Walking into the gas chambers: a cold, cement building; stains of green on the wall where the Zyklon B has seeped in, and a smell no one could place, but a smell we knew was the smell of death of the approximately 80,000 people who were killed here.
That was the day we visited Majdanek Extermination Camp, just outside the town of Lublin, Poland.
This trip, the March of Remembrance and Hope, is part of an intensive six-month Holocaust case study which includes a nine-day tour of Germany and Poland. Visits to former death camps, many memorials and several places of interest, such as the Wannsee Villa and Gleis 17 in Berlin, are included.
The March is run through the Canadian Centre for Diversity, with the mission of creating a society which celebrates diversity and difference. Through the study and the tour, participants gain leadership skills to put an end to discrimination, hatred and genocide in their own communities and world-wide.
Although I kept a blog of my experiences, I cannot possibly capture the details of the exhibits at Auschwitz; I can’t do them justice! And as hard as I may try, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put my emotions into the proper words. My pilgrimage, and my experiences on this trip, can only be understood by someone else who has been, or by one of the other 59 participants that travelled with me.
Prior to leaving, we were assigned a textbook to read, providing a common grounding. There was great diversity in our group: some students had Holocaust survivors or victims in their families , others were of Polish descent, and one student had immigrated to Canada to avoid conflict in Africa. And then there was a group of students, myself included, who knew very little on the topic, and were simply interested.
The textbook and bi-weekly online conferences leading up to our tour provided an educational, as well as emotional, basis for the trip. Without having read about Hitler’s “Final Solution,” the visit to the Wannsee Villa wouldn’t have had such a powerful impact—the juxtaposition of a gorgeous cottage on the lakeside and the incredible evil that took place inside was incomprehensible.
While still in the preparation stages, many family members and friends told me that this would be a “life-changing” trip. I nodded, smiled, and said it was something I had to do, not really knowing the extent to which it would change my life.
I wrote the following in my journal on 20 May, halfway through our trip, after seeing Majdenek:
“I’ve never been fully affected hearing that 6 million were murdered during the Holocaust. I can’t relate to that number; I’ve never seen 6 million of something. But seeing 20,000 pairs of shoes in one of the barracks made it real. I could physically see the number. I couldn’t believe the amount. And the smell of the hot leather, the stale air in the barracks. This was powerful.”
It was here that one of the camp’s survivors, Pinchas Gutter, who travels with the March each year, spent his childhood. Hearing a personal narrative, imagining Pinchas as a young boy in the same barracks where we stood, added a whole new dimension. I didn’t grow up in a Jewish home, and my extent of Holocaust knowledge was reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” in grade seven. I had never before been able to put a face to the Holocaust.
Pinchas was one of the lucky ones. As we stood at the memorial next to the Majdanek crematorium, singing hymns and reading testimonies, I thought of the 70,000 tonnes of human ash—approximately 47,000 people—who weren’t as lucky. 47,000 people I’ll never know; these are the stories that still haunt me.
And it was these people that the March is named after—for their memory, and for hope for the future. The literal march takes place on day three of the trip, through the gates of Birkenau, or Auschwitz II.
Marching from the small, run-down train station that prisoners were dropped at, we were silent. Wearing shirts that read our cause and the quote (inspired by Yehuda Bauer): “Be not a victim. Be not a perpetrator. But above all, be not a bystander”, and carrying a large March of Remembrance and Hope banner, this one kilometer walk encompassed all that the March is.
Walking in silence, holding hands, fighting back tears, I had this new family, this new support system, and 59 other students who were fighting for a better world with me. Walking through the gates, the hustle and bustle of other tourists—all of them on their own journeys—stopped, and they watched in silence, nodding their heads in recognition and respect.
We probably didn’t speak the same language, come from the same place, and we probably weren’t visiting for the same reasons, but we understood that the March is something good—a fantastic program for young Canadians of all backgrounds, religions and ethnicities. It’s a program that not only changed my life, but opened my life.
It is this memory of the March that I take with me in my day-to-day life. One of the program directors told us that if we return with questions, with anger, and with a desire to educate others, then the March was successful. For me, the March was a huge success; Holocaust education has become my passion. In August, I planned a Holocaust education evening in my hometown of Fredericton, raising money for future participants of the March, in hopes of ensuring that it is affordable to anyone interested. Sharing my story and the atrocities of history with the public was empowering and gratifying.
As a student in the King’s School of Journalism, it’s the unknown that bothers me most; there are still so many questions that I cannot have answered, and there are so many personal narratives that will never be read about in history books, despite the fantastic record-keeping of the Nazi regime. Now that I’m back for my third year of studies, I’m taking everything with a grain of salt and ensuring that I explore both sides of the story before drawing conclusions. I’m a better critical thinker, and I’m more sensitive to the casual jokes and asides that may be harmful to others.
Most of all, I’ve realized that we, as students, are the future. Our generation has the opportunity to make a difference, whether it be by traveling overseas to volunteer, or by educating those younger than us on history and the consequences of hate. I feel as if I, too, have experienced the Holocaust. In order to teach others, I will continue to work on the mission of the Canadian Centre for Diversity, throughout my life. I ask you to make this pledge, too.
Applications, when available, for the 2012 March of Remembrance and Hope can be found on the Centre for Diversity’s website: www.centrefordiversity.ca
Laura‘s blog, which charts the before, during and after of the March, can be found at www.pilgrimagetopoland.blogspot.com