Vivienne Dacey

Walking the streets of Warsaw

By Viv Dacey

Going on March of the Living this year was a decision I made quickly and without too much hesitation. Having been to Poland before many years ago, I knew what I was going to see would be difficult but I didn’t anticipate what else might confront me this time.
Our travelling group was made up of 45 Australians joining 45 others from around the world. We were the International group of March of the Living in a year that saw 12,000 marching in the footsteps of those who perished. Sharing this experience changes you in ways that are only now, two months later, becoming apparent.
My parents were both Holocaust survivors from Poland so the Holocaust has always been a part of my life. When I think back, it’s not that we talked about it all the time; it was just always there, always lurking, always a silent part of the conversation. Every movie, book or article written about the Holocaust was quickly devoured. My parents’ friends mostly had similar backgrounds so they all spoke the same ‘language’. More so than their spoken tongue of Polish, the language of their experiences connected them. Most of them are gone now so it is these memories that I find looming larger since my trip.
I felt my parents with me everywhere we went in Poland. I could hear their voices talking to me when we went to the beautiful and the not so beautiful places. When I looked at the menus with those familiar choices – kiełbasa, pierogi, gołąbki – my mother’s voice was telling me that they were never as good as hers. And my father speaking incredulously about how much they charged “for such a small portion”. Those memories warmed my heart and made me giggle a little.
I found myself walking down the streets of Warsaw imagining my parents with me. If not for the war, my sister and I would have been born and raised there. We would have been educated in their schools, married and had another generation to follow in the many that came before. I found my great grandparents’ grave when we visited the Warsaw cemetery, still intact though showing the damage of time. Many in our group felt that all of Poland was a graveyard but I felt that part of me belonged there. I still yearn for the family I never met; the family I can never know. This sense of overwhelming loss was a part of the experience that really rocked me. While walking through the exhibition in Block 27 at Auschwitz, I saw the Book of Names with more than four million individuals who perished during the war. Finding hundreds of names from both my mother’s and father’s side was enough to have me break down inconsolably. The thought of so many potential family members was overwhelming. I had never considered how many members of my family were gone. I was suddenly presented with the reality of my tiny family against what it could have been. Having this evidence thrust so menacingly at me through a book with more than 8000 pages was difficult to digest. The enormity of the loss was suddenly all I could think about and it all became even more personal. 
Standing in front of the incredible Polin museum, on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, I gave my mother’s testimony. I felt her standing with me as I shared some of what she endured in the Ghetto in those horrifying times. I could have been standing metres from where she quickly composed herself to grab her sister and hide in a building as the Nazis rounded everyone up to go to the trains. She used her intelligence and intuition to deal with the impossible challenges of her everyday reality. She was a mere 12 or 13 years of age. She was a young girl during the war whose childhood was ripped from her in the most brutal of ways. And yet, she survived. It took all my strength not to break down without finishing her story. I felt the warmth and caring of the 90 or so people listening intently to my words. She was with me as I brought her memory to life, and it felt like I was continuing her powerful acts of resistance. My mother was an incredible force in my life who was the embodiment of strength and resilience.
What was different about this trip to Poland was that I was immersed in a program that prepares you before you go, supports you during the march and continues long after you return home. I am so thankful to the wonderful group of supportive people who I was lucky enough to travel with. What transpired in such a short time connects us forever. I believe it is particularly important that the March of the Living program provides this continued support as more of us mourn our parents’ passing. It now falls to us as the next generation to carry their stories and keep their memories alive.
Never again.