March Of The Living

July 1, 2005 by Natalie Salat

Clockwise from top: The watchtowers and crematorium of Majdanek death camp in Poland contrast with the pre-war tombs at Gensha cemetery in Warsaw; March of the Living participants arrive at Birkenau death camp to commemorate the millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust; Vera Schiff at the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto wall.

“I hate trains. I would never go, of my own volition, on a train.”

Vera Schiff doesn’t say this lightly. In one of life’s bizarre ironies, this 78-year-old Holocaust survivor is sitting on a train headed for the Polish town of Oswiecim (osh-VIEN-shim), otherwise known as Auschwitz.

?More than 60 years ago, 16-year-old Vera Katz (as she was then called), her family and many friends were forced by the Nazis from their homes in Czechoslovakia and herded onto railway cars headed for the death camps and killing fields of Eastern Europe—because they were Jewish. For her family and her friends, these sites—Theresienstadt, Dachau, Majdanek, Ujazd—would be their final destination. Small wonder the sound of a train in motion haunts Vera still.

Schiff handles the situation with characteristic fortitude and frankness. Her comment about the transportation isn’t a complaint, but a reply to a question from one of 40 Canadian educators accompanying her to Poland to learn about the Holocaust and participate in the March of the Living. Our group forms part of a 1,000-strong Canadian contingent.

This annual march, organized by March of the Living International since 1988, commemorates the systematic genocide of six million Jews by Hitler’s National Socialist regime. Several million others—among them Poles, Russians, Roma, homosexuals, the disabled and political opponents—were also murdered.

Today—May 5, 2005—is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah in Hebrew). On this rain-soaked afternoon, 18,000 Jews and non-Jews from 40 countries will walk in silence from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the Nazis’ largest death camp. The march symbolically recreates the death marches the Germans forced on Jews and other camp inmates, particularly in the last days of the Third Reich.

Most participants will begin the three-kilometre march from the gates of Auschwitz I death camp, which proclaim “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work brings freedom). Of course, this declaration was untrue—most of the camp’s inhabitants never saw freedom. Instead, they wound up in the gas chambers or killed by firing squad, torture, starvation, disease.

The oppressive gateway to Birkenau offers no such illusory message. It is here that the march will culminate in a ceremony featuring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka and Nobel Peace Laureate Eli Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor.

We are one of the last groups to arrive at Oswiecim station, and must join the walk from there. This is the largest March of the Living ever held, and it does not come off without logistical hitches.

* * *

“It was a lot easier to get in here 60 years ago,” says Schiff.

She and I are traipsing through the thick mud and grass at Birkenau, trying to find her a seat at the ceremony. Her sense of humour is remarkable. We’re surrounded by the camp’s barracks and the remains of its crematoria, and have just spent an hour being bounced from checkpoint to checkpoint by Polish and Israeli security. Despite having had knee surgery and having stood or walked for several hours since arriving at Oswiecim, the fit senior undertakes several spirited discussions in English, Czech and Hebrew to gain access to one of the hundreds of seats at the far end of the camp.

Sharon’s presence has made for tight security. Oddly, no seating arrangements appear to have been made for the dozens of Holocaust survivors. Just as absurd is the pre-ceremony atmosphere. As thousands file into Birkenau, most are solemn, but some behave as if they are at Woodstock. Schiff and I observe the VIPs around us. As large screens display images of life and death at Birkenau, people are eating their lunches.

In Hebrew, Sharon says he has come with a delegation of Holocaust survivors, along with their grandchildren who are serving in the Israeli armed forces. He then addresses the grandchildren: “You have the duty to bequeath the lesson, memories and stories.” To everyone, he says: “Do not forget how millions of Jews were marched to their deaths while the world stood silent.”

The Journey Begins

An eclectic group of teachers, university students and journalists—most with no Jewish background—meet at a Toronto airport hotel, ready to embark on a short but intense learning experience.

Why Poland for a Holocaust pilgrimage? Several reasons. It was Poland that had the largest Jewish population in Europe leading up to World War II, Poland that had the largest number of Nazi death camps, and Poland where millions of European Jews and at least two million Polish non-Jews were murdered.

With Schiff’s presence, the group has a direct connection to this dark chapter in history. With the presence of Omer Eshel, our 26-year-old guide, the educators get the perspective of someone born in the Jewish state of Israel, created in 1948.

Our program leader, Carson Phillips, a Holocaust and human rights scholar with the Regional Jewish Communities of Ontario, asks everyone to share their reasons for coming. Some, like teaching graduates Shira Anklewicz and Sherri Rotstein (a March staff member) of Toronto, have grandparents who survived the Holocaust. Others have grandparents who served on the German side. Such is the case for Red Lake, Ont., teacher Cynthia Seitz, who explains she would like to “break down the intolerance” she sees in her northern community.

The majority, like University of Toronto professor Joan Simalchik, just want to learn about the Holocaust and how to teach about it in a sensitive way. “Denial is still so strong now,” observes Simalchik. “This is an opportunity to do something about it.”

* * *

Not-so-fresh off the plane to Warsaw, the Canadian educators begin learning about life in Warsaw’s Jewish community before and during WW II.

The first stop is Gensha Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. “Usually, a visit to the cemetery is an ending,” says Eshel. “In Warsaw, the situation’s a bit different. You can see the magnitude of the tombs, the beautiful way of life. (Poland) had one of the largest, most thriving Jewish communities in the world.” On the eve of WW II, almost a third of Warsaw’s population was Jewish.

Among the 250,000 graves is a mass grave for those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the General Government forced Jews to wear marks of shame, and concentrated Jewish populations into ghettos.

Amid the deprivation of Warsaw’s walled ghetto, Dr. Janusz Korczak gave hope to the children in his orphanage through his devotion to them. A statue at Gensha commemorates the teacher, who chose to die alongside his students at Treblinka, even though he could have saved himself. Here, March co-ordinator Shauna Waltman recites the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

We continue our tour of the former ghetto at the towering Memorial of the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. On one side is a depiction of the 1943 ghetto uprising and its young leader Mordecai Anielewicz. (The Jewish Fighting Organization held off the Nazis for a month before the ghetto was destroyed.) On the other side is the image of a procession being marched by SS guards. “This statue shows the Israeli understanding (of the Holocaust),” observes Eshel, the former commander of an elite Israeli paratrooper unit. “The second generation found it hard to grasp that their parents went like lambs to the slaughter. My generation has learned to acknowledge the fact that to be a hero does not necessarily mean to pick up a gun and fight.”

Schiff adds that during the 12 years she lived with her family in Israel after the war, it was difficult to make people understand what European Jews had faced—gradual dehumanization, the Nazis’ propaganda, deception and vicious reprisals, and the fact that as a scattered population, it was difficult to organize resistance. “That doesn’t mean people were submitting willingly. There are many different types of courage.” Among the “unsung heroes,” Schiff names the educators of Theresienstadt, who secretly taught the camp’s 15,000 children.

Story Of A Survivor

Schiff was born in Prague in 1926, during the golden age of Czechoslovakia’s First Republic. The newly formed country had emerged from WW I to have a robust economy and a democracy fostered by President Tomás Masaryk. Schiff’s father, Siegfried Katz, was a lawyer. “I lived in the comfortable setting of a middle class family. For a long time I didn’t even know about discrimination,” recalls Schiff.

Indeed, the country seemed little affected by Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. “For a long time, we believed it never would.”

Then there was the infamous Munich Conference of 1938. Without Czechoslovak participation, the British and French governments opted to appease Hitler by ceding parts of Bohemia to Germany. “(Czechoslovakia) became a defenceless piece of real estate, overrun (by the Nazis) on March 15, 1939. That day the Holocaust started for me.”

Jewish citizens besieged embassies, hoping to emigrate; they were turned away. (Canada also refused to accept Jewish refugees.) Life in the Nazi protectorate took a sharp turn for the worse.

Her father was kicked out of his job without a pension, his assets frozen. All Jews received a small stipend legislated by the Nazis. “Many families were pushed into one apartment.” Jews could no longer attend school.

In 1941, the Germans announced Prague was to become “Judenrein” (clean of Jews), and all Czech/Slovak Jews were to be “resettled” in the East. There were rumours that these settlements were places of dread. To facilitate their plans, the Nazis turned the fortress-garrison town of Terezin (Theresienstadt) into a ghetto-transit camp. “Gentiles were ordered out and young Jewish men were ordered to adapt the site into a camp.” The town’s capacity was for 5,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians; it would soon hold between 50-70,000 people.

In May 1942, Schiff, her parents Siegfried and Elsa, along with her older sister Eva and their grandmother, were summoned by the Judenrat (YOO-den-raat), the local Jewish council. The Germans had ordered that these councils be set up to do their bidding, putting Jewish leaders in the unenviable position of rounding people up for deportation. The Katzes were told it was their turn for “resettlement.” They could bring 50 kilograms of personal items each. “We put a lot of effort into planning, which was silly, because most things were taken at the gates of the camp. But we didn’t know.”

Schiff’s grandmother didn’t survive the suffocating journey to Theresienstadt in a cattle car. When the Katzes arrived, they had one thing going for them—her father’s Gentile friend, Josef Bleha, who had pledged to help them. His camp connections initially saved the family from being deported for execution. Siegfried was separated from his wife and daughters, and a bleak existence began. “When we first came, the starvation was unimaginable,” recalls Schiff. Then thirst took hold—which was even worse. The cramped conditions and lack of infrastructure meant sanitation was poor, disease rife.

Bleha helped Vera and Eva find decent jobs—as everyone was assigned labour. Vera worked in the camp hospital, with its paltry medical supplies, and her sister in the fields—which offered opportunities to smuggle vegetables at great risk.

Bleha also used his knowledge of the camp’s underground passageways to bring Vera cookies, cigarettes and toothpaste—“a luxury.”

Suddenly his visits stopped. It was only after the war that Schiff learned he had been executed for helping Jews. “The Germans knew no higher felony.”

As Schiff wrote in her book, Theresienstadt: The Town The Nazis Gave to the Jews, the Germans tried to show the world that Theresienstadt was a ‘model ghetto’. Camp administrators created a charade, including setting up fake schools and storefronts. This was all done to dupe Red Cross workers on their sole visit to the camp in 1944.

The ruse was successful, but the reality was different. “It was a carousel of death and dying,” says Schiff. “My sister, an athletic 18-year-old girl, died due to a trivial infection—strep throat. She was the first to leave us in 1943. That was the beginning of the end for my parents. By the fall of 1944, I was all alone.”

The teenager escaped numerous brushes with death and danger over three years, including an attempted sexual assault and the constant threat of deportation to Auschwitz. For months she had managed to avoid being called up by Theresienstadt’s Jewish elders. However, her time came. Standing in line for the transport, Schiff asked the inspecting SS commandant if she could stay. “For reasons not clear to me today, he said yes.”

After all this, there was one hope for a better future. “I met my husband in Theresienstadt.” Arthur Schiff, a pharmacist, had arrived a year later than Vera. When the Russians liberated the camp in May 1945, they were the only ones left from their families.

Death On The Edge of Town

After a coach trip to Lublin we head to Majdanek. This death camp is right on the outskirts of Lublin. And as with Auschwitz and Birkenau, it would have been impossible for the townspeople not to know what was going on.

Majdanek is foreboding. Still intact are the watchtowers that were manned by brutal SS guards, the rows of barracks where thousands were piled into three-tier bunks and the euphemistic “Bad und Disinfektion” (bath and disinfection) building. Here you can see deep scratch marks on the concrete walls of the gas chambers, made by people struggling for their last breath.

At Majdanek you can also see cages filled with thousands of musty shoes taken from their doomed owners, the smokestack of the crematorium that once spewed human ash, the concrete medical experimentation table with its drain in the middle and a row of ovens designed for bodies.

We join a busload of Canadian politicians for an emotional ceremony at one of the camp’s memorials—a huge dome suspended above the ashes of 250,000 people. Hugh Dickey, an Ojibwa teacher from London, Ont., sings a spiritual song for the dead. Some participants hold onto each other, others cry.

Max Eisen, a Slovak-born survivor, recalls how upset his mother became when the family received a postcard from the General Government of Lublin in 1942. “The following message was written: “We the Friedman family have arrived here in Lublin. We are working on farms and are awaiting your arrival.” This was the deception the Nazis used to lure (European) Jewry into believing all was well.” Eisen’s grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins all perished at Majdanek.

* * *

That night, on the way to Krakow, we stop in Kielce—significant because of what happened there after the Holocaust. In July 1946, 42 Jews were murdered in a local pogrom, based on a false accusation of kidnapping. “After that, the Jews understood they had no place to live in Europe,” says Eshel.

For the Schiffs, there were other reasons to move to Israel. One was the 1948 Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia. The other was they could no longer live in a city of ghosts, not even a city as beautiful as Prague.

Auschwitz

Being at Auschwitz is different to Majdanek. For one thing, there are many more busloads of visitors to what has become a state museum. For another, the design of Auschwitz-Birkenau shows the industrialization of the camp system. Between one and 1.5 million Jews perished in the extensive Auschwitz network—most through gassing with the insecticide Zyklon-B.

For Eshel, the visit provides closure. “On my Hungarian (mother’s) side, 150 members of our family were executed here. The Jewish community in Hungary—400,000 Jews—were destroyed in less than half a year.” He pays tribute to his maternal grandfather, who joined the Jewish resistance, fought the Nazis and survived Mauthausen (in Austria), only to encounter prejudice in Cyprus, on his way to Israel. When a British officer called the emaciated survivor a ‘dirty Jew’, those were his last words; Eshel’s grandfather snapped his neck. The resistance smuggled him into Israel, where he became a captain in the new country’s army.

When we visit Block 27, now a museum devoted to the martyrdom of Jews, University of Toronto student Karen Lo asks how the Holocaust affected Schiff’s beliefs. “It took me years to work my way back to (Judaism),” Schiff says. Though she and her husband raised two sons and forged a new life in Canada after leaving Israel in 1961, the scars remain. “It’s the nights which are worse than the days. You can’t get over it. You have to accept it. Perhaps we are too small to understand the divine concept. We cannot hope to understand.”

The End Of The Beginning

Our group has known each other only a few days, but friendships are developing. We have walked arm-in-arm on the March of the Living, learned about Jewish culture, experienced a unique journey. The teachers have come away inspired.

Don Shelton of Kitchener, Ont.—who married into a Jewish family and participated with his daughter Alanna, a teacher candidate—encouraged fellow educators “to have the courage to step forward” and teach the lessons of the Holocaust. University of Ottawa graduate Shauna Pollock, 23, already plans to, with two upcoming school presentations.

For Schiff, who continues to visit schools and write, the enthusiasm of these teachers is encouraging. Still, for all the lessons, the price was high—too high. “I have a very sad map of where my family and friends perished. All one can do is know that it happened, and that it should never happen again.”

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