The very first March of The Living was due to be held in 1988 in Poland and many of us in South Africa wanted to attend, but the visa situation was a problem. In the 1980s, South Africa was a country that was unaccepted in the world due to its apartheid policies of racial segregation. As a result, other countries would not grant travel visas to South Africans.
The late Professor Harold Rudolf, the former Jewish mayor of Johannesburg, was able to organize our visas through Zimbabwe on a group basis. This event was mainly geared to youth, but the organizers decided to allow a limited number of adults -- about 200 in all. There were about 33 South Africans. We were joined by my Dad, who was aged over 80 and originally from Russia.
Prior to leaving, we were advised that it was unsafe to wear kippot in the streets so we brought caps. For most of us this was our first visit to Poland. We stayed in the Forum Hotel in Warsaw where a convention of Russian and Polish generals, dressed in their military uniforms, was taking place. This was the time before "glasnost" and the fall of communism. Our movements were very tightly controlled and we were only allowed to walk outside if we were accompanied by a Polish guide. We had non-Jewish and Israeli Polish guides.
In our group was Polish-born Solly Yellin, a highly intellectual man. He was coming down in the hotel elevator when he overheard two of the generals chatting in Polish saying that they thought they had killed all the Jews, so what are they doing in this hotel, they must be removed. Solly was totally shaken so we decided there and then that we would be walking the streets proudly with our kippot to show those killers that we had survived.
We arrived a few days in advance of the March, which gave me an opportunity to visit Bransk, the shtetl where my late mother had lived. This was such a small place that it never appeared on any maps, so I asked my maternal Zaide, then aged 93 (he lived to 101), how far Bransk was from Warsaw. In a flash, he answered in Yiddish that it was six hours by ox wagon, which we thought would be about 45 minutes by car.
My Bubbeh felt that with the stressful life of antisemitism and the difficult financial situation, the family should leave Poland and go to South Africa. They left in 1926, which of course saved them from the Holocaust, and is another story for another time.
On our second day in Warsaw, I arranged with an English-speaking taxi driver, who had to be approved by the leader, to take us to Bransk. He called in the morning to say he had a problem and that a friend of his, also an English speaker, would take us. The charge for the morning would be $100.
When we returned, the leader was shaken because this driver was not approved, and he would be in terrible trouble because he did not get the approval. He was very nervous and shouted that we should have got his approval. Remember, we were in what was then a communist country.
We found a man in Bransk who was in his 80s and asked if he remembered my Zaide. To our amazement he did, and said he was the best tailor in the village, very respected and well known by everyone as a very honest and decent person. Unfortunately, he could not recall where they lived --there were no street names in those days -- so that was a big disappointment for me. We were shown where all the shuls and the cemetery had been. Today only parks remain on these sites.
I grew up always hearing about life in Bransk and here I was actually visiting this place, my late mother's shtetl. It was a very emotional experience for me. My father came from Novogrudok in Belarus, which we were unable to visit on this trip.
I was amazed to find that Bransk was so near to the Treblinka concentration camp, which is where we were dropped by the taxi driver to meet the group. I felt so grateful that my grandparents and family had left Poland in 1926.
In Treblinka the Nazis murdered between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews in less than one year from July 1942. The Nazis gassed the Jews on arrival so there was no work nor was there any "accommodation". The Nazis demolished all traces of their activities so as not to leave any evidence of their killing machines. Memorial stones were erected there with the names of all the places in Poland where Jews were murdered.
The next day we traveled to Majdanek concentration camp, which was on the outskirts of the famous city of Lublin, where there were many yeshivot and Jewish life thrived. 45,000 Jews -- one third of the population -- were murdered. We saw the huge mounds of the body ash piled up from the gas ovens.
The members of our South African group were all orthodox Jews. Nathan Mowszowski, who recently passed away, intoned a memorial prayer in front of the gas ovens and we all said kaddish. We were all crying uncontrollably. This event still stays with me whenever the Shoah is referred to.
When we gathered at Auschwitz to begin the March of the Living, the sky was black. As we started walking out under the ARBEIT MACHT FREI sign it began to snow, matching the very depressing somber atmosphere of the moment.
Here were 3,000 free Jews walking out of this horrific place to the Birkenau concentration camp where hundreds of thousands of Jews perished.
After about 10 minutes the snow stopped, the clouds disappeared and a wonderful blue sky shone on us as we waved Israeli flags, showing that Jews had survived and have their own free country. As this was the first March of the Living, the Poles who lived along the route must have wondered how we had survived. There was no clapping, or any suggestion that maybe some people wanted to join us.
When we approached Birkenau camp after about 45 minutes, the clouds started gathering and as we walked under the entrance they once again became black, reflecting the depressed state we were in.
When Chief Rabbi Lau lit the first of the six candles it began to snow again. It was amazing: as though Hashem had orchestrated the darkness of Auschwitz, the sun shining on the free Jews, and the horror of Birkenau. The ceremony was very emotional, with speeches from survivors describing their horrific experiences.
Once back at Auschwitz we visited the many halls that had displays of people's hair, spectacles, and other personal effects. As we walked into one of the halls, there was a huge picture of young girls. A lady in our group recognized herself in the picture and collapsed as she did so. Her daughter had accompanied her on the trip and they both clearly found this a harrowing experience.
After we left Auschwitz, our Israeli Polish guide wanted to visit the cemetery of Kazimierz. A few members of his family had survived and returned after the war to claim their homes. Apparently, there were many others who came back. The Poles who had taken possession of their homes murdered all the survivors and they were buried in a mass grave in Kazimierz. Imagine surviving and coming to such an end.
I find it difficult to accept that the Poles state that they were wrongly implicated in the Holocaust.
The impact it had on the 3,000 young adults on the trip was that it brought home to them the tragedy of the Holocaust for the Jewish people and showed them the necessity of carrying the torch of remembrance, hope and optimism for the next generation.
We spent the Shabbat in Krakow, which had a population of 60,000 before the Holocaust - the second largest Jewish community. Only 1,000 survived. We checked into the hotel and an old Jewish lady (under the watchful eye of the police) accompanied us to the shul, which was opened for us. We visited the grave of the Rama - Rav Moshe Isserles, which was in the cemetery attached to the shul. (We Ashkenazim follow the Rama for a halachic ruling.) We of course ran the synagogue services, which was very emotional. The few very elderly Jews who attended had no idea about the davening or the service, but on hearing we would be there came to make contact.
The same old lady accompanied us back to the hotel – everything was still very controlled.
After singing Shalom Aleichem and reciting Kiddush, we ate the meal that had been brought from Israel.
We started singing zemirot with such gusto and emotion that the many non-Jews standing around the dining room were wondering who these Jews were. We carried on until 2 am singing every zemira and Hebrew song we could remember, with no one wanting to lose the emotion of the moment.
After the visit to Poland, we were treated like VIPs in Israel when we attended Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrations as guests. Having the opportunity to experience the rebirth of Am Yisrael as an independent country was a very necessary end to this traumatic trip.
Writing this article even after 32 years has brought back so many very vivid, horrific memories. The experience of this visit has left a very deep mark on my emotions, and since then I have found it very difficult to handle Holocaust material. All we can say, constantly, is that we must never let this happen again.