AUSCHWITZ, Poland - With their heads held high, their feet moving with purpose. They march. Together. Each step a declaration to the world: We are still here.
It's been incredible today to see so many people here in solidarity and march," said Andy Wizenberg. He’s the grandson of Auschwitz Concentration Camp survivors.
They come from New York, Los Angeles, Central America, Australia, South Africa and Japan. Thousands of Jews and non-Jews from more than fifty countries across the globe are together here in Poland for the International March of the Living. More than 250,000 people have participated in this March since it first began in 1988. The gathering happens every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Participants sing and learn each other’s stories. Then they embark together on an approximately two mile walk from Auschwitz I over to Auschwitz II, which is the death camp more commonly known as Birkenau. Andy Wizenberg’s wife, Amanda, is also the granddaughter of Auschwitz survivors.
"They were brought here on this railroad. Knowing that my Bubi, her little sister was 9 years old and taken from her arms. Shayna was taken from her arms and she never saw her again and that was here," said Amanda Markowitz Wizenberg.
Amanda calls her grandmother, Lili Markowitz, her ‘Bubi.’ Lili managed to survive Auschwitz. So did Ivor Perl, who’s now in his late 80s, living in England.
"For me to come over here the first thing it reminds me of is how I arrived,” said Ivor.
He never imagined he’d live to see the end of World War II, let alone find himself back at this site of horror, decades later.
"I came here with a large family and only me and my brother survived. So I think to condense it all to one sentence would be very, very hard. But, unimaginable & indescribable," said Ivor.
Yet, with his granddaughter Lia by his side now, Ivor is back in Auschwitz. This time, in a show of defiance to the Nazis.
"It’s incredible. I’m so, so proud of him. Everything he's achieved and I’m honored to be here with him. I mean I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him," said Ivor’s granddaughter, Lia Bratt.
I also wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my grandfather, Nat. My Poppy. He miraculously survived more than 2 years in Auschwitz. It was chilling for me to walk in and out of the gates where he was once herded through. These German words on the gate “Arbeit macht frei” translate to “Work will set you free.” A cruel deception.
"In 1995 we established the first Holocaust learning center in all of Japan,” said Makoto Otsuka. He’s the General Director of Japan’s Holocaust Education Center.
Japan was an ally to Germany during the war. Makoto, who’s a Japanese Christian, spent time living in Israel in the 70’s and learned to speak Hebrew. This is his third time participating in the March of the Living.
“We started from nothing and lots of people in Japan read the diary of Anne Frank, which is translated into Japanese and that becomes for them an entree point, the first point to the study of the Holocaust, but not the last point," said Makoto.
Many of the estimated 10-12,000 marching are draped in Israeli flags, but this walk is not meant to be political. It’s about recognizing that the Jewish people, as a whole, persevered and survived— even after 6 million European Jews were murdered.
"Because of them I had to make this journey," said Ivor.
This march also honors and remembers the millions of victims from other groups who were murdered during the Holocaust, including gay men, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled and German political opponents.
The group marching represents the thousands of prisoners who walked the same path decades ago. A sea of humanity headed towards its slaughter. Prisoners arrived here at Auschwitz, almost daily. The massive transports reaching their peak in 1944. That year, more than 400,000 Jews were deported from Hungary in just 54 days.
"I think the really special thing about this trip is that we have so many grandkids of survivors and you see the potential in what could have been,” said Nazanin Farahdel. She traveled from Los Angeles to participate in the March of the Living.
We’ll never know what could have been, but what we do know is that descendants of survivors, like me, Lia, Andy and Amanda, are doing our best to keep the memories alive.
"I don't know how they did it. We keep saying that and looking at each other and saying I don’t know how they did it. I don't know how they were so strong,” said Amanda.
But this gathering is the result of all that strength. A resiliency. A mission to spread peace and understanding. A promise to never forget.