The Manipulative March

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 30, 2010, issue of July 09, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A friend called to tell me, with pride in his voice, that his 16-year-old son had been accepted to a very special “Israel program” — three weeks of intensive touring, some social action work, lectures, whatnot. But first, “They start in Prague, and then Krakow and Auschwitz.”

There is a tradition that dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries (500 years after the Kabbalah shifted from being an exclusively oral tradition and began to be written) that holds that the Kabbalah must not be read by people under the age of 40. That tradition has evidently fallen away, but it is worth restoring when it comes to visiting Auschwitz.

I know the March of the Living, which anticipates that next year more than 8,000 high school students from some 40 countries will participate, is thought to be a huge success. And I have no doubt that the children are very deeply moved by the experience, which starts in Poland and then moves on to Israel. What’s not to be moved by? Watch the video of last year’s march and you can easily see the anguish furrowed on the teenagers’ brows. But no, even a precocious 17-year-old is not ready for this.

Put simply: This is the single most manipulative experience to which we can expose our young. It is manipulative inherently, no matter the intentions of its organizers and sponsors. It is designed to maximize the participants’ vulnerability and then, when they are defenseless, to offer them the approved answers.

It is now 65 years since the end of the Holocaust, and no one who has sought to confront it claims to understand it. It was and remains a mystery, understood only in its fragments, perceived only through questions that dangle miserably, questions that have not been, perhaps cannot ever be, answered. Where was God? Where was man? What were they thinking when, before killing, they dehumanized? Was their sleep troubled thereafter? For how long? What enabled some, more than a few though fewer than many, to risk everything to save a Jew? Each one who was murdered is now swept up and nearly swept away in the cursed number 6 million, but each of course was one. Who were they?

My visit to Auschwitz (at age 39) changed my life. In Auschwitz One, the labor camp, there is a space in the row of barracks where there’s only a free-standing wall. It was known as “the wall of death,” because, as it was explained to us, against that wall some 40,000 people, mostly professors and intellectuals from Krakow, were shot — “the good way to go at Auschwitz,” we were told. I stayed behind as the small group with which I was traveling entered the next barrack, and when, 10 or so minutes later, they emerged, a friend came to me and whispered, urgently, that I had to go into the building they had just been in, had to go to the second floor.

Until then, in each of the barracks we had entered, there were very large panes of plate glass behind which were the exhibits: here shoes, there hair, here brushes, there prostheses, every one a blow.

I did as told, entered and ascended to the second floor of the indicated barrack. No large plate glass here, just modest, coffee-table sized cases; beneath the glass, babies’ pacifiers.

There are no answers.

But you cannot take teenagers on a journey that offers only questions. Nor would such an experience satisfy the intentions of those who conceive these trips and manage them, for the entire experience is built on their official answer: Israel.

“From ashes to rebirth,” we say, and that becomes the controlling metaphor. As the website, which they will surely have read before they embark, informs you, “You will participate in a memorial service at one of the gas chambers/crematoria in Birkenau, which will conclude with the singing of Hatikvah.” And then, “From Poland, you will fly to Israel to join the entire Jewish community in celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.” How easy it all becomes, how neat. Sorrow, then exultation. This is neither good history nor acceptable pedagogy. It is worthy of an ad campaign, or perhaps a sentimental Broadway musical, no more. We ought to have more respect for our youngsters — and for ourselves — than that.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.