By Jordan Stoopler
One year ago, when Dawson College student Sharon Brand walked under the sign Arbeit Macht Frei—Work Makes One Free—into Auschwitz, she was overcome with emotion. Her eyes welled with tears as she embarked on a march that holds special significance to her.
“A lot of my family was from Poland and perished during the Holocaust,” says Brand, 17. “My parents had gone on a similar trip themselves when they were younger and they wanted me to retrace my family roots and see where they came from.”
The staff at the Bronfman Israel Experience Centre are the brains behind the trip and other innovative programs directed at Montreal’s Jewish youth.
“The March of the Living is our Poland and Israel education trip,” centre director Mandy Gillman, during which students visit concentration camps and important Jewish heritage sites. Each year, 160 to 220 Montrealers embark on this journey.
The delegation joins thousands of their peers from the international Jewish community and the group joins for a three-kilometre march from Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps.
“This is a chance for participants to remember our Jewish roots and continue understanding the impact that we have made and can continue to make,” Gillman says.
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Holocaust survivor Sidney Zoltak, 82, will take part in his third March of the Living trip this month.
He finds it difficult to relive the memories of his childhood, but he knows he must continue going back to the scene of the horrors despite his personal pain. “It’s a very difficult trip for us survivors because we bear our souls and open up old wounds and we go back to a time when it wasn’t pleasant to be alive,” he says.
“I get choked up many times, but I pick myself up and continue. I hope that the young people will learn from some of the things that happened so that they fight against indifference and stop bullies who are exercising their power and evil minds.”
Zoltak’s memoir, My Silent Pledge, highlights his dedication to educating youth about the Holocaust.
“When I survived and realized what happened to my community, I continued to live with a certain responsibility and obligation,” he says. “It was a silent pledge I made to myself. Because my friends, classmates and family cannot tell the story, I am the one who has become the spokesperson.”
Sharon Brand remembers her visit to the Majdanek concentration camp near Lodz, where 75,000 Jews lost their lives.
“There was an alleyway filled with shoes that were gathered from the Jews by the Nazis,” Brand says. “There were shoes of all shapes and sizes. I ran out crying and I hugged Ella, one of the survivors on our trip. She told me that it’s all okay and that it is all over now.
“I was speechless. I couldn’t believe it even though I saw it with my own eyes. It was so hard to understand how it all happened. How did people stand there and do nothing? How did the world let it happen?”
Gillman finds it crucial that Jewish youth see the camps in light of what she describes as a rapid decline of the Jewish community.
“To sustain the history of what our people have created and gone through, it is important to learn and perpetuate it,” she says.
Zoltak echoes this sentiment.
“The end result justifies the means,” he says. “Being in the places where it happened is like touching and feeling it. It is real. It is not what you read in a book or see in a film. The students come back with a different kind of perception of reality and are ready to promote good things.”
“Now, I am grateful for everything I have,” Brand says.
“When it’s cold during the winter, I won’t complain like I used to, because I’ll remember those who didn’t have a winter jacket and walked in the snow barefoot.
“When I am in a crowded space, I will remember those who were stuck in a train to their death for more than four days standing up with more than 100 people in one cattle car.”
Zoltak knows what kind of legacy he wishes to leave.
“When I leave this planet, I will have known that I have done something that is right,” he says. “I do not want any medals or honours, but I want people to know the real world and that it is not always a happy place to be.”
Sidney Zoltak’s book My Silent Pledge: A Journey of Struggle, Survival, and Remembrance, published by Guernica Editions ($25) is in bookstores or can be purchased online.
Jordan Stoopler is a Dawson College student who participated in the March of the Living experience in April 2013.