1988 was 43 years after the end of the war. Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel was on trial, President Ronald Reagan announced the intention to build a National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, British Holocaust Denier David Irving was on his first book tour, and 10,000 young Jewish students from 52 countries went to Auschwitz on the first ever March of the Living.
At the time, Holocaust survivors were plentiful and had started telling their stories. The March was a perfect companion trip to authenticate the Holocaust experience, it was the perfect example of authentic learning, disguised as a new educational trend, but practiced all along.
In the spirit of transparency: I attended the trip in 1990 and applied to be a Councillor this year (but backed out of the application process due to the over $10,000 fee Councillors must pay.)
Yesterday, over triple the number of students as the first March went on the 2018 March of the Living. Much has changed:
The trip now goes annually, and the selection process is much looser. It no longer caters to the academic elite and Poland has recently passed a law stating that nobody within that country could blame Poland for the events of the Holocaust on Polish soil. Most Holocaust survivors who experienced the horrors of the camp are too old or no longer among the living to attend the trip and in today’s digital era, with attention spans of a mosquito, young Jews have little or no connection to the horrific events of over 70 years ago.
When the March first went, in 1988, nearly every child had a grandparent who was a Holocaust survivor. Today, most students have a tenuous connection, perhaps a living great grandparent or a story passed down, but no real earthly connection. So, the question is, should the trip still go?
Today, Poland has increasingly joined the European Holocaust denial club, by disassociating themselves and their citizens as perpetrators of the horrors. Spending millions of dollars in their economy on the blood of Jews who mean little to nothing to the Marchers seems ludicrous.
A few years ago, I interviewed a very nice young man upon his return from The March of the Living. I asked him how the trip affected him. He looked at me puzzled by the question. I rephrased the question and asked him how emotionally he felt while walking through a Death Camp knowing that millions of Jews who had walked on those stones faced death minutes later.
He took a deep breath and informed me that I would be disappointed with his answer. He said that the trip “was fun, but I felt nothing in Poland, it was such an ugly country. I had no emotions at all at the concentration camps because I don’t know anyone who survived the Holocaust. I did cry at the Yom Hazikaron (Israel Veteran’s Day) ceremony in Israel.”
Today’s youth has a greater connection with Israel than the Holocaust. Perhaps we, as a community, should recognize that and realize that a week in Poland does not have the same impact 30 years later because the children don’t have the same connection to the event. For these students, Holocaust is a subject in school, not a real, living, breathing event. When I went 28 years ago, my grandfather gave me his number tattooed on his arm and told me to look it up at Auschwitz (I found his bunker and took a picture for him). I doubt that any of the Marchers who left yesterday had anyone to talk to who was there, nor do I think any went with a mission.
Perhaps future March of the Livings should take place exclusively in Israel. Perhaps the students should be exposed to Holocaust material in conjunction with Yad Vashem, an educational trip geared towards 21st Century students, digital, movies, sound bites, followed by a few days on the history of Zionism and then rebirth of the Jewish Nation.
A trip like that won’t be contributing to the economy of a country that denies their involvement and would be much more meaningful to a generation of Jews who relate more to Israeli soldiers than early 20th Century European Jews.