Walking through the famous gate “arbeit macht frei” at Auschwitz, I felt sick to my stomach. I’d seen that gate, with its infamous Nazi inscription, “work makes you free,” in history textbooks, photos and movies, but seeing it in person was so real. It was crazy knowing that just 70 years ago so many people walked in through those gates, not knowing where they were or what was happening. So many never got to walk out. As I walked through the gate with a group of 34 other teens I felt a sense of overwhelming grief. It’s almost as if I could feel the souls that perished at Auschwitz, as if they were telling all of us that we need to never forget. I felt that not only as a Jew, but as a human being, I have a duty to keep their memory alive.
As we continued touring Auschwitz the weather got worse and the emotions more intense. We saw firsthand the “artifacts” of the Shoah, which included 70 tons of human hair, thousands of pairs of shoes, prosthetics, tallits and suitcases, among many other things. Viewing the thousands of pairs of shoes, I fell apart. I walked down the hall of shoes in horror knowing that at one point all of these shoes belonged to people with hopes, dreams and promising futures. I couldn’t deal with that fact that so much was taken away from innocent people for simply being themselves. As I wept, a girl from my trip I had met only four days prior came to my side and took my arm as we walked through the shoes trying to understand the impossible. That was a moment I will never forget. Her kindness when I was in my most vulnerable state created a bond that will last forever.
The most powerful moment at Auschwitz came when we went into the gas chambers. We walked in hand in hand knowing that this might possibly be the hardest thing we’d ever do. The 34 of us squeezed together as we listened to the rabbi’s melodic voice chanting “Eli Eli,” El Malei Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish. We comforted each other as we, unlike so many, were able to walk out of the gas chambers. Upon exiting we held hands in a circle and after a few moments of utter silence we all joined together in “Hatikvah.” It was one of the most powerful things I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. Never in my life have I felt so hopeful and so connected to a group of people who only four days earlier where complete strangers. From here on out the people I had met on March of the Living were not just random strangers but rather extended family who I knew would be there for me through everything. We left Auschwitz with heavy hearts and a newfound respect for life.
The next day we returned to Auschwitz for the main event: The march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. We marched with 10,000 other Jewish teens from 50 different countries. We lined up, linked arms, and prepared ourselves for an intense experience. For 40 minutes we marched in silence thinking about how this could’ve been us on a death march only 70 years ago. We took in our surroundings, looked at trees we might’ve hidden in, and watched as all 10,000 of us walked in solidarity. For what seemed like miles all I could see were the blue March of the Living jackets. It makes you feel like you’re a part of something much bigger. As I was leaving Auschwitz I realized that the unusual weather could be taken as a powerful metaphor. For the first time all week, the sun was out, but occasionally a very cold breeze would hit. I took the cold breeze as the souls who perished telling us that we can never forget what happened. We have to go home and tell everyone what we saw here. However, I took the sun as a reminder to live life a little brighter, laugh a little louder and smile a lot bigger because our time here on Earth is short, so we have to make the best of it.
Being of petite stature, just under 4’9″, I was able to squeeze through the plexiglass barriers and place a candle of remembrance inside the crematorium at Majdanek. Despite the challenge of squeezing through the barrier we were determined not to leave until we could honor the souls that had perished. Although the Holocaust is considered a hate crime against Jews, it’s a tragedy against humanity. Individuals were killed based on their religion, sexuality, physical ability or disability, age and perceived worthiness. We must always remember this horrific event not only for the Jews but for all of humanity.
Poland was one of the most emotional and empowering experiences of my life. After a grueling week in Poland we ventured on to Israel. We were headed to the Promised Land and we could not have been more excited. We arrived at 3:50 a.m. and I was practically jumping out of my skin. It was my first time in Israel and probably the happiest I have ever been. The staff told us that we had to hurry to leave the airport so that we could get to our first surprise. We got on the bus and about an hour later they informed us we would need flip-flops. We got off at Rishon LeZion, a beach community right near Tel Aviv. We walked up to the beach, got in a circle and listened as the rabbi led us in the Shehechiyanu, the prayer of thanks said on joyous occasions. We were told that we would have the next 30 minutes to play on the beach and in the water (only up to our ankles) and that this would act almost as a mikvah. We were purifying ourselves from all the sadness we experienced in Poland and getting excited for an incredible week in Israel. It was a beautiful way to start off my first day in Israel.
The things we saw in Poland were heartwrenching, so being able to travel to the holy land directly after made me realize just how lucky we are to have a Jewish homeland and how important it is to fight for its continued existence. Within my first few hours of being in Israel I knew that I was at home. Never in my life had I felt like something was so meant for me. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but someday I hope to call Israel my home. For now it’s just where my heart lives. In Israel we toured the country and visited historical sites and monuments. It brought to life the stories and teachings I’ve grown up with through my family, synagogue and Rabbi Stephanie Aaron.
The March of the Living is an annual educational program that brings together students from all over the world to see Poland and participate in a march from Auschwitz to Birkenau that is symbolic of the death marches. Following is a trip to Israel to emphasize that while the Jews once suffered, now they thrive. In Israel at the closing ceremony, we met some really sweet French girls. It was very hard to communicate since my French is awful, so we spent most of the night just giggling over the language barrier. As the night went on we realized that the language barrier was not important because we were all able to connect through the words Am Yisrael Chai (the people of Israel live). The unity found on the March of the Living is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
March of the Living changed my life. I was fortunate to be able to be sponsored in part by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, as well as the Phillip Balch scholarship fund established at Congregation Chaverim. I was so blessed to be able to embark on the journey of a lifetime with Hila Lamdan, who is also from Tucson, by my side. Our friendship was greatly deepened by this experience.
Michaela Davenport is one of two Tucson teens who participated in the 2013 March of the Living. She is a junior at Sabino High School.