By Liyah R., High School Senior
Preparing for March of the Living, it was hard to know what to expect. I heard stories from my father emphasizing how life-changing this trip is, and when I return, I will never be the same. Those phrases lingered in my mind throughout my journey, making me fear the impact the visit to Poland will have on me when I return home.
I had previous knowledge of Poland and the genocide that had occurred. However, having that knowledge did not change being in the physical presence of history. I still felt such overwhelming emotions walking through the camps and had a difficult time processing what I was witnessing.
The hardest part of the trip, which took me by surprise, was Majdanek Death Camp. Majdanek was a German concentration camp located in the city of Lublin. It was both an extermination site and a work camp. 500,000 people from 28 different nations and 54 different nationalities were imprisoned in Majdanek during the time it was operating.
As I had previously visited death camps in Poland earlier in the trip, I thought I had already seen the worst of it — and felt apathetic about my tour since I thought I knew what to expect. Getting off the bus, I truly thought the area was beautiful, with a farmers’ market, grassy areas, small surrounding neighborhoods, and people around there treating the camp like a park. If an individual came across Majdanek without knowledge of its history, they would never know the true horrors of what had happened.
Seeing the showers and gas chambers, I was horrified to see the blue residue still left from the Ziklon-B that was used for extermination. The crematorium contained ovens as well as a SAUNA for SS commanders who used the steam from the burning bodies for pleasure — which thinking about became terrifying. On the ground of the camp stood a large dome, containing the ashes of those murdered. Standing there in the cold, looking at a pile of human ash, is a feeling I can never explain. We all stood silent, not truly comprehending what we were seeing.
My time spent in Poland was not a joyful experience, but certainly a meaningful one. Spending a week visiting concentration camps was emotionally draining. However, when entering the town of Tykocin, it became a refreshing contrast from the rest of the trip. Entering the Tykocin synagogue, we were welcomed by singing and dancing to traditional Jewish music. With groups from Mexico and Canada, we were all holding hands and celebrating our return to Tykocin and our living generation of Jewish descent.
Upon visiting the town, we were then taken to Lupochowa Forest, not being told of the meaning of the location. After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the German armed forces returned to Tykocin. The Jews were told to congregate for relocation to a ghetto in Czerwony, but they only made it as far as the Lupochowa Forest before they were massacred by the SS officers and buried in trenches. We gathered in the forest, “listening” to the silence in the middle of the mass grave.
The transition to Israel after spending a week in Poland was the most significant. Poland was a time of sorrow, remembering our ancestors who were murdered in a foreign land. Europe was once a place of refuge and the only place for the Jewish people to go. With no land to call their own, the Jewish people had no escape when the Nazis sentenced them to death.
Zionism goes beyond the political title it is given today; it is the belief that Israel belongs to the Jewish nation. As someone who was born in Israel and moved to America at a young age, I sometimes feel disconnected from my Israeli roots. Visiting Poland reminded me how proud I should be of my heritage and the importance of Zionism.
I thank Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey for the teen grant helping make my trip possible and I encourage more teens to experience Israel trips and March of the Living with help from Jewish Federation.
Photo: La dor v'dor... March of the Living then and now, showing Liyah (right) placing stones at a Holocaust memorial as her father did as a March of the Living participant in his youth.
Watch here for summer 2024 teen travel grant application opening early fall 2023.