The mild spring morning of May 28, 2010 featured blue skies infinitely arching overhead and yellow wildflowers springing out of the ground along the path on which 50 travelers from Western New York tread. The path, deceptively idyllic, is one that runs through Auschwitz, a death camp where Nazis tortured and murdered their victims. For Jillian Kuhn ’13, her footsteps retraced those of her great-grandparents, who were killed on this path. Others marched in remembrance of strangers. For these participants in The March: Bearing Witness to Hope, the path was hallowed ground, a stretch of space that paid homage to Holocaust victims. But in spite of the heaviness and sadness, a new sentiment arose from the ashes of Auschwitz and Birkenau: hope.
The March, a student leadership program and mission to Germany and Poland, took place from May 25 to June 2, 2010. Led by Holocaust scholars and survivors, The March community included students from HWS and Nazareth College who sought to educate themselves about history, foster tolerance and open-mindedness, and remember Holocaust victims so that such an atrocity could never be repeated.
An integral component of The March’s mission is education. The group visited museums, monuments and memorials that commemorate the once-thriving Jewish cultural centers in Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Lublin, which were destroyed during WW II. They walked through Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau, death camps where life ended for millions. They paid homage to acts of resistance and rescue. The March brought these travelers to the elegant rooms of the villa at Wannsee near Berlin, where decisions were made that sealed the fate of millions, to the halls of rooms that still hold the possessions of the victims: heaps of suitcases, piles of toothbrushes and combs, mounds of hair, piles of cooking utensils, dolls and toys, thousands of weathered shoes. These artifacts of genocide illustrate the indescribable heaviness that lies in the ashes of the millions murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdenek, Treblinka, and the Warsaw Ghetto.
As Anna Hertlein ’12 explains, “The March is more than a field trip to learn about the Holocaust. The March gave a name, a face, a place and a story to the six million victims of this genocide. We were exposed to history firsthand, more memorably and deeply than by reading any text book. The feeling of standing on such hallowed ground is hard to explain, but it was a truly humbling experience.”
The trip is one “informed by the power and responsibility of memory,” adds Professor of Religious Studies Michael Dobkowski, who has mentored students on this trip since 2002. “Memory is a blessing. It creates bonds rather than destroying them. And it also creates responsibility. To remember is to affirm faith in humanity, to affirm faith in history and to affirm a fundamental optimism about the future. Without memory there can be no future in any meaningful sense.”
This year, Dobkowski decided to add a multi-generational component to the group, inviting eight members of the Rochester community to accompany the college students.
“We wanted to include people who are interested in having this kind of experience with college students. We made it very clear that if you agreed to join us, we would be part of one community in which everyone would be treated with equality, regardless of age or anything else,” he explains.
And what began as a multi-dimensional group of people quickly became a tight-knit, inclusive, mutually-supportive community. “We shared a common desire to learn about the past in order to make the world a better place,” says Sarah Canavan ’12. “It’s fascinating how all of our personalities could mesh so beautifully. I know that the people I’ve met on this trip will never leave me; that’s a testament to how wonderful my March family is.”
The group support helped participants cope with difficult questions. How does one move from the sadness and pain of what he is experiencing and leave The March with hope? In the face of tragedy, how can a person commit herself to something positive? Kuhn, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, went on this trip “hoping to get as close to a firsthand experience of what millions went through. I quickly realized this was impossible.” Even after walking on the same ground on which her cousins were tortured, “to even try to imagine the horrors that my family went through is impossible.” For many, it was difficult at first to see where the hope existed in The March.
They soon discovered an invaluable source of hope in the Holocaust survivors who led The March. These generous people helped their new community of travelers learn to cope with anger, sadness, horror, and despair, and to turn these emotions into a force of positivity. Traveling with the group and helping students process what they saw and heard, the survivors provided the education needed to preserve the memories of Holocaust victims and ensure hope for the future. Their stories of survival, suffering, rebirth, and purpose were shared freely, sometimes accompanied by tears, and opened avenues of communication among the group.
“The honor of traveling with two Holocaust survivors, who told their stories with such earnestness and modesty, was the most wonderful part of the trip,” says Hertlein. “These survivors are my reason for hope and I am so grateful for the experience.”
One survivor, Sally Wasserman, was a “hidden child” of the Holocaust. Though she escaped the concentration camps, her mother and younger brother were taken from their ghetto in Poland and gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. After the end of the war, Wasserman made her way to Toronto and connected with her aunt, to whom she gave a letter written by her mother. Many years passed before Wasserman rediscovered and read the letter. At Birkenau, she shared her mother’s words with the Marchers.
“At one point, Sally’s mother asked for revenge. Sally told us that this revenge was our presence in Auschwitz-Birkenau, because it meant that Hitler’s ‘final solution’ never succeeded,” recounts Caitlin O’Brien ’12. “Suddenly, the mood transitioned from the deepest despair to the strongest hope I have ever experienced. The March brought life back to the barracks in Birkenau.”
“The survivors are such positive people,” Dobkowski concurs. “They’re not self-absorbed in their suffering. They love to be with young people. From them, we derived a sense of hope and optimism, and a sense of purpose.”
In addition, daily debriefing sessions fostered solidarity, confidence, understanding, and trust among the group. These sessions extended to one-on-one conversations in hotel rooms, group discussions on bus rides, singing and dancing in downtown Kracow. Through these avenues of open communication, a new-found sense of family was born, easing the emotional hardships of the journey.
“It was incredibly moving to see all of the participants, whether students, educators, or community members, stand together and sing and share passages of poems and writing to remember the lives lost in the camps,” says Andrea Rocchio ’11. “Some people may find it difficult to see where the hope is while they march, but I saw it in our community’s desire to educate others. The March was the reason why we came across the world to a new land and we all did it in the spirit of peace. Our being there is the hope: the hope to build a better tomorrow.”
Having returned to the U.S., students hope to become involved in campus initiatives that confront and transform situations of prejudice, bigotry, and intolerance. They are also committed to working for the eradication of genocidal forces in the world today.
“This was a March about memory, but it was also a journey about hope, and in our students we saw great reason for that hope,” reflects Dobkowski. “They were transformed and energized by what they observed and internalized. They learned that individuals can make a difference, need to make a difference, and that’s really what the trip is about. It’s not about subjecting ourselves to this darkness without some sense of doing something productive with our knowledge. We need to bring hope to this process. We need to substitute responsibility for apathy, to bring the message of hope back to our campuses and communities.”
Says Kuhn, “I know that I will never stop trying to eliminate racism. Some people might acknowledge the pain caused by racism but will never say anything to eliminate it. I have vowed to never sit by and watch racism occur; I will intervene instead.”
“To say this was a life-changing experience is an understatement, as the journey gave our lives new purpose and direction and revealed to us our moral obligation as human beings,” reflects Beth O’Connor ’12. “I am confident that every person on the trip cannot remain silent if exposed to contemporary issues of social injustice.”
Visit The March’s blog for more reflections and photos.