The beauty of the Polish countryside was eerie, says Cameron Busby, one of 12 Tucson teens to participate in this year’s March of the Living, an annual education program that unites Jewish teens worldwide in Poland on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, to march between the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps.
The six days in Poland were permeated by “a definite heaviness the entire time,” says Busby, a junior at Tucson High Magnet School, “especially considering what we were doing there. As soon as the beauty of the place would set in, so would the realization of what terrible atrocities happened there; it was haunting. Everywhere you look you can’t help but wonder.”
The second half of the trip brings participants to Israel for a week, in time to observe Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.
This year’s trip took place April 24 through May 8, with the largest Tucson group to date joining teens from Nevada, California and Alaska to make up the Western regional delegation.
To prepare, Tucson teens attend a semester-long “March of the Living” evening class at Hebrew High, where they study Jewish history before, during and after the Shoah, including hearing testimony from several survivors who live in Tucson.
Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim led this year’s delegation. Two Holocaust survivors, Manya and Mike Wallenfels of San Diego, also accompanied the group to Poland and Israel, including a stop in Bytom, Poland, where Manya’s mother is buried. The entire 46-person delegation said Kaddish for her.
The Poland itinerary included overnights in Krakow, Zamosc and Warsaw, during which the delegation visited historical sites, Jewish quarters, synagogues and memorials and heard a “Righteous Among the Nations” speaker.
The seven-day Israel itinerary began in Tel Aviv and ended in Jerusalem. Celebrating this journey of contrasts, the delegates got to climb Masada and Mount Hertzl, splash in the waterfalls of Ein Gedi, float in the Dead Sea, visit memorials and ancient sites, and enjoy Shabbat in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“Eli Weisel famously said, ‘When you listen to a witness, you become a witness,’” says Sharon Glassberg, principal of Hebrew High and director of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Coalition for Jewish Education. “Our goal is to create another generation of student witnesses.”
Sabino High School senior Ashley Feig describes her participation in the March of the Living as “an incredible spiritual journey.” This was her first trip to Poland, and her third trip to Israel. Seeing all the regional delegations combined for the march, she says, was empowering.
And there’s beauty in the trip’s bifurcated structure, says Feig. “To go through and witness death and darkness in Poland to a great life afterwards in Israel just reaffirmed the necessity of a Jewish homeland.”
Feig teaches first and second grade religious school at Congregation Chaverim. She will attend New York University in the fall as part of the global liberal studies program and plans to pursue international relations or communications. The March of the Living trip will help shape her Jewish identity in the future, she says, adding, “I need religion in my life.”
She urges other teens to go on the trip. “Everybody should see it, Jewish or not. Especially as we’re more and more removed from it. There are still Holocaust deniers. There are aging survivors. It is important to remember what happened.”
For Busby, the trip was “so intense, so in-depth.” He wrote the following on a trip journal for family and friends after visiting the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust history museum in Jerusalem:
“Ruthless murder is perhaps the most evil act someone can inflict, yet the murder of a child is beyond evil… it is depraved. The murder of 1.5 million children is gut-wrenching, repulsive. Upon walking into the children’s memorial at Yad Vashem, you find yourself in a dark room illuminated by five candles, yet the placement of mirrors gives the illusion of an infinite number of candles extending in every direction. In the background the names of children, from infants to teenagers, are read. Each candle, each name, is destroyed potential. Potential is infinite, which is why we protect children and their holy spark. So seeing the countless candles was completely devastating and hearing the names, haunting. There is something about the 1.5 million children that is beyond human understanding and defies words.”
Born and raised in Tucson, Busby and his family attend Congregation Chaverim, where he was confirmed last week. He plans to become a Bar Mitzvah this November, and hopes to attend the University of Arizona to study journalism or another social science.
“My Jewish identity really formed as I entered high school,” he says, “but in school we glossed over [the Holocaust]. It’s almost as if the lessons we can take from the Holocaust are fading, but if you visit firsthand, the lessons are so real, so fresh. Seeing the ashes makes it come alive.”
Aaron has led nine March of the Living delegations, and this was her 10th trip to Poland. Her passion for the “holy, sacred work” of Holocaust remembrance is palpable as she describes the urgency she feels for local teens to make the trip.
“I can genuinely tell you from experience that it doesn’t get any easier,” she says, “but it is such a lesson of the necessity to halt prejudice, bigotry and intolerance.”
A lifetime of Holocaust study has led Aaron to realize that second and third generation Holocaust survivors were inheriting a legacy they were ill-equipped to process. “You cannot be expected to take on the task of remembrance by yourself,” she affirms, “and to that end, our community will be there for trips like this and more.” She has spoken out in support of expanding the trip to include high school sophomores in addition to juniors and seniors. This year’s delegation included five sophomores.
Glassberg, who has overseen numerous delegations during her tenure at the JFSA, and the transition from sending a biannual delegation to an annual one, was surprised to see so many student participants this year because the trip was so close to final exams. Students have to work individually with their high schools to make arrangements for school work and exams.
“Most high schools are extremely supportive,” Glassberg says, “but students really have to buckle down to complete all the requirements.” Some years, Glassberg works with the College Board’s national office to coordinate alternative testing dates for students who will miss their advanced placement, or AP, examinations where they can earn college credit for courses taken during high school.
Although students and their families shoulder most of the financial cost of participation, this year the cost was partially subsidized by the recently established Israel Discovery Fund and the Beth Weintraub Schoenfeld Memorial Israel Experience Fund, both administered by the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. “Finding additional funding is always a struggle,” admits Glassberg, “and the cost to send a delegate is over $6,000 apiece.”
Aron also has worked to increase local fundraising efforts. This year, Congregation Chaverim raised more than $15,000 for the Phillip Balch March of the Living Memorial Scholars, a fund named for a Holocaust survivor and congregant whose dream, before his unexpected passing, was to send his adult daughters on the trip.
Aaron is the family rabbi of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. Giffords had planned to participate in the March of the Living with several staff members prior to the 2011 Tucson shooting in which she was critically injured. Her stepdaughter, Claire Kelly, participated in this year’s delegation. “She really wanted to go,” said Aaron, “and the family is very supportive.”
Kelly, who is not Jewish, wrote on the group’s trip journal that the trip “has been life-changing.”
“I knew little about the Holocaust and Judaism before I started this journey. I now know so much about the religion, the history, and stories thanks to the amazing rabbis, tour guides, and our two wonderful Holocaust survivors,” she said.
The Tucson teens are encouraged to share their memories of the journey with their communities, and will continue to remember and honor those lives lost.
As Busby reflects, “It sounds cliché, but it is so important to keep the memory alive. We need to, because it could happen again. It is important to be vigilant and to be a witness.”
To learn more about this year’s delegation or for information on joining a future delegation, visit the March of the Living International website at www.motl.org, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona at www.jewishtucson.org or Tucson Hebrew High at www.tucsonhebrewhigh.org.