“I never had a chance to say goodbye to my mother. We didn’t know we had to say goodbye… And I am an old woman today and I never made peace with the fact that I never had that last hug and kiss.
“I am only asking you to work for a world where nobody will ever have to live memories like mine ever again. Please heal the world.”
For 25 years, teenagers have been travelling to Europe on the International March of the Living (MOL), visiting once vibrant Jewish communities and the Nazi death camps where millions were murdered.
Survivors have joined the March in recent years, among them Judy Weissenberg Cohen, a native of Hungary who never said goodbye to her mother.
Weissenberg Cohen last saw her mother at the selection process alongside the train tracks in Birkenau in May 1944. The sharing of her memories and the admonition to create a world where memories like hers cannot happen again have been incorporated as part of the theme of an exhibit that will be hosted at the United Nations beginning on Jan. 28.
Titled When You Listen to a Witness, You Become a Witness, the exhibit features images taken over the lifespan of the International March of the Living, poems and prose by young participants, testimony by survivors and an interactive component in which visitors will be asked to record their own commitments to make the world a better place.
Those pledges will be input onto iPads and transcribed onto plaques that will be posted on the MOL website and planted in the grounds at Birkenau, along with thousands of other plaques of visitors to the death camp.
“The centre point of the exhibit is the contrast between the death marches of 70 years ago and the March of the Living march today,” said Eli Rubenstein, national director of MOL Canada and one of the creators of the exhibit. Some survivors who participated in the MOL actually experienced the death marches of 1945.
One of the best-known is the one from Auschwitz-Birkenau. As Red Army forces approached from the east, the Nazis evacuated the camp. Those prisoners able to walk were force-marched west to other camps. Many died en route. The exhibit is scheduled to open on Jan. 28, one day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the annual day of commemoration established by the United Nations that coincides with the day in 1945 that Auschwitz was liberated.
The exhibit was created by a panel of MOL executives and includes a substantial Canadian contribution. In addition to Weissenberg Cohen, other Canadian survivors featured in the exhibition include Nate Leipciger, Bill Glied, Mayer and Rena Schondorf, Max Iland and Anita Ekstein.
Images snapped by five Canadian photographers are included, while the poems and prose of Canadian teenagers feature prominently as well.
The images and the written words highlight just how emotional and difficult it can be for survivors to relive their painful experiences, Rubenstein said. For many survivors, it means visiting the scene of so much pain and heartache. For the students, “for the first time in their lives they’re coming across ultimate evil.”
Since its inception, March of the Living has brought more than 200,000 students to Europe, along with thousands of survivors. “The survivors tell their stories in the very places where the tragedies unfolded, and the students listen,” Rubenstein said.
Many of the students return to their homes dedicated to community service, he added.
The exhibit will run through the end of February.