They came from over 40 countries — from Australia to Burundi, China to South Africa, the United States to Germany — to celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday, filling the streets of Jerusalem on Tuesday with a sea of billowing flags, ecstatic chants of “Israel, Israel” and heartfelt, if often bungled, Hebrew lyrics.
At the March of Nations’ starting point in Sacher Park, a pair of beaming Poles proudly sported Star of David crowns, blue-and-white balloons strong-armed into the shape. Across the grassy expanse, an effusive Hasid was on a rock, welcoming the 2,000-odd international marchers to the city. And on the steep incline of Bezalel Street, hugging the capital’s trendy Nachlaot neighborhood, a middle-aged German violinist in a flat cap was serenading an Israeli baby in the arms of a woman in loose-fitting clothing on the sidelines.
Minutes later, the exuberant crowds filed past a barbershop in downtown Jerusalem, where an Israeli woman paused mid-haircut — her grey hair plastered to her face — to snake a smartphone through her cape and snap a photo through the glass. Past Hillel Street, a lanky Spaniard carrying a shofar high-fived an Israeli over his country’s soccer prowess, as several American nuns forged ahead behind a gray-bearded man with an eye patch and binoculars.
Nearby, a handful of IDF soldiers were showered with attention by the marchers.
But while visually reminiscent of the annual international pro-Israel march on the Sukkot festival, Tuesday’s March of the Nations had an under-the-radar twist missed by most casual Israeli observers.
“My grandfather went to Auschwitz and helped build the concentration camp. He was responsible for putting 16 kilometers of barbed wire into place and he also helped build the gas chambers,” Bärbel Pfeiffer, flanked by her husband and children, told the crowd in German before the march.
“And we are standing here today as a whole family to say that something like this must never happen again. And Israel, we stand by your side and we love you, Israel, and we will be with you.”
Organized by the March of Life organization of descendants of Nazi Waffen SS members, the event came at the end of a three-day conference centered on Holocaust commemoration, including talks with survivors. The march featured a large German contingent, though the bulk of the participants from around the world had no direct familial connection to the war and came simply as Christian supporters of Israel. It was the organization’s first Jerusalem event, but not the first in Israel, having previously held a walk on the Burma Road, a spokesperson said.
The March of the Nations was embraced by many Israeli leaders, including President Reuven Rivlin, numerous lawmakers, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and Likud minister Ayoub Kara, who welcomed the Israel support, the strong opposition to anti-Semitism, and the soul-searching by the descendants of the Nazi Wehrmacht.
Still basking in the afterglow of Jerusalem Day celebrations on Sunday and the US embassy relocation on Monday, elated Jerusalemites were cheering on the marchers from the sidewalk and from balconies, while teenagers and children eagerly hoarded flag souvenirs.
Few of the Israeli observers, however, appeared to be informed of the Nazi descendants’ connection to the event, with all of those approached by The Times of Israel offering a nearly identical head jerk and an open-mouthed “what?”
“That’s a crazy shock,” said one discomfited resident who asked to be identified only as Rafael. “That’s a crazy shock.”
A woman who identified herself only as Maayan, whose grandfather survived Auschwitz and grandmother Theresienstadt, had come downstairs from her Bezalel Street apartment with her two toddlers and a baby strapped to her chest to watch the festivities.
“On one hand, I really appreciate it that they’ve come, but on the other, I also feel bad for them. I wouldn’t want to take responsibility for things my grandparents had done,” she said.
While stressing there could be “no atonement” for the Holocaust’s atrocities, she added: “The question is how they educate their children. If they raise their children with tolerance… against racism, and with love of mankind – this is the real thing. To apologize to me that my grandfather has no family is not relevant. [The recognition] that [the Holocaust] is shocking, and that they don’t deny it and remember – it’s nice.”
A Nazi propagandist and his great-granddaughter
Carmen Shamsianpur, 34, the press coordinator of the March of Nations, was first encouraged to explore her roots by a local pastor in her German hometown in 2007. Turning to their older relatives for answers, the several hundred members of her church, herself included, had a “moment of relief” when they were told by family members that none had direct ties to SS military activity, she said. And then they realized, “the whole church, maybe 400 people, and no Nazis among the ancestors – it can’t be.”
“So we started research in archives,” she told The Times of Israel at the start of the march, white Star of David earrings dangling from her ears. Ultimately, everyone found at least one family member who was complicit in the mass murder, she said.
By 2012, she discovered one of her great-grandfathers had lived an hour away from Auschwitz, was “a real Nazi” who worked on the railways, and was directly involved in loading up trains of Jews bound for the death camp.
“We went there, where he lived, in Bytom – it’s Poland now, was Germany then,” she said. “We were looking for someone, there were 2,000 Jews in the city, now there are only six or seven left. We got to know the oldest one of them, who is not alive anymore, but he lived exactly in the same flat where our great-grandfather lived and we went there to see him and tell him who we are, and that we are really sorry for what happened, and want to be friends.”
Just a year and a half ago, after 10 years of research, she uncovered information on another great-grandfather — a prominent Nazi “propagandist leader.”
Shamsianpur, who is also a journalist, said she pursued her field before knowing anything about her great-grandfather. “But it’s a heritage, it’s a love for language that I have, and so on,” she said.
“But he used it for bad and I have the grace to use it for good and for the good of Israel and the Jewish people — which I love.”
Also at the march was Oliver Butz, a civil engineer from Germany, who said he came for “healing” and a “release of the pressure I had.”
“I can talk to people here. And I can’t talk to them in Germany,” said Butz, whose paternal grandfather was a Nazi stationed in northern Africa. His other grandfather, who he said was young when the war ended, died six years ago. “He denied the Holocaust until he died. And still my parents never did talk about the Holocaust,” he said.
“My family, still today they don’t want to talk about it. They just refuse and they argue and say it’s all gone, it was all in the past, so why [are you] bothering about the past,” he said. Giving an example of the singing of racist songs, Butz added: “And the Holocaust is still in my family, I can say that.”
The parade ended across from Mount Zion, at the Sultan’s Pool arena, where the march-goers were met with concerts by Jewish and Christian singers, somber dance performances to the Schindler’s List theme song, and Yiddish lullabies accompanied by a slideshow of Jewish Holocaust victims. It was a Rorschach test for the Jews in the crowd: between an uncomfortable spectacle flirting with cultural appropriation, and a moving testament to the past 70 years, the sweeping tides of history and the miraculous transformation of Jewish fate.
Five singers, all descendants of Nazis, took the stage.
“Im eshkaheh Yerushalayim (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem),” they crooned in the dark shadow of the Old City’s walls.