Israel experiences bolster Jewish identity

A group of March of the Living participants pose for a photo in Poland.

A group of March of the Living participants pose for a photo in Poland.

The March of the Living, that takes place each spring,  is a profoundly moving experience. Participants visit the death camps of Poland, where Jews endured the darkest time in their history, followed by a life-affirming journey to Israel. The trip takes them through the range of emotions that mark the transition from the devastation of the Holocaust to rebirth in a sovereign state. Below are the accounts of two who participated in this year’s March. Rebecca Shemie, 17, graduated from Bialik High and Michelle Rosenstein, 16, is a graduate of Herzliah.

Poland by Rebecca Shemie

Until I went on the March of the Living I never fully understood the importance of the Holocaust and why it is so imperative never to forget.

The minute I stepped onto the plane to Poland, I had uncertainties, I was anxious, fearful, confused, and I kept asking myself the same question “why am I doing this, why am I here?”

Every day in Poland brought something new to the table. Walking through the streets on our way to visit what was once a ghetto filled with thousands of Jewish families crammed into four blocks. Traveling far distances to see what was once a concentration camp, where millions of innocent Jews, old and young, perished. The sights we saw, the tears we cried, the hands we held, the emotions we felt was a lot to process. Gas chambers, barracks, crematoriums, ashes, monuments, train tracks . . . places where death was prominent. Children didn’t grow up to see the world as a place where people are accepted and welcomed no matter where they come from or who they are. They saw the world as a place full of detestation and massacre.

What am I expected to think after seeing all this, how am I expected to see the world? Am I supposed to hate people? Am I supposed to hate the Germans for what they have done?

If hatred led the Germans to initiate World War II, if hatred led Arabs to attempt to wipe Israel off the map, if hatred between Tutsis and Hutu led to the Rwanda genocide, why should we live life in hatred? Regardless of our social differences, acceptance is vital. Without acceptance, we become a world where difference separates us into our own separate worlds.

I stood in the very place where my own ancestors perished, I stood in the very place where all hope was taken away, emotionally and physically shattered after all I saw. As I marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau, I pictured myself and my family in those very camps, when it hit me. We should be sad to honour those who suffered, but we should be proud of marching through what was once a place of death, proud to be who we are, proud that we are back, proud that we cannot be destroyed and we will NEVER forget. I am a witness.

Young March of the Living participants celebrate Israel's independence day in Jerusalem.

Israel by Michelle Rosenstein

Being in Poland was a reminder of what could happen. It is what inspired the pioneers of Israel to create a Jewish homeland.

Israel is our home away from home; the place where, as a family, we reunite and are always welcomed with open arms.

Many of us admire Israel, but do not realize the significance of this state, forgetting to appreciate and to contribute to the state of Israel.

Only after seeing life before Israel, life without proper protection and defense, can a person comprehend its importance. Only after walking through concentration camps and seeing the cruelty of the Nazis first-hand did I feel pride and a sincere appreciation for the state of Israel.

Seeing death has rendered me more thankful for the life that I live, a life filled with joy and love. The scars in my heart act as a reminder for me to carry on the legacy of those who perished before me.

Although I have returned home from the March, I have left home as well. I have come back with new stories to tell, new lessons to teach, new memories to remember and, most importantly, a new perspective on life. Hopefully, all this will shape me into a better person. This trip will push me to become more involved in our community and to ensure that we will be able to return to our homeland again.

People say that the trip changes your life. They say the March of the Living opens your eyes, enabling you to see the world differently than ever before. They are absolutely right.

March of the Living participants at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Federation CJA supports the Bronfman Israel Experience Centre (BIEC) in its efforts to engage young people through Israel-related programming. Last year, 211 Montrealers went on the March of the Living. Over the past ten years, approximately 1,800 teens and young adults have benefited from the experience.  For further information about the March of the Living and other BIEC initiatives, please visit www.biec.ca or call 514-345-6449.