Finding light in dark places: reflections on the March of the Living
“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” ~Anne Frank
It has been over a week since I returned from a whirlwind trip through Poland and Israel, otherwise known as the March of the Living. Almost immediately upon my return I sat down to write this blog post, but found it simply too difficult. Anything I could possibly write, any stories I could recount, seemed to simply fail in comparison to the experience I had on the trip, my first time in Poland. Now a week later, after sharing stories with family and friends, I realize there is one piece of the trip that stands out in my mind; not a specific anecdote or a site we visited, but an incredible life lesson I learned while traveling through Poland with 217 other Jews from Montreal.
The Holocaust is one of the darkest periods of history and Poland, especially as it is presented to the participants of the March of the Living, is indeed a dark place. It is hard to ignore that the history of the country seems to be mirrored in the weather; the sky was almost always grey and, even when the sun poked through, there was a constant chill to the air. But, contrary to popular belief, the March of the Living is not a dark trip. In fact, the most important lesson I learned while in Poland is that the March of the Living is not about darkness…it is about light.
Our Montreal contingent was lucky enough to travel with Rabbi Reuben Poupko, an incredible educator. It was Rabbi Poupko that pointed out the light, even in the darkest of places, while addressing our group under the dome of the ashes of over 60,000 Jews at Majdanek, on our last day in Poland.
“It is very easy to want to never come back to a place of such terror and hatred, yet we do it every year. And instead of meeting our past with anger, we bring hope. We sing, we light Yahrzeit candles, we hold each other and we remember. We don’t come back in anger; we come back with pride.”
As we got on back on the buses, heading to the Warsaw Airport and then on to Israel, I began to reflect on the past week spent in Poland and of all the light that we had managed to bring to the dark places we had visited. We sang and danced to Hebrew songs in the old deserted synagogues of Dzialoszyce and Tykocin, bringing the light of Jewish tradition back to these old shtetls. We comforted each other in the barracks of Birkenau as we listened to our unbelievably strong survivors tell us their stories of how they made it out alive. We put our arms around each other and sang “hinei ma tov u’ma-nayim” at Treblinka and Majdanek. We made new friends, we told stories, we laughed. And on Yom HaShoah, amidst the lines of crematoriums in the fields of Birkenau, we sang Hatikvah with thousands of other Jews from all across the world. Remarkably, as we did, the sun came out from behind the clouds and shone down on us, bringing actual light to one of the darkest places on Earth.
Out of all of these incredible moments of the trip, there is one that will forever stand out in my mind; the moment I realized what an important experience the March of the Living truly is. Standing in front of the mass grave in the Lupochowa forest, where the entire shtetl of Tykocin was shot and killed, I furiously tried to light a row of four Yahrzeit candles. Each time I managed to get two or three of them lit, the wind would blow them out before I could light them all. Eventually I ran out of matches and, feeling defeated, stepped back. I remember thinking to myself that in this place, a place plagued by a history of pure hatred and evil, it just wasn’t possible to bring out any light. However, seconds after I stepped away, my spot was taken over by a fellow marcher, with a new pack of matches, who began to light the candles all over again.
No matter how many years have passed, it is up to us to teach our children about our history, and to explain to them the importance of ensuring that we never let our Jewish traditions of combating life’s dark moments with singing, dancing, love, and light fade away. No candle will ever stay burning in the windy Lupochowa forest, but as long as there is always another Jew waiting to light it when it goes out, we are facing the horrors of the world in the best way we know how….with a whole lot of light.