BREAKING THE BARRIERS

In Features /

by Rafi Mustafa
Fourth-year broadcast journalism student

Her head bowed in mourning, Anita Eckstein chokes back tears while struggling against the wind and drizzle to light a candle. “That was my mother’s name,” she says, reading one inscription among thousands etched into the memorial wall of Belzec, the former Nazi concentration camp.

That week in Poland had been one of painful memories for Eckstein, now a Toronto resident who survived the Holocaust as a “hidden child”. As she weeps, 40 university students from across Canada are around her. Most are also in tears.

I am one of them.

We first met Eckstein in a Toronto hotel before our flight on May 3. We would embark on a possibly life-changing journey to see for ourselves what the Nazis perpetrated against millions of Europeans 60 years ago.

Organizers usually reserve the March of the Living — an annual trip to Poland commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day — for Jewish youth. But this year, we became the first delegation of non-Jewish students to join the week of Holocaust education.

As a Muslim Canadian, I cannot deny the global and societal pressures that brew tensions between Muslims and Jews, even here in Canada. Both groups have clashed openly on university campuses, and last year’s ugly hate propaganda incidents at Ryerson drew national media coverage.

I learned about the March through a Jewish classmate and hoped, perhaps idealistically, that my involvement could help build bridges between the communities. “Try to think of individuals,” advised our guide, Tal Elharrar, warning us that figures such as six million (the number of Jewish victims) might overwhelm us. “Focus in on individual lives that were torn apart during the Holocaust,” Elharrar said. Over the next few days, survivors’ accounts and visits to concentration camps around the former Communist satellite would help us do that.

Our plane descended through heavy rain clouds onto the tarmac at Krakow, and the rain fell harder outside the small town of Oswiecim, 60 km southwest. Our first checkpoint, we were told, was the most infamous Nazi death camp in history — Auschwitz-Birkenau. But nothing could prepare us for what we were about to experience.

Hunched under our raincoats, we emerged at the notorious gates. Above the steel barriers, the German inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei” — or “Work will set you free — greeted us, as it greeted prisoners 60 years ago.

It was, of course, a great lie.

Auschwitz was a drawn-out, excruciating death sentence. Nearly 1.5 million people were killed here between 1940 and 1945, and as we proceeded through, I felt myself held back by fear. Only the strength of survivors like Eckstein and Max Eisen pushed me forward.

Eisen lived through Auschwitz as a teenager because the Nazis needed strong men for labour around the camp. He could still recall the process of “selection”, during which the Nazis divided the men from the women. In a bunker-turned-memorial, he shared his story.

“On the platform, we asked, ‘When are we going to see our families?’ They said, ‘You’ll see them tomorrow,'” Eisen recalled. But instead, elderly people and young mothers clutching babies marched to the left on this platform towards the gas chambers. “It was the last time I ever saw my family,” he said.

Taking Eisen’s harrowing story with us, we then stepped into one of the few remaining gas chambers ourselves. There, we saw the showers used for gassing and the ovens used to dispose bodies. Barely hours after arriving in Poland, our group had already reached an emotional breaking point. Many wept openly.

For 3 km the next day, our Canadian contingent — about 800 strong — marched silently, retracing the steps from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Alongside me, 18,000 other Jews and non-Jews from around the world made the same, silent journey. Not a sound was uttered between us as we neared the camp gates. We only drew nearer to the chilling echo of loudspeakers reciting the names of the dead.

On the fields at Birkenau, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka led a memorial service reaffirming the message of “never again.”

This credo, urged Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, should not only be applied to hate crimes against the Jewish community, but to intolerance against members of any race, religion, or ethnicity.

At a preserved factory near the Plaszow concentration camp, our guide circulated a copy of German businessman Oscar Schindler’s list of Jews. It was at this factory where Schindler risked his life to shield Jewish workers from the death camps in 1945.

When Eckstein pointed out that some of her relatives were named on that list, I realized how one man’s actions saved not only 1,200 Jews, but also thousands of their descendants.

During the March, Cotler discussed the massacres in the former Yugoslavia and unspeakable genocides in Darfur and in Rwanda, “unspeakable in particular because this genocide was preventable.”

Since that week in Poland, myself and others on the trip became determined to take action against the discrimination that has destroyed so many lives.

Two weeks ago, about 30 March of the Living alumni gathered at Camp George in Parry Sound for a three-day conference, where we agreed to form a pluralistic national student organization.

SHOUT (Students Helping Others Understand Tolerance) will address concerns of discrimination on university and college campuses, while educating our communities about international genocides such as the Holocaust and Rwanda.

I sometimes think about Anita Eckstein, standing at Belzec, candle in hand, tears flowing. We stood around her silently that day, writing memorials and messages to the victims of that horrid place on small placards. One by one, we stuck the cards into the grass. As we left, some students held hands; others embraced each other — a testament to the bonds formed in a week.

Then, walking as one, the group of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, and Agnostics boarded the bus one final time — leaving behind, perhaps momentarily, the so-called barriers that divide us.

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