July 4, 2022 -

My Experiences on the International March of the Living – Max Alter

This message on “If Not Now, When?,” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, was shared by our recent Religious School graduate, Max Alter, at our Aug. 3 Shabbat Atid Service.  We encourage you to comment below or to share the link on social media to continue the important conversation it engenders.

On April 12, 2018, the worldwide diaspora of Jews was grieving together, once again, recalling the tragic events of our past in honor of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Annually, we as a Jewish people observe Yom HaShoah to ensure that we never forget.

But this Yom HaShoah, I was standing outside block number fifteen at Auschwitz I’s concentration camp. I was literally standing in the absolutely most horrific place in Jewish history. In that spot, I was approached by an Israeli man named Moshe and asked if I would like to wrap tefillin.

  • I was standing in Auschwitz on Yom HaShoah, wrapping tefillin for only the second time in my life.
  • I was freely and proudly expressing my Judaic image in a place that would’ve executed me for the very same thing less than 80 years ago.
  • Unlike so many before me, I didn’t walk out of Auschwitz I famished or naked. I walked out wearing my kippah and my pride, hand in hand, with tens of thousands of other worldwide Jews as we began our march to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

For those unfamiliar, the International March of the Living is an ultra-immersive two week experience that spans the observances of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day), and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). The first week of the experience is spent bussing around Poland, walking through and experiencing the sites of the Holocaust concentration camps, culminating with a group march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The second week is spent in Israel, experiencing the growth of the Jewish people post-war.

While in Poland, I was constantly speechless due to the inconceivable horrors that happened on each ground that I stood on. The numbness I experienced while passing through the half dozen or so grounds that led to the death of innumerable Jews is indescribable. It also occurred to me that my emotions while being on the grounds could never match what the imprisoned had felt.  At each camp, I asked myself, how can humanity be so cruel? How could so many people be so vile? Yet, as the group marched from Auschwitz I to Birkenau on Yom HaShoah, surrounded by Israeli flags and Judaic pride, I realized my critical takeaway.

In spite of everything else, the Jewish people are still alive.

In spite of the Third Reich’s invasion of the former Jewish quarter of Krakow, known as Kazimierz, a small city that I toured that had once been called home by over 32,000 Jews that now has less than 100 residential Jews. In spite of the inhumane cruelty with which Nazis once corralled 400,000 Jews in the 1.3 square miles of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw that took me a mere 20 minutes to walk. To put this in perspective, the U.S. Census lists Beachwood as 5.2 square miles with a population of 11,593. In spite of the gassing of 17,000 Jews in one day at Treblinka, at which nothing but a stone memorial still stands. In spite of the Evian Conference that took place almost 80 years ago, set up to ensure safe homelands for Jewish refugees attempting to flee Nazi Germany, but only resulted in finding a home for 800 Jews as opposed to the millions that needed refugee. In spite of the horrors represented within the remains of Majdanek, where the I saw the original gas chamber and crematorium still stand and remain untouched and functional. Because, in spite of everything, the Jewish people were marching with me from Auschwitz.

Those same people who experienced that numbness and indescribable emotional state grieved along my side, but came to that same realization. Those same individuals joined me in Israel mere days later. Yes, we saw Masada and the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv. Yet, these experiences were minuscule compared to my experience observing Yom HaZikaron and hearing the Mourners Kaddish echo through the country.

For the first time in my life, I was no longer part of the minority. A prayer that I hear weekly on Shabbat was being shared by an entire country. The next day, my group proceeded to the Kotel. Before approaching the wall, a group of Israelis offered to wrap tefillin for me once again. I accepted, and as I approached the wall, I couldn’t think of a prayer to communicate my emotional state.

Here I was, at the holiest location in our religion, wrapping tefillin. Something I had done less than five days before at the absolute worst point of Judaic history. Juxtaposing those two experiences was nearly impossible. Regardless of observance of Judaism, regardless of beliefs in Zionism, regardless of age, gender, race, or any other demographic. This specific juxtaposition that so many other Jews experience each year solidified my conclusion that we won. Like so many times in the past, we overcame the odds as a people.

Moses led the Jews to the promised land in biblical times, but, after the lowest point in our existence, we finally were able to claim that promised land as our own. Our survivors had refuge. Judaism continued to grow. I’m an eighteen year old boy standing in front of my congregation at temple talking about this experience. I get to experience growth and loss with my Jewish community. I’m observing my grandfather’s Yartzheit tonight.  The Nazis lost.

According to the The Cleveland Jewish News, the 2012 estimated Jewish population in Cleveland was 80,800. An estimated 75 Cleveland Jewish communities were murdered in the Holocaust. Worldwide, however, an estimated 15 million Jews remain, of which, 6.5 million reside in Israel. As this Shabbat comes upon us, recognize our blessings. We made it. We won. From standing inside Birkenau to the Western Wall and back to Cleveland, Ohio, I was able to flaunt my Judaic image. The Jewish people are still here.

That is what the International March of the Living taught me.