Some survivors fear coronavirus has killed a last chance to march at Auschwitz
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Some survivors fear coronavirus has killed a last chance to march at Auschwitz

March of the Living president Phyllis Greenberg Heideman says decision to delay annual event is particularly painful coming in the 75th year since Auschwitz liberation

Participants in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, as Israel marks its annual Holocaust Memorial Day, on May 1, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative: Participants in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, as Israel marks its annual Holocaust Memorial Day, on May 1, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

For the first time since its founding, the annual trek of Jewish teenagers, educators, and survivors from around the world to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp on Holocaust Remembrance Day has been postponed, amid global concern over the spread of COVID-19.

The March of the Living normally draws thousands of people to Poland for a memorial walk between the Nazi Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, and then finishes with a trip to Israel for Independence Day. However Israel has begun barring non-residents, in order to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

Announcing the postponement with a “heavy heart,” on Sunday, March of the Living World Chair Shmuel Rosenman said that the organization was acting out of a sense of “responsibility to take precautionary measures in accordance with the guidelines given by authorities in various countries.”

This year’s march would have had extra resonance, as it marks 75 years since the liberation of the camp, where over 1 million people were killed, most of them Jews.

A military official (L) shakes hands with Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg at the March of the Living in Poland on April 12, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

More than 50 survivors had been expected to travel, some of them pushing themselves hard to attend, despite health concerns, because of the anniversary. Guides suspect that even if the event is rescheduled within months, some of the survivors are declining too fast to manage the trip.

“For Holocaust survivors who now don’t have the opportunity to go, it’s devastating,” said Tel Aviv-based guide Maya Yehezkel, who was due to meet a large Canadian delegation, including seven survivors, in Poland. “Some survivors won’t be able to come next time. In fact, some of them were planning that this would be their last year.”

The decision came two weeks after Israel’s Education Minister Rafi Peretz halted Israeli high school trips to historical Holocaust sites in Poland.

Shortly after March of the Living made its announcement, the organization’s president Phyllis Greenberg Heideman told The Times of Israel that she was close to tears, and said: “It’s really tragic for us — and it’s happening 75 years since liberation of Auschwitz, when our program was geared around the anniversary.”

She said that the march has faced all sorts of challenges in the past, and never canceled, but there was no way to continue with this year’s event and keep everyone safe. “We’ve had snow storms, dust storms, and a volcano that erupted which meant we had to evacuate 6,000 people ” she recalled, referring to the 2010 Icelandic eruption that shut air travel over Europe. “We’ve had political unrest and an intifada— we’ve had much thrown at us. But with this, we could not proceed.”

Screen capture from video of March of the Living president Phyllis Greenberg Heideman. (YouTube)

Yehezkel has led her group for five years, and said that the march is therapeutic for many survivors.

“I know how meaningful it is for them to come, it’s very healing. There is one survivor who says it’s his ‘revenge’ against the Nazis.”

Yehezkel said she supports the decision, but still feels “devastated.” She commented: “It’s very upsetting. I wait for the march all year. I don’t do it because it’s a job, but because it’s something we have to do and it’s part of my identity.”

She is finding it hard to absorb that the camps will be quiet on Yom Hashoah. “it’s a weird feeling that on that day nobody is going to march there — weird as this march represents life and the fact we’ll never forget.” She added: “For me to be at home, without a group, and without Holocaust survivors hugging kids, will be very painful.”

Greenberg Heideman said that March of the Living is determined to refund as much money as possible to all participants, and hoping to reschedule the event for later this year. “I feel certain we will come out stronger,” she stated. “We will not let this virus get the better of us.”

People from all over the world participating in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, as Israel marks annual Holocaust Memorial Day, on April 24, 2017. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

A rescheduled date for the annual commemoration, which was originally set for April 21 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, has yet to be announced.

The delay marked the first time since the March of the Living’s founding in 1988 that the annual event was interrupted, the organization said Sunday.

Two weeks ago, Israel suspended indefinitely all school trips to Poland, where the Israeli Education Ministry helps facilitate tours of death camps for hundreds of thousands of Israeli students.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in a recommendation earlier this week called on “travel agencies and organizers of trips to the Memorial to desist from the arrival of people from places found to be infected.”

Over 110,000 have been infected globally since the December outbreak of the coronavirus in Hubei province, China, and cases in more than 100 countries have resulted in thousands of deaths.

To date, there have been 11 COVID-19 cases in Poland, and no deaths.

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