The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you first get involved with the March of the Living?
Kathy Kacer (KK): I had thought about going on the March of the Living for years, but kept putting it off. Perhaps it is that I immerse myself in this history on a daily basis through my writing. Or perhaps I was worried about how I would cope emotionally with everything that I knew I’d be seeing. I naively thought that the March would always be there for me to take part in at some point. And so, as I said, I kept putting it off. But earlier this year, I attended an event where a number of Holocaust survivors were speaking. Many of them had also been going on the March as chaperones. In their respective speeches, a number of the survivors said that they would no longer be going on the trip. Several of them had health issues that would make this journey too difficult. Some simply said that they could no longer withstand the emotional strain of it all. I realized that if I wanted to participate in the March in the presence of the survivors, I had better sign on soon! And that’s what I did.
TWM: Please describe the logistics of the March and its duration.
KK: The trip takes place very year after Pesach. It is divided into two parts; the first is to Poland where you visit a number of the concentration camps (Auschwitz/Birkenau, Plazow, Majdanek, Treblinka), a number of ghettos (Krakow, Warsaw), cemeteries, along with other sites where the murder of Jews took place. You travel in buses of about 35 people. There is a guide on each bus along with a survivor. The actual March happens on Yom Hashoah where thousands gather in Auschwitz and walk in solidarity to Birkenau to attend a memorial service. This year there were 12,000 people from around the world who were there on the actual march day. The Poland part of the trip is about eight days and then you fly to Israel and are there for another eight days, seeing sites across the country and participating in the events of Yom Ha’atzmaut. Because of some personal commitments, I was only able to participate in the Poland part of the trip.
TWM: What were your expectations?
KK: I’m not sure I went with any expectations. I was nervous about how I would react to seeing these killing sites–that’s for sure. I certainly wanted to learn more about this history. I wanted to put actual images to the names of places that I had read about for years. And I wanted to be in the presence of the survivors as they recounted their stories in the very places where they had been separated from family members or where they had managed to survive. Other than that, I wanted to be open to every part of the experience.
TWM: Did anything surprise you in a positive way?
KK: I was amazed at how beautiful Krakow was! I think I naively expected some kind of shtetl town and instead was blown away by this charming cosmopolitan city. I would definitely want to return there one day. Other than that, I think I was surprised by the description of Poland today. The guides were very careful to distinguish between Poland “then” and Poland “now.” Many talked about Poland’s support of Israel today and the absence of anti-Semitism in the country. I’m not sure I believed it all, but it was surprising to hear this.
TWM: What was your most defining moment?
KK: Oh there were so many! But let me describe this moment in Majdanek. I must say that Auschwitz Birkenau was overwhelming and massive and emotional. But most of us on the trip agreed that Majdanek, though equally emotional, was also completely creepy. It is located within the town of Lublin about 3 hours from Warsaw. At its entrance you are accosted by a massive, Soviet built monument that is rough and harsh. The field where the barracks existed is massive. And at the far end, there is a memorial building that houses the ashes of tens of thousands of Jews. I was struck on the whole trip by the unpredictably of my tears. I didn’t know what would trigger them. In Majdanek I didn’t cry during the entire tour—not as we walked through the gas chamber, not in the barracks, not in the crematorium, and not in front of the mound of ashes at the memorial. What brought on the tears was watching some teenagers from California who were also there on their own tour. They were sitting close to the memorial building, reading letters that they had brought with them from their parents who had been instructed to write a letter to their child, seal it in an envelope and send it with them on this journey. The kids were only allowed to open the letters and read them at the end of their tour of this place. I couldn’t help but think that there were once young Jewish people who had been imprisoned here who were separated from their parents and never heard from them again. It completely gutted me!
TWM: They say the march is a life-changing experience. Is that true for you? If so, how?
KK: It’s hard to say whether or not this trip is life-changing. It certainly was the one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I learned so much history that I didn’t know. I met some incredible people all of whom had important personal reasons for wanting to be there. I’m so glad I went—difficult as it was at times. And I’m grateful that I went with survivors while they are still capable of going! Most of the survivors on this trip were in their late 80s. In five years this trip will look completely different when they are no longer a part of it.
TWM: Will your participation in the march change anything in what or how you wrote about the Holocaust (or anything else)?
KK: I have no question that the trip will change the way I write—though I’m not even sure how. The heightened emotional connection that I made with this history while on the trip will stay with me and I’m sure will find its way into my writing. Interestingly, the new book I’m working on has a young character who comes from Krakow. So I guess it’s already working its way into my writing!
TWM: Any tips for participants? How can one become a participant?
KK: My husband wasn’t able to go with me on the trip and at first I was determined to go on my own. In the end, I found a close friend who was willing to go, and I’m so glad I had someone with me on the journey. It’s great having someone to cry with, laugh with, and to debrief with at the end of the day—even though the organizers provide many opportunities for participants to talk about their experiences. If possible, I’d recommend going with someone. To become a participant you can get in touch with your local synagogue or Jewish Community Centre. Most should have information about the groups that are organizing a March tour in your city. You can also go to the website for the International MOL.
For more about author Kathy Kacer, please visit her website.