March of the Nations 2023: “Israel, you are not alone!”

More than 1500 participants celebrated the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel on the streets of Jerusalem on May 16. Under the slogan “Mi Shoah le Tkuma”, the representatives from 30 nations showed their friendship to Israel and took a stand against the silence about antisemitism. Among them were numerous descendants of Nazi perpetrators.

The March of the Nations set out from Sacher Park and led through northern Jerusalem to Safra Square in front of the City Hall. It was led by Holocaust survivors from Israel, Arye Itamar and Gita Koifman, and by two descendants of Nazi pperpetrators from Germany, Lisa Besteck and Anna-Suzette Pfeiffer. The participants wore T-shirts and and carried balloons in blue and white. They also carried Israeli flags and flags of their countries, as well as the names of cities where Marches of Life have already taken place this year. Many Jerusalemites greeted the march in their city with joy: People waved from their balconies and watched the dancing in the street.

The president and founder of the March of Life movement, Jobst Bittner, said at the closing ceremony in Safra Square in front of the City Hall: “The founding of the State of Israel is one of the greatest miracles of our time.” Nevertheless, he said, the country was in the midst of one of its greatest crises and was subject to almost daily attacks. “Israel, we stand with you! Israel, you are not alone!” That was the message of the participants in the March of the Nations, he said.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog welcomed the March in a letter ahead of the event, underscoring its “unwavering moral support for our nation-state”. Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum called the March of Life movement’s commemorative work unprecedented. “You are righting something that was so wrong with so much love and empathy,” she said. Every year anew, she said, she was proud to welcome the March. Jewish Agency President Doron Almog addressed the participants in a video message. March of Life was not limited to expressions of solidarity, but showed action.

Numerous other speeches were framed by music and dance. The band Be’er Sheva and the dance troupe YC Dance had come from Tübingen/Germany, where March of Life originated in 2007. The Israeli musician Yair Levi performed his song “Refa Na” (“Heal her”) together with a German artist. Originally he had written the song for his grandmother. At first, the thought of a German translation as a sign of healing between the German and Jewish people had been bewildering for him. Friedhelm Chmell, who had translated his song, is a descendant of Nazi perpetrators. His grandfather had organized the deportation of the Jews of Antwerp. The friendship between Yair and Friedhelm stands for reconciliation through truth.

Other descendants of Nazi perpetrators told of their families’ involvement in the Holocaust. After confronting the truth about their family histories, they no longer wanted to remain silent. Several hundred had come from various cities in Germany. According to surveys, most Germans see their families rather on the victim side than as perpetrators. In addition, one in five believes that their family helped Jews under National Socialism. Those who research their family past, however, encounter a very different reality. The well-kept archives in Germany allow deep insights into the darkest chapter of history. Almost every German family was actively involved. The German participants speak openly about the specific acts committed by their ancestors. They take responsibility and ask for forgiveness for their own sometimes decades of disinterest and silence.

Other participants had come from the USA, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, and Hungary. There was a group of 150 people who had come to Israel from China and the Dominican Republic especially for the March. During a conference in the run-up to the event, they jointly addressed the issue of silence in their families, churches, cities, and countries. Many of them already hold annual March of Life events in their home countries on the occasion of Yom HaShoa. In times of growing antisemitism and Israel under fire, it is especially important that the memory of the past and friendship with Israel do not remain passive and invisible.

At the end, representatives from Burundi, Paraguay, Peru, China, Turkey, Belarus, Ukraine, Indonesia, Great Britain, and Poland proclaimed their unbreakable friendship with Israel in their respective languages: “Israel, you are not alone!”

In total, tens of thousands of people around the world are breaking their silence and are motivating others to do so, too. In Jerusalem, they took to the streets together as a powerful statement against antisemitism and for Israel. 

March of Life was initiated by Jobst and Charlotte Bittner from Tübingen and began with a memorial march from the Swabian Alb to Dachau Concentration Camp. Since then, Marches have taken place in hundreds of cities in more than 25 nations. Under the motto “Remembering – Reconciliation – Making a Statement,” March of Life aims to give Holocaust survivors a voice, to facilitate reconciliation between the descendants of perpetrators and victims, and to make a clear statement against modern antisemitism and for Israel. Five years ago, 6000 people had taken part in the first March of the Nations through Jerusalem.

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