It's not just about how they died - but how they lived

By Jessica Elgot, May 12, 2011
In the Warsaw Synagogue: survivor Chaim Fuks tells the British delegates of life in Poland before the war

In the Warsaw Synagogue: survivor Chaim Fuks tells the British delegates of life in Poland before the war

In the sea of blue and white magen Davids, navy jackets and wooden placards on the road between Auschwitz and Birkenau, a single Union Jack was held aloft.

It belonged to the first full British delegation to March of the Living - 80 students, young professionals and adults who were nearing the end of a six-day journey across Poland.

The group, led by three Israeli Holocaust educators, visited what had once been the centres of Jewish life: the Warsaw ghetto and cemetery, the town of Zamosc, Krakow's Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, Shabbat services at the Tempel synagogue in Krakow and visits to small shetls, including the ruined synagogue in Przysucha. The tour also included Majdanek concentration camp, the Belzec extermination camp memorial, and visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau the day before the march.

But the march was a time for celebration, with many wrapping themselves in Israeli flags, and singing. They carried wooden placards, etched with personal messages. Some wrote "Never Forget"; others had messages to lost relatives. At the end of the march, the placards were wedged into the stones along the infamous railway lines at Birkenau and tiny candles burned alongside them on the iron rails.

The day was the culmination of years of ambition for its organiser Scott Saunders. He said: "The British group attracted so much attention on the march, there was a buzz around us. Even Rabbi Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, came up to me and said how wonderful we were." This year, UJS recruited students to the trip, and extended invitations to Birthright alumni, Jeneration and the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade. They were joined by two Chabad rabbis, families and two Holocaust survivors.

In Auschwitz: some of the British marchers gather at the fences ready to begin the march

In Auschwitz: some of the British marchers gather at the fences ready to begin the march

MOTL has traditionally been a trip for school pupils, particularly from the US, who go on to Israel to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut. But Richard Verber, education director at UJS, who co-ordinated the students on the UK trip, said it was a deliberate decision to do things differently.

"We decided not to go to Israel for practical reasons, but also because I'm not sure that people our age are entirely comfortable with the direct narrative that says 'and out of the ashes of the Holocaust came Israel'. They have lots of great opportunities to go to Israel on other occasions."

He believed in the importance of a Poland tour before going on the march. "If you come on a day trip, it's very intensely emotional and people often equate crying with having the right experience. But you don't learn enough. This has to be a quality educational experience."

He also stressed the importance of an educational programme: "We will always visit Auschwitz, Krakow and Warsaw in future years. But I hope the rest will change year on year."

El'ad Pe'er, a graduate from the Holocaust Research Centre at Yad Vashem, and one of the educators, said: "We don't just want to know how these people died; we want to know how they lived. When we go round Krakow's Jewish quarter Kazimierz, I want the students to imagine it exactly as you might think of it in Fiddler on the Roof; the matchmakers, the laughing, the arguments, and full to the brim with people. This community had a whole life that was cut away."

Many participants said they found the five days leading up to the march as moving as the day itself. Avi Djanogly, who made aliyah with his family four years ago, stood next to the heap of ash which is the disturbing memorial for the 59,000 Jews murdered at Majdanek concentration camp, and said: "Today we walked past the little house where the camp commandant lived. He would never have dreamed my family would be here, less than 70 years later. My son can walk through the camp, on his 16th birthday, wearing his kippah. He could never have imagined Jews would stand here, by the graves, saying kaddish. We're here, living and breathing."

Two Holocaust survivors joined the delegation, Chaim Fuks, 80, making his first trip back since liberation, and Freddie Knoller.

Auschwitz survivor Mr Knoller, 90, said: "I had an experience I will never forget. It was amazing to be with Jewish students. These young people are the future leaders of Judaism."

Many of the students said the experience had changed their lives. Antony Grace, Jewish identity worker for JLGB, said: "I found this trip massively inspirational, and the group atmosphere has been important for that. Being here with survivors has given us so much more than a basic education."

Baillie Aaron from Cambridge University said the trip had inspired her to keep educating others.

She said: "The most important lesson we can take from the Holocaust is that we cannot wait until the circumstances become unbearable."

Last updated: 2:39pm, May 12 2011