There was no stopping the annual March of Life Conference despite the lockdown. “Now more than ever – United to be a Light!” was the title of the conference. And indeed – the March of Life Conference has never been as international and interconnected as this year. Approximately 5,000 participants took part from more than 30 nations – among them many Holocaust survivors.
On Friday afternoon, the 150 national directors and March of Life organizers from 24 nations gathered together in a large Zoom meeting to look back on the past year, but more importantly, to start planning for 2021. With a visionary opening input, March of Life founder Jobst Bittner encouraged participants to take action, despite the restrictions, as local regulations allow.
Then on Saturday afternoon, the official part of the conference began with a wide variety of short presentations that addressed both history as well as the most current social issues. A central issue is the response to the worldwide rise of antisemitic conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. “Antisemitism knows no vaccine,” emphasized Jobst Bittner in his opening speech. If there are openly antisemitic flyers distributed in Berlin’s public transportation, there is an urgent need for action: “If you want to take responsibility for the future, you must not become trapped in the lethargy of the lockdown.”
In his presentation, Dr. Boris Zabarko, Holocaust survivor and historian, took an in-depth look at the invasion of the former Soviet Union by the German Wehrmacht and the associated extermination of Jewish communities in Ukraine. 2.7 million Jews lived there in 1941, 98 percent of whom were murdered in mass shootings by the Einsatzgruppen in their villages in front of their neighbors and friends. The Babi Yar ravine massacre in Kiev marks a turning point in the Holocaust. In just two days, more than 33,000 Jews were shot under the auspices of the Wehrmacht.
The crimes of the Wehrmacht in the Eastern Campaign still lie under a veil of silence in which the perpetrators are reinterpreted as victims. However, each country has its own historical responsibility and guilt to face up to. Denial and repression is the common characteristic. Jobst Bittner shared the universal keys with which every nation can break its veil of silence.
Michel Gourary, European Director of the March of the Living, gave a very personal account of what motivates him to be active for remembrance and for Israel. After being imprisoned in various concentration camps, Gourary’s grandfather was shot on the roadside during a death march from Flossenbürg to Dachau. He had been a supporter of Zionist Zeev Jabotinsky, who advocated self-defense for Jews. Alexander Gourary, Michel’s father, was part of the Zionist youth organization Beitar and went to Belgium for paramilitary training where he was captured by the Gestapo in 1943. “My father smuggled candles into the prison and built a hanukkiah to give hope to the prisoners. That’s why it is so significant for me that your movement started with the lighting of the hanukkiah,” Gourary says.
The secretary of the Council of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, Dr. Tomáš Kraus, also told the story of his parents, who were both survivors of the Shoah and dealt with this experience very differently. Before the war, his father had been a very well-known journalist who reported critically on the National Socialists and was therefore taken first to Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz. After the end of the war, he returned to Prague and wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz. Kraus’ mother, on the other hand, represented the majority of survivors: they did not talk about what they had experienced or their lost families. At the end, Kraus appealed to the participants of the conference not to accept the isolation imposed by COVID-19: “When it is possible again – come and visit us! Especially during the crisis let’s stay in contact. The worst thing is to fall into a ghetto mentality.”
The public Night to Honor Israel was another highlight of the conference, which was translated simultaneously into six languages. Dr. Thomas Feist, Commissioner for Jewish Life of the State of Saxony, spoke about the celebratory year “1,700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany.” “If we use this year to bring Christians and Jews closer together and try to heal existing wounds, it will benefit not only Germany, but the whole world,” emphasized Feist. In his view, March of Life takes the right personal and practical steps to achieve this, starting with the acknowledgement of guilt and the request for forgiveness.
The guest of honor for the evening was Holocaust survivor Ruth Steinfeld from Houston, whose family was from Ladenburg near Mannheim. She spoke of how difficult it had been for her to talk about her experiences and face her past. But when she visited her former childhood home in 1981, she was able to forgive the Germans and make peace with her history, which changed her life forever. To honor her, part of her biography was performed in a piece of drama, “Forgive, but Never Forget,” in which dancers danced in front of her old house in Ladenburg.
At the conference, the motto for the marches and events on and around the Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Day Yom haShoah in April was introduced: “United to be a Light! Together for a Better Future without Antisemitism and Hatred of Jews”. The program will include local events with the reading of the names of victims of the Holocaust, a joint international online conference and, depending on COVID-19 regulations, larger or smaller marches.
You can also easily participate in the program with your city on and around Yom haShoah.
You can find more information on our website at www.marchoflife.org
Night to Honor Israel: http://bit.ly/MDL_13221