terror" is the best term I could come up with to describe the dichotomy, and in a sense the inexplicable contradiction, of atrocities of the Holocaust happening in such otherwise naturally beautiful places. ‘Green’ also refers to the innocence and youth of the victims. Many of the children born and raised within the confines of the Warsaw Ghetto never saw the natural beauty of the area in which they lived, and the first time they saw it was from the train on the way to Treblinka.
Treblinka was a place of devastation amongst happiness; it is located in a place you might take your friends camping. I found this connection to be clearest as we walked through areas of Poland. Warsaw itself has many open parks, one just as beautiful as the next. Even the zoo, in many a child's life a place of happiness and wonder and home to hundreds of different types of nature, was a place of terror where children were needed to be hid in order to survive.
 
Personal stories / Bravery
Upon hearing the letter read out at Zbylitowska Gora, there was a reaction I thought we might have. It is one of compassion and empathy, for us to feel for that person while still maintaining distance; after all, it was not us who experienced it and it happened to someone none of us met. However, the reaction I saw - and it was one I saw again and again on the trip from that point - was one of intense connection and hurt as if we were the ones forced to make such an impossible "Sophie's choice" to cast off the child in order to save them and as if we were feeling all the same feelings as the mother at that time.
“You must know we love you. You must know why you are alone, without parents. Not because they didn’t love you but because they did.”
It was obvious from looking around at the parents in our group that this meant something really visceral, however everyone in our own way was able to connect deeply to the victims in a way different than even we possibly thought we ever could. This for me was one of the most defining and inspiring moments of the trip and one that definitely brought us closer together.
 
My message that I wrote on the paddle for the March was 'we stand on the shoulders of giants'. I chose it as it meant to me that we were only there alive and marching due to the strength and bravery of those that came before us. It is obvious from the many stories we heard throughout the trip that bravery, altruism and utter determination are three qualities that never left the Jewish people during the Holocaust. To me, this ultimately proves that the dehumanisation process never succeeded. Every day was a mental and physical struggle. The camps were surrounded by an electric fence so you could end all the suffering by 'touching the fence' and given the conditions, it was astounding how few succumbed to it.
We heard stories of prisoners helping each other, sharing with others what small amounts of bread and soup they had. Even in times of devastation and tragedy, the kindness of people shone through.
 
History and legacy
It was Hitler’s wish and that of the Third Reich that Jews would be eradicated from Europe without a trace, trying to erase not just the present and future but also the past. In Majdanek, we saw that the Nazis plundered Jewish cemeteries all over Lublin, smashing them to create rocks to pave the roads.
 
Even though not all the European Jews were annihilated, there were towns where the entire Jewish community was murdered and thus there was no one to go back there and tell the story of the community that lived there for hundreds of years. Synagogues and schools that years earlier were full, were empty as there was no one left to attend. 
The display of photos we saw in Auschwitz that people brought there with them evoked thoughts of vibrant lives, as true and full as ours. They were pictures of family vacations and weddings and parties. However, they evoked thoughts a future that never happened. Which brings us to the question- how do we remember what was lost? Given Jews were the main victims we are intrinsically and forever tied to what happened, and unfortunately it is often brought up and trivialised in modern culture without a second thought as to what was lost. Just in the past week I have seen articles about replica Zyklon B canisters being sold at a gun show in Australia and theatregoers wearing swastika armbands to get free admission to a play called ‘Mein Kampf’ in Germany. And while regeneration (see next paragraph) is occurring, the world Jewish population is still lower than before the Holocaust, despite the total world population increasing almost threefold in that time (since 1939).
 
Then and now / Regeneration
There was a book I found in the Galicia bookshop in Krakow that showed various pictures of the same location in Auschwitz, in the 1940s and today. There was a similar exhibition at Majdanek.
While we were in Auschwitz, I kept trying to imagine all the events that were happening in the exact places we were marching- and the different emotions felt in these places over the last 75 years. 
 
After 75 years, it can be hard to connect a place to events that happened there - but that was what the trip set out to do. The most powerful moment like this for me was the Havdalah service in Krakow, where we danced and cheered with Jews we had not met before - but had an instant unspoken connection with. We were in the middle of Krakow Ghetto, a place of such sadness and captivity many years before- now a place of happiness and freedom. For me, this brought up the question: Is this something to celebrate – did we ‘win’?

 

One of the most heartwarming moments of the trip was our visit to the JCC in Krakow. Jonathan (the CEO) told us of the many things the JCC is doing to revive the Jewish community there: hosting dinners, hosting lessons. He regaled with obvious pleasure a story of a grandmother telling her granddaughter after 60 years that she was Jewish and that she hid it for most of her life. Instead of wondering what the Jewish world would be like had the Holocaust never happened, should we be wondering: what has the experience of the Holocaust given us - has it given us a stronger sense of identity and community?
 
The March of the Living, itself a deliberate reference to the ‘Death March’, saw 12,000 people – the amount killed each day at Auschwitz/Birkenau – marching the 3km from Auschwitz to Birkenau. We marched with people from all ages and nationalities and along the way we sang and danced together and traded hats and flags, trying to fill a place of such despair and tragedy with music and joy. We saw thousands of wooden paddles laid on the train tracks in various languages, depicting what the march meant to each and every person. And finally, we had the opportunity, that so many did not, to walk out alive.
 
For those who went to Israel after Poland (or have been previously), you would have seen a country - although under constant existential threat - with a healthy and thriving Jewish culture and a history dating back at least 2000 years. This is the ultimate story of resilience and regeneration, and why it is so imperative that it is preserved and protected as a Jewish homeland long into the future.
 
As the trip came to a close, I found myself thinking about the journey we had all embarked on. Many of us came on this trip looking for answers to questions we had, but most left with only more questions. So what can come of a trip that has left us with so many more questions than answers? As a group how do we preserve the memories when there are no survivors left to share their stories? When we say ‘never again’, do we really mean it?
 
Over the last 3 days, I have been thinking of these questions non-stop and the best I have come up with is not really an answer to these questions (as this will take longer than 3 days) but to feel really lucky and thankful for the safety of our lives. That we are free to practice religion, without fear of persecution. After all, the only thing that separates us from them is time. And regarding the future – how to ensure a ‘never again’ - two words stuck with me: "Be kind".
I want to end with some thanks - to you, my fellow participants you - without whom this trip would never have been so memorable. In the first 8 days of knowing each other, we witnessed some of the most intense and vulnerable points in each other's lives and opened ourselves up and laid our emotions bare in a way rarely seen. For that I will be forever grateful. I have made friends who I hope will stay with me for many years and who I hope to see again sooner rather than later.