If you didn’t notice, during the two weeks after spring break, 24 seniors were absent from school. We were part of that group, the group that embarked on the two-week journey to Poland and Israel called March of the Living. We Harvard-Westlake kids were in the minority of the Los Angeles delegation, which had over 200 students, the majority of whom were from Jewish schools.
However, the lessons we learned transcended Judaism and apply to each and every student at school. In an impossible attempt to condense a perspective-shaking two-week experience, one Martin Luther King Jr. quote works eerily well: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
What we want to ruminate on is that by going on March of the Living we bore witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. Through bearing witness, we gained the responsibility of retelling the stories we heard and experienced, and of educating future generations to come.
One of the many memorable experiences of the trip was walking through the iconic entryway of Birkenau, the death camp in southwestern Poland where over 1.2 million people were murdered, holding hands with a woman who survived that horrible place. She whispered memories of beatings, starvation, disease and, most hauntingly, about the feelings of luck and gratitude. But it wasn’t just us there: 14,000 people, again, Jewish and non-Jewish, marched together on that cold, uplifting April day.
Another chilling moment came after we toured Majdanek, a death camp that is in such perfect condition that it could supposedly be up and running in less than 48 hours. The whole Los Angeles delegation stood around the memorial shaped like a kippah, which holds the ashes and remnants of the victims of Majdanek, and sang “Imagine“ by John Lennon.
With our arms around each other, we were lucky enough to know that soon we would be walking out of the death camps that too many people never left — and were about to fly to Israel, the place that for many signifies freedom from past oppression and a firm hope for a better world.
One constant on the trip besides the rollercoaster of emotions was the presence of the survivors. However, the six survivors who accompanied us are way more than just survivors. They are warriors, living heroes. Each rebuilt their lives after the war, gathering the remnants of their families and starting new ones. The fact that they were able to start over is a testament to their sheer will. The fact that they were able to smile and laugh with us, that they can smile and laugh at all, let alone cheerfully share stories of their lives before and after the war as they did, is a testament to the human penchant to value love over hate, to value light over darkness.
So, we are writing this to try to convey the importance of life. Though we take our lives for granted, that’s not what we’re trying to change. There is a blessing in the fact that we are able to take anything for granted. What we want to do is impart a bit of the responsibility that we gained.
The trip was about humanity, and that message never ends. It’s about embracing the good with a fiery passion and unconditionally rejecting the evil around us — because, as Dr. King so eloquently put it, only love can dispel hate, and all it takes is a little bit of light to dispel darkness. We live sheltered lives. Most of us have never encountered oppression of any kind. It’s easy to pretend like all the evils of the past are over and done with.
What we learned, beyond the atrocities of the Holocaust, is that it is our responsibility to be proactive, to embrace good now before destruction rears itself again. The world is still far from perfect. It is the job of every participant on the March of the Living to do everything in our power to improve the world and protect it from hate and darkness. And now, we extend that responsibility to you.
As Gabriella Karin, one of the fantastic and inspiring Holocaust survivors, says: “Don’t ever think ‘I am alone, what can I do?’” because we all have the power and ability to live our lives with love, kindness and with the memories of what happens when we don’t. With that, we can create a better world.