"Work sets you free": the phrase above the Main Camp No. 1 (Stammlager I) of Auschwitz, the massive concentration camp built by the Nazis during World War II, could not be more cynical.
Here, the prisoners were stripped of their private belongings and their hair was shorn. They were not merely forced to wear camp clothing, but were issued numbers that were actually tattooed onto their bodies. In short: They were dehumanized.
In the beginning, it was mainly Polish resistance fighters, intellectuals, Soviet prisoners of war and other people disliked by the National Socialists who perished or were shot in this German concentration camp located on occupied Polish territory.
Many died from hunger, disease and the miserable conditions of forced labor. However, from 1942 onward, systematic mass murder began in the extended Auschwitz-Birkenau camp section.
Around 1.1 million people were ultimately killed in Auschwitz, most of them Jews.
Keeping the memory alive
Since 1988, surviving concentration camp prisoners, their children and grandchildren, and mostly young Jews from all over the world have gathered in Auschwitz on Yom HaShoa, Israel's national Holocaust memorial day, for the March of the Living. The name recalls the death march at the dissolution of the largest concentration camp in 1945.
Given the shifting of the front in the East and the advancement of the Allies, the prisoners were to leave the camp. In freezing cold, they were driven west on foot, whipped on by Schutzstaffel soldiers who shot exhausted prisoners when they could go no further.
Together, participants in the March of the Living, which will take place on April 18, 2023, will walk 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles) from Stammlager I to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
The March of the Living aims to keep people from forgetting, especially in view of resurgent antisemitism, and it is an expression of living remembrance of the Jewish victims.
Speaking with Auschwitz survivors
The number of eyewitnesses who can speak of the atrocities of that time is rapidly dwindling. Yet, there are still some survivors, like Eva Umlauf. The Slovak-German pediatrician and psychotherapist was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp with her mother in 1944 when she was just 2 years old. Both survived, as did Eva's sister Nora, who was born there. It was not until 2014 that Eva Umlauf began to speak publicly about what she had experienced.
For Philipp Doczi, from the organization MoRaH (March of Remembrance and Hope - Austria), who asked Eva Umlauf to speak as an eyewitness at the March of the Living event this year, the "personal experience" and the chance to ask Umlauf questions is particularly important.
Doczi is traveling to Auschwitz with a delegation of 1,000 young people from Austria. Together with 230 German students from the state of Brandenburg, they will take part in the march and then meet together with Umlauf, who is one of the youngest survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Dieter Starke, who is accompanying the young people from Brandenburg, also knows from previous trips that these personal encounters with eyewitnesses have a profound impact. The need for discussion afterwards is enormous.
This year, the group of German youth will also be meeting with Israeli peers to exchange ideas and to hear about how they experience racism, antisemitism and exclusion today, and also how they deal with it, he says.
The March of the Living as sign of vibrant Jewish culture
Established in 1988, the program was originally designed for Jewish high school students, but later opened up to students of all religions and backgrounds. In 2005, a German Christian delegation was admitted for the first time. In 2022, even representatives of the United Arab Emirates were present. It is a gesture of solidarity that cannot be taken for granted.
This year, some 10,000 participants from all over the world are expected — a number similar to that of before the COVID pandemic.
"There is a kind of clash of culture," says Philipp Doczi. When Jews from South America dance and sing in Auschwitz, for example, it seemed strange to him at first. But then he realized that that is also a sign of celebrating the survivors and of vibrant Jewish culture.
The March of the Living not only sets an impressive example against forgetting, but also for honoring Jewish life as a whole, now and in the future.
This is an adaption from the German original by Louisa Schaefer.