Sara Bortz - Sydney


I first became interested in attending March of the Living when I was studying the Holocaust in Year Six. Ever since, I have eagerly awaited my opportunity to embark upon this journey. My experiences in Poland last week had and still are having a dramatic impact on me. Though I have spent many classes studying the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust, walking into the ghettos, labour camps, concentration camps and death camps where such events took place really exposed me to the unfathomable capability of humankind to destroy not only all that a person has, but all that a person is. Being a part of March of the Living is a unique opportunity for me to learn about the past, remember and honour those who were victims of the Shoah, and embrace the future of the Jewish people.  

My experience in Poland brought about many feelings and thoughts, from sadness, guilt and anger about the brutality I was learning about, to feeing privileged and grateful for this experience, as well as hopeful about the future of the Jewish people and their commitment to remembering and honouring the past. 

The following excerpts from my journal entries further explain the encounters that shaped my experience in Poland. 

23/04/2017 Today we visited a children's mass grave in Tarnow where 800 children were murdered. In attempt to spare ammunition, the Nazis smashed the children's heads against rocks. The sorrow of the grave was juxtaposed by the unusually beautiful houses we passed on the way to the forest, and by the forest itself. It was so green. It made me feel guilty. How can such a place be so beautiful? It didn't seem fair. Before we left for Poland we were told to bring a small toy, but we weren't told why. As I sobbed over the grave I placed my small fluffy koala on the concrete rim, and I knelt down on the ground, grasping the blue fence with magen davids on it, gazing into the grave. I stayed on the ground for a while, in tears of anger, I couldn't stop. I didn't want to leave. I thought about my brother and sister, and all I wanted in that moment was for them to be there with me. I have always placed great importance on spending time and sharing precious moments with my family, but looking at this children's mass grave strengthened my love towards and connection to my family. That sight will always be embedded in my memory. 

24/04/2017 Today was the 29th annual March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau. When I got to the gate at the front of Birkenau I broke down. I was distressed, disgusted, ashamed and mortified by the atrocities that occurred there. But being surrounded by thousands of other young people who were also there to preserve the history and memory of our ancestors brought with it a sense of hope.  Thousands of marchers march with an Israeli flag around their shoulders. Next to the tracks I was surprised to see several South Korean flags. I walked up to the people holding them and hugged them. One said "I'm sorry" and another said "God bless you. We're so sorry. Please forgive us. I love the State of Israel. God bless the State of Israel," as we cried on each other's shoulders. I'm still shaken by those encounters, and I felt terrible for the people who felt as though they were responsible, even though they weren't alive at the time. This enabled me to see how the long-term impacts of the Holocaust are felt by not only Jews, but by people of all backgrounds and from all over the world. That experience also gave me faith that the Holocaust will never be forgotten, and that it will continue to be felt by generations to come. At the ceremony after the March, Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg spoke to the thousands of students and adults who had marched in honour of the victims of the Holocaust. He wore his striped uniform, and his granddaughter stood on stage with him wearing his wife's uniform. I have never heard a speaker more passionate than Edward. He was yelling into the microphone about how he lost his family, shaking with rage. It made me shake. But as he spoke, I felt a sense of empowerment and hope. My normal reaction to a Holocaust testimony is anger and sadness. I cannot explain why he made me feel the way I did. Later I spoke to him in person, and he told me that the responsibility to preserve the memory of the those who experienced the Holocaust is up to our generation, which is one of the many reasons why I chose to attend the March of the Living. 

25/04/2017 Today at Majdanek I saw pits that, on the two days of the liquidation of the camp, the Nazis rounded up 18,000 Jews, they blasted loud music throughout the entirety of camp in attempt to muffle the sounds of the gunshots, they forced a group of Jews into the pits, they shot them, and they made sure they were dead before continuing to shoot more innocent Jews, layer upon layer upon layer of our people. The sight of the pits and the thought of the brutality that occurred there was horrifying. I saw the gas chambers, stained with blue pigment from the Zyklon B. I saw the cremation ovens. I broke down at the industrial magnitude of the systematic murder of the Jews. At Rabbi Josh Broide's recommendation, I said my Hebrew name to symbolise the strength of the Jewish people and to defy those who have tried to oppress us in the past. I saw the inexplicably large pile of human ashes in the memorial dome next to the crematoria. I saw one of the darkest things I have ever seen. I felt the darkest I have ever felt. But despite the feelings and thoughts that were and still are weighing down on me and taking a toll on my spirit, I did not for one second forget about how grateful I am for this experience. I have not forgotten about my responsibility to pass on the stories of the victims.  

Arriving in Israel after what I experienced in Poland has been very challenging so far. I know that Israel was a prominent part of the vocabulary and lives of Jews living in Europe prior to the Holocaust. They prayed for the day that they would finally be able to stand on Israeli soil. While Israel provides sanctuary for the Jews of the diaspora today, it will never provide sanctuary for the Jews who lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis. In this way, the defeat and sadness that I felt in Poland has been exemplified by being in Israel. Having said that, Israel certainly has a special place in my heart, and it is comforting to walk the streets of Jerusalem knowing that the Jewish people are still here, and that never again will our people be oppressed as they were during the Shoah. - How they feel now on the other side of it 

06/05/2017 Now that I am home I can clearly say that the main thing I am feeling is gratitude. Gratitude towards my parents for enabling me to embrace this opportunity and supporting me on this journey. Gratitude towards the survivors who accompanied us to the places we visited and told us their stories. Gratitude towards the leaders who have enhanced our experience by supporting all of us through the tough encounters and the many different emotions. Gratitude towards the people I have met from Florida, Australia and New Zealand who have been there to hug and to talk to and who will remain friends for life. Gratitude towards the March of the Living and all that it stands for. I have seen the downfall of humanity, but I have also experienced the strength of humanity, and for that I am forever grateful.