When you are sitting in a circle with new friends around you, the sweet smell of grass and birds tweeting, it's hard to conceive that you are in a place where 1.1 million people were murdered at the hands of the Nazis.
The Holocaust seems unfathomable and this internal confusion was a recurring theme for me throughout the recent March of the Living trip, not just in Auschwitz-Birkenau. How can we come to terms with such massive statistics like six million, 1.1 million, 870,000 or even 18,000? Yet these were the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust, in Auschwitz, in Treblinka and on just one day of killing on the November 7 1943 in Majdanek.
During the trip we were careful not to create a "cult of death". To disregard the richness and vitality of pre-war European Jewry and what was lost – with the great rabbis, world-renowned yeshivot and prominent Jewish members of society – is to gloss over half the story.
Without our educator, Yoav Heller, the trip would never have made such an impact. One of the things that particularly stood out was his advice to experience the trip through our heads, hearts and legs.
A Poland trip is relatively easy to experience through the head and legs; you walk around different sites, travel the length and breadth of the country and hear and read a myriad of facts and figures. The tough part though, and perhaps most crucial, is to experience it with your heart. If we can't feel emotionally the pain and suffering European Jewry went through – mothers, fathers, children and siblings – then, again, we have not fully understood the Holocaust.
I suppose the moments that struck me most were those concerning individuals, such as standing at Mila 18 hearing about the heroism of Mordechai Anielwicz, or seeing the memorial stone to Janusz Korscak at Treblinka – the only one of 17,000 stones to commemorate an individual.
The "wall of faces" in the Canada complex of Auschwitz was a sea of individuals in family photographs, but when you took a moment to focus in on just one it became infinitely more real. A father teaching his toddler son how to read, two brothers lounging in the sun on holiday, a young couple dressed up for a studio photo and a whole wall of baby photos with the words of a poem, "The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans / The world's best, the bleak earth's brightest."
These were the people who made up the six million, the 1.1 million, the 870,000 and the 18,000; perhaps nothing remarkable, but individuals nonetheless, with their own story crying out to be told. It is as the Talmudic inscription on the ring given to Oskar Schindler says: "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire." In Judaism this is the value given to the individual, and it is only when one relates to an individual in Poland that you begin to fathom the scale of the Holocaust and what it means.
Going with UJS added something particularly special. At one point, I looked around the room and saw faces of Jewish students my age that I'd never met before, at universities all across the country. It occurred to me that there aren't many things that bring you together in this way; how much more so the next day seeing 12,000 people gathered from over 25 countries.
A massive thank you goes to Scott Saunders whose passion is an inspiration, and to Richard Verber. March of the Living is an incredible, potentially life changing experience, and is one that I hope more students and the community consider getting involved in, in future years.
Daniel Bratt is studying English Literature and Philosophy at Birmingham University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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