The March of the Living is a Holocaust-education program targeted at Jewish high school and college students. The March of the Living, commonly referred to as 'The March' by participants is a two-week program during which students spend one week in Poland and one week in Israel.
Although the entire trip is called the March of the Living, the actual March takes place on Yom Ha Shoah, the international Holocaust memorial day and commemorates the death marches that took place towards the end of World War II, when prisoners in the Auschwitz I labor camp were marched to Birkenau, a death camp, to be killed before the approaching Allied army arrived.
In Poland, participants visit the cities of Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Treblinka concentration camps. The Israel portion of the trip is timed to coincide with Yom Ha'atzma'ut, the Israeli Independence Day. Although each group travels to different locations in Israel, every group visits Jerusalem and Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum.
The March of the Living was founded in 1988. Since then, there has been a high school March every other year. The first college March was in 1999. The most recent high school March of the Living had over 10,000 participants from all over the world. In recent years, small numbers of non-Jewish students have also participated in the March of the Living.
It is hard for me to describe the March of the Living to someone who has never gone.
How can you explain how it feels to stand inside a gas chamber and see the scratches on the walls where victims tried to claw their way out with their fingernails? To look at a room full of shoes and see one very small shoe that belonged to a child that never had the chance to grow up?
The best way I can explain the March experience is to tell a story:
We were in Majdanek. For those of you who have never seen it, Auschwitz doesn't look like a concentration camp. It is very tidy and sanitized - rows upon rows of neat brick buildings. Majdanek is nothing like that. Majdanek is hell on earth. Some things have been cleaned and removed and changed, but the bunk beds in the barracks still have old blankets on them. When you go into the crematorium in Majdanek, there are still human ashes in the ovens. It is impossible to look at Majdanek and not know exactly what happened there.
Just outside the barbed wire fence, there is a dome that was erected as a memorial to the victims of Majdanek. Inside this dome is a mountain of human ashes and bones. As we stood there, my friend Dawn began to cry.
She asked a rabbi who was on the trip with us, "How could G-d let this happen?"
and a boy who was walking by us said to her, "There is no G-d."
The rabbi said to her, "Never think that G-d doesn't exist. G-d cries when His children cry."
I don't find that answer very satisfying, but the part that stuck in my head was that Majdanek is the sort of place that makes someone tell a complete stranger that he has just lost his faith in G-d.