‘I felt something larger than me’

Three days into a trip that he said has changed him forever, Jake Goren ’08 joined 11,000 people from Belgium, Japan, South Africa, Germany, Poland, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Canada and the U.S. to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau (the death camp component of the Auschwitz concentration camp complex).

All 11,000 participants in this March of the Living wore blue and as they advanced, and it seemed as though a tidal wave of remembrance took over this part of Poland.

“This moment was powerful, not just in the number of people present, but in the idea behind it: we were commemorating the past and celebrating the millions of lives that were lost,” Goren said.

While his classmates prepped for and took AP exams, Goren participated in a 14-day program named after this march: The March of the Living. Spending the first week in Poland and the second week in Israel, Goren partook in everything from spiritual awakening at grave sites and death camps to celebrating Israel’s 60th birthday.

Enhancing the spirituality of both this march and the trip on the whole was the weather. When they started marching at Auschwitz, it was sunny and bright, but as they progressed on to Birkenau, it began to rain and the sky grew dark with gray clouds.

The weather played a significant role in Goren’s spiritual enlightenment throughout the trip — especially during his most memorable day when he visited Treblinka, an eerily beautiful death camp in Poland.

Accompanying Goren on his journey were many Holocaust survivors, including one named Paula, whose two sisters were brought to Treblinka for death. As Goren watched Paula take her first steps onto such a significant site and listened to her recount her town’s story to the group, he experienced his “hardest day on the trip” as everyone around her was crying.

Shortly after they began saying Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for remembrance of the deceased, the sunny and cloudless sky started to rain, yet as soon as the Kaddish ended, so too did the rain.

“It was probably the most spiritual moment on the trip,” he said. “It made me feel as though something greater than just us saying Kaddish was taking place.  It was as if the world were fixing itself, cleaning itself from the hatred that it had once known.”

Though Goren went to a Jewish elementary school and has always believed in the Jewish faith, he did not believe in God before his trip.

“Weather like that does not exist randomly, and it especially never complements the mood of the time. The weather throughout the trip is what made me perhaps believe in God again,” he said. “I felt something larger than me in those few moments. Enough to make me question something I thought I knew.”

Aside from such surreal experiences, facing the expected depressing sights in Poland and Israel left Goren full of unforgettable memories, one of which was his visit to the infamous Auschwitz.

At Auschwitz, Goren began talking to one survivor named Jean who was actually a part of the underground resistance movement. While learning about Jean’s experience saving many Jews and even killing Nazis, Goren also discovered that he lives in the very house Jean built and lived in during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. 

 “Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this camp was the fact that it looked more like a college campus than a concentration camp.”

This relatable quality also resonated when Goren visited Majdonik, another concentration camp in Lublin, Poland.

Though Goren found Majdonik to be disturbingly untouched, as it could be a functioning death camp within 24 hours, it was also “a part of the city, as the electric fences to the camp were in people’s backyards,” Goren noted. “There is still a monumental pile of ashes for visitors to see, and in it I could see bones and teeth.”

After seeing so many disconcerting sights in Poland, “our arrival in Israel came as a huge relief,” Goren said. “It’s weird but when I got there, I felt safe.” 

Jessica Sanders ’95 and a Brazilian production company wanted to make a documentary in recognition of the program’s 10th anniversary. After interviewing most of the Los Angeles participants (all of whom except for Goren attend Milken Community High School or New Community Jewish High School), the production team chose to interview Goren in Los Angeles before the trip and in Tel Aviv and follow him in Poland in Israel.

When he came back to Los Angeles, Goren felt completely changed. One story he heard of a survivor named Erika will make him think twice before complaining again. Erika was forced to work barefoot when she was in Plaszow; however, one day she was given shoes. She soon realized that these shoes were actually made of torah scrolls, so she began to remove them, yet her mother prohibited her from doing so, knowing that they would never get shoes again. Erika followed her mother’s orders and never complained about the holy scripts she wore and slung through mud daily.

“If people were forced to suffer as our survivors did and they never complained, who am I to complain about these trivial things.”

Goren also realized the importance of a good education.

“I see the knowledge of the Holocaust as some of the most important history I could study.”