It was the 1990 March of the Living. Thousands of young people from around the world had gathered on Holocaust Remembrance Day in the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau for our closing ceremony.
Elie Wiesel began to speak. The crowd hung on his every word. As he approached the end of his remarks, his voice filled with indignation, then despair:
“How can one not be concerned with anti-Semitism? We were convinced that anti-Semitism perished here. Anti-Semitism did not perish; its victims perished here.
“Children of the Jewish People, do you ever see what I see here? I see so many children and so many parents, and so many teachers and so many students. I see them. Forever will I see them. I see them walking in their nocturnal procession, wandering, crying, praying.
“Forever will I see the children who no longer have the strength to cry. Forever will I see the elderly who no longer have the strength to help them. Forever will I see the mothers and the fathers, the grandfathers and grandmothers, the little school children, their teachers, the righteous and the pious. From where do we take the tears to cry over them? Who has the strength to cry for them?
“Years and years ago, I saw… I cannot tell you what I saw. I am afraid. I am afraid that if I told you we would all break out in tears and we would not stop. I see a young girl…”
And then suddenly, Elie Wiesel shook his head and walked off the stage, unable to share his story. It was just too heartbreaking for him to continue.
On July 10, I walked with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau through the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau where, at age 15, I confronted death for the first but not for the last time.
It all started three days earlier when Eli Rubenstein, the Canadian director of the March of the Living, asked me if I would consider accompanying the prime minister to Poland. I was excited to go – this was a unique opportunity and privilege not afforded to many survivors of the Shoah.
Over the last 26 years I visited Poland, a free and democratic country many times. I visited the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau over 30 times on the March of the Living, and on many other occasions. However this was different: not only would I be there with my wife Bernice, my daughter Arla Litwin and my granddaughter Jennifer Green, but I would be there with the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of our beloved and wonderful Canada – a country where I established a new life, were I obtained an education and achieved a successful career, where my wife and I were blessed with a beautiful family of three daughters, three special son-in-laws and nine terrific and gifted grandchildren.
In 1935 Nazi Germany declared all German Jews as Untermentchen (less than human), removed their citizenship and abrogated their human rights. In 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland and did the same to the Polish Jews, including me. In 1942 at the Wannsee Conference, they condemned me to death for being born a Jew. In 1943, I was shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau destined to my death in a gas chamber.
Trudeau asked me how I managed to survive. I told him “my father snapped me from the jaws of death by his courageous intervention at the last moment at the risk of his own life.”
Forever will I see the children who no longer have the strength to cry. Forever will I see the elderly who no longer have the strength to help them. Forever will I see the mothers and the fathers, the grandfathers and grandmothers, the little school children…their teachers…the righteous and the pious…. From where do we take the tears to cry over them? Who has the strength to cry for them?
—Elie Wiesel, 1990 March of the Living
The annual March of the Living program brings thousands of young people from around the world each year on Holocaust Remembrance Day to Auschwitz-Birkenau to honour the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and to pledge to build a better world for all humanity.
Since 1955, Yad Vashem has worked to fulfill its mandate to preserve the memory of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust by collecting their names, the ultimate representation of a person’s identity. Millions of victims remain unidentified. Yad Vashem urgently calls upon Jewish communities to recover their names through a worldwide Names Recovery Project. Unless we assume collective responsibility for completing this vital mission, some of them may be lost forever. This is a race against time, before those who remember them are no longer with us.
The March of the Living is sponsored nationally by Jewish Federations of Canada - UIA, and locally by the respective Jewish UJA/CJA Federations. We would like to thank the following individuals, organizations and foundations for their support of the March of the Living program.
Selected Quotes from Past Participants
I wanted to go, not to learn more about the holocaust, but to walk those steps so that those who died will never be forgotten. I wanted to gain more of an understanding about how and why the holocaust occurred, and to have it become more of a reality that a textbook or a lesson taught frequently in class. I wanted to understand what it meant. I wanted to honour the ones who died and the ones who survived. I wanted to hear about the holocaust from those who lived it and be with them as they retraced those horrible steps. None of my friends ended up going with me, but ultimately I chose to go anyway because I felt it was important to try to understand not just to learn more facts, and that it was important to remember.