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We join Lisa on the March to the Living where she comes to understand that the Holocaust is more than a tragic event of the past. We’ll hear her account of experiencing the visceral reality that the Holocaust is for people today, and her unsettling realization that the act was committed in normal towns and witnessed by normal people. Leaving her to think how did this happen? Eventually deciding that it all comes down to one word.
This transcript has been edited for readability.
Lisa: I have twin girls who are almost five and it’s been a really interesting process bringing them up. Recently we were at a dinner table and a friend of ours that was over used the word hate. He said something just really benign to the sense of “oh I hate the weather.” The comment made my daughter turn to me immediately,
“Mommy he said the word hate.”
To which point I had to explain to her, and also to our friend that while we’ve chosen not to use the word hate within our family many people use it as part of their common vernacular. Which brings me to my travel story.
When I was 16 or so, I took a trip where 7000 teenagers from all over the world embarked on what has now been coined “The March of the Living.”
It’s a two-week trip that takes these teenagers first on a week through Poland visiting five different concentration camps, followed by a week in Israel to celebrate Israel Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut. It’s called the March of the Living because on Yom HaShoah, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day 7000 Jewish teenagers make the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. From the concentration camp to what was then the death camp, about a three-kilometer walk. You march in silence. This same march used to be coined the Death March as it was the prisoners of the concentration camp who would march to Birkenau towards their certain death.
I had several experiences on that trip that really opened my eyes to what the word hate really means, and what it meant to me. Since I was 16 I have tried to remove the word hate from my language. I wanted to pass this on to my kids and use it as a source of dialogue for us about what hate really means and how hate can really be a turning point.
Host, Ekow Edzie: Lisa was preparing for the trip and doing the required readings. It wasn’t offered in her town so she had to join a group traveling from Rhode Island and attend their pre-trip meetings. She heard that the trip was going to be intense but wasn’t sure what to expect and she was anxious about not knowing anyone else.
Lisa: My best friend at the time Gretchen drove down with me to Rhode Island for one of these meetings. And then we went after the meeting to the Sarah McLaughlin concert because that was in Rhode Island that night. So that was our excuse to get down there.
Ekow: Lisa brought the journal that she kept during her trip to our interview. You’ll hear her reading from it directly a number of times during the story.
“I’m already beginning to feel the overwhelmingness of the trip by just reading about its effects. My stomach is queasy and my eyes are on the verge of watering. What is this going to be like.”
There are other comments here where I’ve been talking to this girl online and I think we’re going to room together when we get there. Again, being totally a teenager and worrying about who my friends are going to be.
The next lines of my journal are pure anxiety as to what I’m going to confront and the emotions I’m going to have once I’m there. There’s a note here.
“I don’t know and I can’t wait to see how this journal ends and if the trip truly does change my outlook on life.”
Ekow: The trip started with visits to a number of concentration camps in Poland. Lisa struggled with the experience, her thoughts and emotions and conversations with the other teenagers on the trip. But everything really came to a head at Majdanek.
Lisa: It hadn’t been memorialized in any way that makes it feel like a tourist attraction. It just looked and felt exactly how it was left. Like it can be turned back on by the flip of a switch. It was there that the most vivid experience stands out for me. We were walking through a gas chamber and before entering the educator who was with us, I believe he was a rabbi, shared that because of the atrocities that happened in this location to think of it as a holy site and reference a certain passage that says “and when you’re in a holy site you should take off your shoes in appreciation of the location.” We took off our shoes and walked through this gas chamber.
“The cold concrete stinging at the bottom of my feet, and the only sound was the creaking of the boards. Was it silent then too? Or did they know what they were in for? Screams from the gas chambers, nails scratching at the walls. No hope as someone watch sneeringly over them.”
Even reading it now it conjures up the memories and the feelings in the bottom of my feet.
We came out of walking barefoot and I remember this woman coming up to us in a thick accent getting very close to my face and saying, “how dare you ever treat this place as holy. I lost my entire family here. This is a horrific place and far from holy. You put your shoes back on and don’t you ever do that.” I was being scolded and I could feel how personal this was for her. At that point I was faced with two adult figures, one saying to think of this place as holy and another one to tell me it’s anything but. It left me wrestling those perspectives. I remember rubbing our feet saying what do we do. We felt guilty that we’d offended her. Here was someone who had gone through this horrible experience and we’d slighted her, we’d offended her out of no intention.
Ekow: The focus of the trip, an actual three-kilometer march in which Lisa and her peers would walk the path that led Jews and other persecuted peoples from a concentration camp to a death camp, started on a beautiful day.
Lisa: The march starts in Auschwitz. Visiting Auschwitz for me was really interesting because the day we were there it was gorgeous out. There was sunshine, grass, and flowers growing. Pieces of the location had been made into a museum. It was a beautiful place in many ways. Then you have seven thousand teenagers marching alongside survivors. You actually walk these three kilometers in silence hand-in-hand and the survivors come and hold hands with you on the march. Every road is blocked off. I remember the locals actually standing there and watching. We’re all wearing blue jackets with the emblem of March of the Living. Walking in silence and thinking about those who had done that same walk towards a very different end.
“Looking across at the faces of various marchers I see many different reactions. Some quiet, some writing vigorously in their journals, others crying and hugging, and still, others just quietly holding hands. Whatever the reaction it doesn’t matter just that each of us take something away with us about this experience.”
Walking into Birkenau, there was a sea of these blue jackets. Over a loudspeaker, someone was reciting off the names of everyone who had perished in Birkenau during the Holocaust.
I wrote in my journal the first name I heard over the loudspeaker. A child who had died in the Holocaust, Rivka, which is my Hebrew name. It made things very real for me. It could have been me, it could have been you. There are towns and villages and houses within feet of where these atrocities happened. I think we’re always quick to say “how could they let this happen,” but very quickly I turned that question inward.
“Well, what would I have done.”
Ekow: Somewhere in this flood of emotion, experience, thought, and conversation, Lisa was able to grasp on to one stone of clarity. That this, all of this could be brought back to one idea, one word, hate.
“I’m sitting here in Birkenau surrounded by bluejackets, today’s Jewish population. Once this place was filled with our ancestor’s bones and now it is full of our warm smiles carrying on their dream for survival. We are here to stay. Never again. Each person here has a different smile a different face a different language. But the same hope and the same dream. Each person holds a different thought in their head and a different connection. But we’re all here, together holding our six million ancestors memory in our soul.”
Ekow: The trip ends in Israel on the Israeli Independence Day for a citywide party. This is intentional because the March of the Living is just that. It’s a march of remembrance and reflection, but it’s also a celebration. Despite the horrors of the Holocaust the Jewish people persevere. Life goes on and there is dancing to be had.
Lisa: I vividly remember being in the streets of Jerusalem. The city, the country just shuts down for the celebration day. Every local, kids, grandparents, students, young professionals, literally everyone, is in the streets partying. I remember people spraying foam at each other, throwing things, dancing, music on the loudspeakers. It’s a celebration of life. Something I just really respect about that culture is an appreciation for what you have in front of you on that day. There’s no niceties. It’s just let’s appreciate what we have, let’s not pretend otherwise. There’s appreciation for the fragility and what it took to get there. Let’s not take it for granted either. And it is a true party.
I went crowd surfing. We even got the rabbi up and surfing it was so much fun. These are the times.
Then on May 4th upon return it says.
“People keep asking me how is your trip? Was it fun? Fun, are you kidding me? They’ll never understand. I want to make them understand, but how? That’s the hardest part. How to educate others. Back to school and all the petty shit that comes with high school and it just feels so meaningless in comparison to what I just went through. How am I going to deal with everyone? AHHHH! “
That’s what’s written here and I think that’s been my challenge ever since. What has stuck with me is this thinking about how we use our words and how words actually have a tremendous amount of meaning.
Ekow: When Lisa returned home she decided that she wasn’t going to use the word hate anymore and that when the time came she’d pass that same commandment on to her daughters.
Lisa: Just the other day I was trying to relay to them a story about Hurricane Matthew which had just happened. I told them how it hit the country Haiti. “Mom you said Haiti!” You just realize how every moment is another education on another subject. No, it’s a country. I don’t know that they really get it yet. What I tried to explain to them and what they know is it’s okay not to like something, but we don’t hate.