This year, I had the honor of attending March of the Living, a journey to Poland to see the concentration camps, participate in Yom Hashoah services and then march with approximately 13,000 other people from Auschwitz to Birkenau to honor and remember the millions who did not survive this death march during World War II. I participated in this powerful experience with 150 other teens from all over the United States as part of the BBYO delegation.
I planned for my trip by gaining deeper knowledge about the Holocaust, but nothing I have ever learned or experienced could have prepared me for what I saw, felt and heard. We visited four concentration camps. In Auschwitz, one of the most disturbing moments was viewing two tons of human hair, the remains of approximately 64,000 people. At certain points, during the viewing of Auschwitz, visitors would leave flowers, private notes or candles behind.
During our tour of Majdanek, another concentration camp, I learned that most of this death camp remained as it was upon liberation. The buildings and other structures were intact. To my horror, I found out that this concentration camp had the ability to become operational in 48 hours. This thought moved me in a way that filled me with tears. The statement “never again” had new meaning for me.
After walking through the crematorium in Majdanek, everyone in my group found a place to sit alone and pray quietly. Trudy Album, a Holocaust survivor who accompanied us during our entire trip, came up to me and put her hand on my shoulder to give me hug. She whispered to me, “You are the revenge.” Tears poured down my cheeks, as my entire soul grew with deeper meaning of my roots and the future that lay ahead of me as part of the next generation of Jewish people to bear witness.
On the day of the march, thousands of people from all walks of life and all over the world gathered at Auschwitz. The sound of the shofar could be heard throughout the concentration camp signaling the beginning of the march. It was a silent, powerful march with a meaning beyond words. At one point in the march, we came to a bridge, which was higher land. I paused and looked backward and forward. All I could see for miles was a sea of Israeli flags. I felt an incredible pride to be Jewish. At the conclusion of the march, there was a moving ceremony.
Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, filmed a message for the participants. Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, spoke to us. There were songs, and everyone said the Kaddish. At the end of the ceremony, I sang “Hatikvah,” the national anthem of Israel with all the other participants. I could not have felt fuller of purpose and pride.
When I landed in Israel during the second week of my journey the land had taken on new meaning for me. I imagined what it must have been like to survive the death camps of Poland and finally be free. I was so moved, I kissed the ground.
I was in Israel for Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day. At the memorial ceremony the first night, soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces who perished were honored. The next day, a siren sounded at 11 a.m., and everyone stopped what they were doing. Drivers stopped in the middle of the highway to get out of their cars and observe two minutes of silence. During that siren, my group was in Jerusalem, and I could see everyone standing for this powerful moment.
The mood changes completely for Independence Day. We went to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. We sang “Hatikvah” along with the original recording of the nation’s founding fathers singing as well. After coming back from Poland, a place of death and destruction, I felt a new sense of purpose and renewal while singing this song of beginning and hope. That evening, I went to Ben Yehuda Street, which hosted a giant festival filled with people, music, fireworks and children playing with silly string. It was exhilarating to be part of the celebration of Israel’s existence and have a new, profound understanding of the courageous journey people took to get here after the Holocaust.
Jeremy Witchel is a senior at Fox Chapel Area High School and a former regional president of Keystone Mountain Region BBYO. He will be attending Chatham University in the fall.