About five months ago I took part in the March of the Living, a trip where I traveled from Poland to Israel. The March of the Living is a Jewish organization that takes 16 and 17 year-olds for two weeks to visit Poland and Israel, both places that mark history for the Jews. During this trip we were to visit concentration camps and reflect on the Holocaust. The job of the participants was clear: to ensure that the world will never forget what our people, as well as so many others, went through. We had all attended seminars and workshops to prepare for this trip, but no matter how long or how much I attempted to prepare myself, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. What I saw was the evidence of the deaths of millions who deserve to never be forgotten.
Our trip began in Poland, the place where six million innocent people were brutally murdered in the place where they called home. We arrived in the evening on April 17th, and by the evening of April 18th, we were ready to leave. We could not take a step without thinking about those who had died there. We traveled to concentration camp after concentration camp, witnessing a methodical area that was designed to kill the most Jews in the fastest period of time, making sure to embarrass them as much as possible. We saw gas chambers where my family members and so many others suffocated until their wretched death, and then we saw where their bodies had been taken and burned into ash. Over the course of a week, we traveled to Treblinka, Plashow, Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdanek. Five places that we walked into fully aware that if something were to go wrong, we could all simply leave without a second thought. Five places that millions walked into, never to leave again.
It took me a while to fully process what I was experiencing. The first concentration camp that we visited was Treblinka. I remember feeling numb upon walking into this foreign place. As I looked around the camp that once was a place filled with buildings that held horrible secrets, I could not feel anything besides numbness. The camp was now a barren place that held no resemblance to the one that had existed; all that remained were bleak tombstones remembering those who had been murdered. I stared around at the sight in front of me but inside of me it felt as if I had walked outside on a cold winter’s day in nothing but a t-shirt. I was completely hollow inside. As we continued our journey to Plashow and then Auschwitz I continued to feel nothing. I tried so hard to be sad or at least to cry, but nothing would come.
On the day of April 23, 2009 all nine thousand March of the Living participants from around the world took part in the annual March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The March of the Living is held each year in contrast to the Nazi Death Marches that hundreds of thousands of Jews and others were forced to undergo toward the end of World War II. Many of the prisoners perished during these gruesome marches. We completed the very same walk in complete and utter silence, holding hands with those next to us. As we entered Birkenau the sight was startling. In the middle of the camp there were train tracks, the very same that had lead millions to their deaths.
Everywhere you looked you could see smashed buildings, and then at the very end of the camp were the gas chambers, which lay in ruins. The wires that once gave power to these sick buildings stuck out from the ground as if they were tree roots that had been there for hundreds of years. These “roots” held the secret stories, the wails, and the screams of those six million that perished. They were our history, our roots.
My eyes followed the wires until the end, where my focused blurred until it refocused upon the broken walls around me. There were scratches etched into them. These were the scratches made by those trying desperately to hold on to every last inch of life that they could. These were the scratches of lost hope. As I ran my fingers along the ruble, I felt the cool chill of death pass through my body. I could feel the ridged surface beneath my fingers, each new mark representing a new death. My hand suddenly began to sting, as if the sorrow and pain etched into these imperfections were slicing into my hand and seeping into my heart.
Eventually we made our way into the barracks, the buildings where the victims were forced to live. It was here that we first heard the survivors talk about their experiences in the war. It was here that my numbness began to fade. My body that had been frigid and cold suddenly began to feel as though it were on fire.
My emotions startled me and at first I could not really make sense of what I was feeling. Still trying to make sense of it all, I continued to listen to the survivors amazing stories and suddenly I began to cry. Hot, searing tears began to fall from my eyes and I was struck with a sudden realization. I was angry.
I was mad that someone could do something so monstrous such as murdering innocent people. I was mad that the survivors who had gone with us on the trip, as well as their family and friends, had to suffer so much at the hands of evil. But most of all, I was angry at the unfairness of it all. I was mad that after spending a few mere hours in a place where so many entered never to leave again, that I could simply just walk out without a second thought. I stood there in the barrack rooted to the spot, my hands curled into fists at my side with burning tears rolling down my face. I had never felt so angry; my whole body was shaking with uncontrolled rage. It was at this point that I realized that I would be sure to never forget, and I would make sure that the rest of the world did so as well.
I left for this trip a naïve girl, but came back a changed woman. How do you come back from a trip like this and return to normal? The answer is simple: you don’t. I had grown up knowing the facts of the Holocaust, but it never seemed real to me. Now it is more real than ever, for I saw the evidence first hand. Millions sat by and did nothing while millions more died at the hands of the Nazis. It is up to us to take a stand and fight to ensure that a Holocaust never happens again.
The world can still be evil and hold prejudices; no war will ever be able to stop that from happening. All we can do is never forget and make sure to never let another Holocaust happen again. My name is Alyse Dan and I will never forget.
Alyse Dan, grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, was a participant in the 2009 March of the Living program.