Once the Passover holiday ends, thousands of Gen Z students from around the world will fly to Poland to participate in the March of the Living—a program that is resuming its work in person since the rise of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The students will march in silence wearing blue and white coats from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp complex built during World War II. While the students will experience the agony of having to directly confront the evils of humanity and Holocaust, they will also celebrate Israel’s Independence Day a week later.
Two decades ago, I was fortunate to participate in this surreal moment. Walking from Auschwitz to Birkenau is a journey that I hope I never forget, but countless other moments from Poland haunt me to this day. One is the Majdanek Nazi concentration and extermination camp outside of Lublin, with its enormous mausoleum containing the ashes of cremated victims. And then there are the seemingly endless numbers of warehouses full of toys, shoes, glasses and numerous other personal effects stolen from millions of murdered Jews that live concretely in my memories. I vividly remember exiting the train from Kraków Old Town to Auschwitz-Birkenau and being met by a group of young boys shouting for my death along with all Jews and angrily holding up their arms in a Nazi salute. The boys’ attitudes were not based on ignorance or youth, but hatred and social conditioning.
I firmly believe that the March of the Living should now be expanded to young adults of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities and faiths so that they can bear witness to the Holocaust and not forget what happened to so many last century.
My time spent in Poland was raw and painful, but I am glad to have witnessed only a small fraction of the horrors that millions faced in the not-so-distant past. This experience has informed so much of my thinking about Jewish peoplehood, continuity and faith along with my ideas about social justice and order. As such, I firmly believe that the March of the Living should now be expanded to young adults of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities and faiths so that they can bear witness to the Holocaust and not forget what happened to so many last century.
I make this statement because the lessons and horrors of the Holocaust are being forgotten in many places and regularly trivialized on a global scale. Hatred is palpably felt by many Jews who live in fear and now hide their identities, as antisemitism has become an existential threat to all Jews. While there is habitual support for other groups that are attacked, including LGBTA+ persons and members of Asian and Black communities, widespread communal and institutional support for the Jewish community is lacking. And the progressive impulses that have gained so much traction in the United States have significantly marginalized and diminished Jewish life, culture and values and contributed to the erasure and diminution of Jews in American life. The culture wars have placed Jews in a precarious position in terms of politics, identity and questions of equity. That does not mean Jews should cease to be a part of social and political life today. Rather, Jews must continue to receive support against violent acts.
This dangerous reality facing the Jewish community can be traced at least partially to the fact that Americans do not know their history
This dangerous reality facing the Jewish community can be traced at least partially to the fact that Americans do not know their history. Survey data regularly shows that almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Almost half (48 percent) of the Millennial and Gen Z adults aged between 18 and 39 queried in the survey could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto established during the Second World War. Almost a quarter of respondents (23 percent) said that they believed the Holocaust was a myth, had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. One in eight (12 percent) said they had not heard, or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust. Pew found that fewer than half of Americans (43 percent) knew that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process.
Given this ignorance of the past, it is vital that as many Americans as possible—Jews and non-Jews alike—visit Poland and Eastern Europe to witness and understand that within the past century a nation-state attempted to systemically wipe a group of people off the face of the earth. This will be a difficult trip for many but this is exactly how society makes progress, learns history, and confronts and moves on from its painful past. As evidence, the Pew Research Center found that those Americans who knew more about the Holocaust and European history were appreciably more likely to express warmer feelings toward Jews today. Consequently, it’s clear that exposure and an understanding of the past can have potent impacts on policy and attitudes.
I want to challenge Jewish community leaders and donors now to expand the March of the Living as fast as possible. There are still survivors that can vividly share their stories that could help change the nation’s social consciousness. Growing the number of participants is not an attempt to compete with any other group about who has suffered the most in the course of history. Rather, it is crucial that we not forget the past as similar dynamics are appearing in the United States. Americans, and Millennials and Gen Z in particular, need as much exposure to the Holocaust as possible and the March is a uniquely powerful institution that can help promote understanding, empathy and social progress to help mitigate hate and antisemitism.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.