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'From now on, we will preserve their memory ourselves'

March of the Living resumes, but it may be the last year Holocaust survivors attend

The annual event that sees thousands march from Auschwitz to Birkenau is back after a 2-year hiatus due to COVID, and it’s potentially the end of an era

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

Illustrative: A March of the Living delegation at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland on May 5, 2016. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative: A March of the Living delegation at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland on May 5, 2016. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the March of the Living will resume its annual procession in person, in what will likely be the final time Holocaust survivors participate in the event.

This year’s March of the Living is set to take place in Poland on April 28 — Israel’s national Holocaust Remembrance Day — and will be attended by only eight Holocaust survivors. Seventy survivors attended the last in-person March of the Living in 2019.

“In the last few years, the International March of the Living and the world as a whole have lost many Holocaust Survivors,” said March of the Living president Phyllis Greenberg Heideman and chairman Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, in a joint statement. “This is almost the last opportunity to march alongside Holocaust survivors. It is our responsibility to carry the torch of their memory even in the face of the tragic ongoing war in Ukraine.”

With the high likelihood that this will be the last year survivors attend the annual march, this year’s theme will be passing the torch to the next generation, which will now be responsible for Holocaust remembrance and education.

“From now on, we will preserve their memory and demand of ourselves that ‘never means never,’” said Eitan Neishlos, grandson of Holocaust survivor Tamar Zisserman, who survived the death pits of Latvia thanks to a Christian family later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

“This duty is not a burden, it is a privilege,” he said.

Eve Kugler was born in Halle, Germany, and watched the Nazis rise to power as a child. While Kugler survived the war, many of her family members were murdered in the Holocaust. Now living in the UK, Kugler has attended the March of the Living for the last 10 years.

“We survivors are becoming an increasingly rare breed,” Kugler said. “[T]his should worry you more than it worries me… because hatred of Jewish people and Holocaust denial are still prevalent. If this is how the memory of the Holocaust is treated — or dare I say abused — when those who suffered it are still here to tell our story… then how much worse will it be when the survivors are no more than a distant memory”?

Over 2,000 participants, mostly from Europe and Israel, are expected to march this year, though due to the ongoing war in neighboring Ukraine, organizers have significantly scaled down the event compared to previous years, which saw tens of thousands of participants.

People participating in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau campsite in Poland, as Israel marked its annual Holocaust Memorial Day, on May 2, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

“March of the Living will not remain indifferent to the difficult news coming from Ukraine, which will find its expression in the framework of the events on Holocaust Remembrance Day,” said Rosenman.

The annual 3.2-kilometer (two-mile) march from Auschwitz to Birkenau will conclude with the traditional ceremony at the remains of the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematorium. In addition to the eight Holocaust survivors, attendees will include Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, former Israeli chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, IDF Cantor Shai Abramson and Israeli singer Harel Skaat.

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