We were a gathering of 60 adults, drenched, freezing, each of us holding the image of roll-call, rows and rows of Jews standing in the pelting rain, weak from starvation, wearing cotton shifts, frozen human beings. We held onto our umbrellas with clenched fists and clenched hearts; walking, living Jews, remembering. One of the women’s barracks was unlocked; was it shelter we sought there? We crowded inside, staring at the empty rows of beds. Again, our minds gasp at what happened here: women forced to sleep with straw for mattresses, nearly on top of one another, no sheets or pillows, barely a blanket to cover them. We were all quiet, hardly breathing.
Into that silence, Leah, one of our survivors, began to speak. Leah was accompanied on this journey by her granddaughter, Kim. She is a Hungarian Jew whose entire family was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Leah has never told her story to any member of her family; she has never spoken her story out loud to anyone. She cannot tell her story directly to Kim, so she whispers in Hebrew, her language, to Tali, our guide. Tali, whose father was saved by Oscar Schindler, is part of the second generation; she speaks Leah’s story in English to Kim, the third generation, as we listen, carefully inscribing her memories on our hearts.
This is how we will do the sacred work of memory. We will listen to the survivors and their children and their grandchildren. We will study the history of the Shoah. We will give every murdered Jew a name and his or her story. We will come to these death camps and we will tell their stories; we will never stop speaking and doing and remembering the Shoah.
Leah was saved by her fellow Jews, one whispering to her, “Tell them you are 16,” others keeping her warm with their bodies — keeping her in life on the death march. We will tell her story; we will never forget. And we will continue the life of the Jewish people. We will celebrate our holy days,
do mitzvot, study and live Torah. And HaShem, we will be an ohr goyim, a light to the nations, just as we promised we would.
Rabbi Stephanie Aaron took part in the 2011 March of the Living, the sixth time she has participated.