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March of the Living: thoughts of a High-School Student 
 
Matt Rissien 
Ed: The March of the Living is an international, educational program that brings teens from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during World War II, and then to Israel to observe Yom HaZikaron, Israel Memorial Day, and Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. The goal of the March of the Living is for these young people to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to lead the Jewish people into the future vowing Never Again...his thoughts to his synagogue upon his return

"Shabbat Shalom! For those of you who may not know, I just returned from the March of the Living. It is a trip where we spend one week in Poland visiting the concentration camps and then travel to Israel for a week. Forty youth from Kansas attended the trip from both the Academy and public schools. It is impossible for me to summarize the entire trip in five minutes, so I will just take a few minutes to share some of the highlights I experienced on my trip.

When we were in Poland, we visited a town called Ticochen. Before the Holocaust, this entire city was Jewish. During the Holocaust, the Jews were marched in lines through their town, through a forest and shot, one by one. Children who were in line behind their parents were forced to watch their parents murdered, knowing that they would be next. As we walked through the forest, it was eerily silent. All we could hear were the footsteps of the people around us, marching through the forest just like our ancestors did many years before. At the end of the forest were memorials marking where mass graves stood. As we walked back to our bus from the forest, I kept looking back, and then I stood and stared as I said the Shema to myself, thanking G-d that I was actually able to come out of that forest alive.

When we were in Treblinka, a death camp, it truly shocked me to see that it had been completely destroyed. If you walked by Treblinka, you would think it was a monumental park, not a death camp. Just outside of the camp grounds you can see homes with children playing in their backyards. It really seemed surreal to me that kids were actually playing in their backyards and having fun so close to this tragic memorial site. In Treblinka there are 1700 stones. It would have been bad enough if those stones stood for individual people, but it was brought to my attention that the stones actually stood for individual communities that had been wiped out by the Naziís.
The next concentration camp that we went to was Auschwitz. This was the first time we actually went to a camp that was even partially still standing. Of all the things in the concentration camp, I found the hardest part to be the exhibit where they showed items that had been taken from the Jews. We went into one room that was filled with all the suitcases that were taken. They were all still intact with names on it. Next we saw a room filled with pots and pans that had been taken. Next to that room were piles and piles of shoes which were followed by prosthetic body parts that were taken. Then came the glasses and the braids of hair. This was the saddest thing I have ever seen in my lifetime.

We then joined thousands of other Jews, from all over the world, and took the March of the Living to Birkenow. As we came into Birkenow, a group of about nine of us joined arms and quietly sang Hatikvah. At the same time, there was a speaker listing all of the names of those who died in the Holocaust. I canít even begin to explain how it felt to actually be standing in a death camp on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. While it is a horrific feeling to be in a death camp, it felt good to be able to look around and see the entire camp filled with Jewish youth all there to make a statement that this will never happen again.

The last day we went to Midonick. The scary part of Midonick is that all it needs is the Zyclone B and it could be back up and running again in about 10 minutes. Just being in the camp gives you a sense of eeriness and creepiness. The crematorium still has coals in it that are intact. There is a huge pit of ashes left from the crematorium. Ironically, as we were walking towards the crematorium, I looked to my left and running past one of the barracks was a large family of 6 deer. Looking at those deer, I realized that no matter how hard you try to destroy a nation, there will always be life in the end.

We immediately went from Midonick, to the airport, preparing to leave for what was to be my first trip to Israel. You could tell Israel was going to be amazing from the moment we got on the plane. The meal was the first full meal I had eaten in a week. The flight attendants didnít intentionally bump you with their carts, as they went by, and then just look at you and laugh. The best part was the airplane radio which played Israeli music that we had learned in school.

Immediately after landing in Israel we went to the Kotel to pray while the sun came up. It was the greatest feeling to go from Poland, where no one spoke much English or Hebrew, to Israel, where even if they didnít speak English, you could actually speak to them in Hebrew. One of the greatest times for me in Israel was late at night. I couldnít sleep so I walked out onto the deck and on the balcony above me was an Israeli soldier smoking a cigarette. I said shalom and he answered back. We then went on for 30 minutes talking in Hebrew about the Army, America and Israel. Itís one thing to learn Hebrew in school, but you donít really realize just how much youíve learned until you can have a conversation with an Israeli who doesnít speak any English.

Another amazing part of Israel was when we went to the City of Kefar Adumim. We first went there for Yom Hazikaron. During the service, I looked around and watched peopleís reactions. As the slideshow, showing people who had died in the army, progressed more and more people began crying. Everyone was crying by the end because in Israeli, everyone knows each other in one way or another. Everyone knows at least one person who died in the army. After seeing that service, itís kind of disappointing to me that Memorial Day isnít taken more seriously in America. We use it as a time for BBQís and picnics when it should really be used as a time for remembrance.
The next night, we went back to the City for Yom Haatzmaut. This was the most memorable night I had in Israel. Within an hour, the city went from a town of mourners to a town of celebration. Everyone was dancing and singing and so happy celebrating the holiday. If you think that we felt out of place you couldnít be more wrong. We were told that they had never had so much ruach in their town as when we were dancing and singing with them. The Israeli children and teenagers all joined and danced with us and by the end of the night we were all sweating and hoarse from celebrating so much. On the ride back to the hotel, we looked out of our windows and saw fireworks going off all over the city.

The last part of Israel that I will talk about is the Carlebach minyan that we went to on Friday night. We were staying in Sefat, so we walked to the famous Carlebach minyan. This is a service where they sing special tunes to the Friday night service written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. In this service, we found people from all different denominations of Judaism. There were people there who had paious and people there in near casual clothing. People from all over the world joined in this tiny synagogue all for the same reason, to pray. I have never felt more from a prayer service then that one. It is impossible for me to describe the feelings that I felt dancing and singing and just being so happy to pray. In the corner of the little building was a man dressed all in white with a long beard and paious. I have never in my life seen someone look happier than this man. He was just looking around at everyone dancing and eventually he joined in with us. He was just so happy that we were all there together. It really made us all feel great when he came up, and with the biggest smile, said good shabbos."
06/02/2004 

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