Hope, pride and belonging
Twenty-three students from Metro Vancouver joined more than 10,000 other students in this year’s March of the Living. They are pictured here with Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver board chair Karen James, far left, and trip chaperones Susan Siklos, standing to James’ left, and Charlotte Katzen, standing fourth from the right. (photo by Jennifer Freedman)
Twenty-three Grade 11 and 12 students from Metro Vancouver headed to Poland and Israel on the annual March of the Living last month, and nine of those were students from public schools. In the past, Vancouver has sent about 14 students every couple of years. The increased numbers this year were the result of outreach by a volunteer committee headed by Charlotte Katzen.
“March of the Living is a life transforming experience,” she told the Independent. “Every participant will tell you that. It strengthens students’ Jewish identity, their understanding of who they are as Jews in the world today and their commitment to Israel.”
Katzen helped assemble a video in which march alumni, their parents and Holocaust survivors talked about their experience, the impact of the journey on young people and how important it is for them to become a witness. The committee showed the video in open houses at King David High School and at Jewish afterschool programs and other Jewish venues.
“When march alumni tell their friends, ‘You have no idea how impactful this journey is,’ it’s a powerful message and they want to join,” said Katzen about the video.
March of the Living is not an inexpensive venture, so Katzen worked with Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver to help secure funding for students who couldn’t afford the trip.
“Federation really came through,” she said. “We’ve not yet reached the point of having sufficient funding, but, this year, Federation made a commitment that no child would be turned away. That commitment enabled us to say, during our outreach, ‘Don’t worry about your financial situation. If you want to go, you will go.’”
Federation offset the cost of the trip by $2,000 for each participant using funds raised by the annual campaign. Scholarships were also offered to families that needed them.
Noa Platner, a Grade 12 student at King David, was one of the participants. She described her time in Poland as “very hard, intense in a way I didn’t expect. We’d go to the camps and hear the story of a specific family, which helped us feel really connected,” she reflected. “But it was very hard, and it crushes you on the inside. I realized all the people who went through the Holocaust had their own individual stories. You always hear the number of people, but you don’t think of the emotions they felt.”
For Trevin Kiel, a Grade 11 student at Hugh Boyd Secondary School in Richmond, the march, which was attended by more than 10,000 Jewish students worldwide this year, was an opportunity to get a sense of the scale of the Holocaust. “I wanted to see what 10,000 Jews looked like, to compare it to six million,” he said. The stories of Nazi brutality were hard to absorb, he admitted, “but we debriefed every night as a group, and it felt reassuring to share our feelings with others and know they were feeling the same way.”
Kiel had visited Israel previously with his family, but said this time was much different. “It was the best trip I’ve ever been on, it was just so much fun and such an eye-opening experience.”
The group was in Israel for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut.
“I didn’t expect it would be an emotional time but I was more emotional in Israel than at the camps in Poland,” Platner said. “After all we Jews have been through already, to realize we’re still fighting and innocent people are dying was very crushing. But one of our guides told us we should feel proud that we’re still standing, strong enough to fight this time and do the best we can.”
Katzen helped prepare the students before they left Vancouver and participated in the march as well, co-chaperoning this year’s trip with Susan Siklos; Federation board chair Karen James was also part of the group.
“The students bond with each other and become so close by the end of the trip,” Katzen observed. “We grieve and celebrate collectively and we become one big, beautiful, coherent family. This trip changes them profoundly and makes them stronger, more tolerant of others and of each other.”
Being in Israel for Yom Hazikaron was no minor detail of the itinerary. “They realize, on Yom Hazikaron, that having a homeland comes at a very high cost,” said Katzen. “We can celebrate but we have to be aware that our homeland also has very tragic stories.”
A guide on the trip shared with Vancouver students the story of a friend who was ambushed and killed while serving in the military. “It’s one story of thousands,” Katzen said, “but the kids understood how difficult it is for families to put their own children’s lives at such high risk in order for the country to exist. They got it.”
Kiel and Platner both agreed that their participation in March of the Living has changed them in ways they’re only beginning to understand.
“My Jewish identity has changed,” Platner said. “I feel a stronger sense of purpose to follow the traditions and be a part of my community in honour of those who died and are still dying for our nation.”
Kiel said, prior to the march, if non-Jewish friends at school made jokes about Jews or about the Holocaust he would get angry or frustrated. “Now I feel like I can educate people on why it’s wrong to make jokes like that, and make sure they never tell a joke like that again,” he said. “If they knew the scale of the Holocaust, they wouldn’t make jokes.”
He’s returned with a stronger Jewish identity, he added. “I’ve started to wrap tefillin two to three times a week now. It reminds me of the trip and the memories I made there.”
He said, “I know there are lots of other trips that go to Poland, but not like this one.”
Platner agreed. “March of the Living gave me a sense of hope, pride and belonging.”
For information on joining a future March of the Living trip, contact Federation or visit marchoftheliving.org.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.