Lubocki at the Federation's 2016 Annual General Meeting:
Good evening everyone. It’s an honour to be here with you tonight to speak about March of the Living.
When Roberta asked me to speak to you a few weeks ago, I thought it would be easy to put together some words about my experience during the march. However, as I began to remember how much happened in those two weeks and how intense they were, I realized that I really needed to think back on my experience to make sure my words reflected how important I think this program is.
I want to start from the beginning: I was born in Argentina and was raised in a conservative Jewish family. In Argentina, my Jewish life revolved around my Jewish friends at the Jewish day school during the week and a Jewish country club on the weekends. In 2002, I immigrated to Winnipeg with my parents and my sister. Although the move was a culture shock to all of us, for me, the fact that I attended a Jewish day school and a Jewish summer camp meant that I would continue having a Jewish lifestyle much like the one I had back in Argentina.
When I was in Grade 7, my sister Dafna was in Grade 10. Over family dinners she started to speak about an amazing opportunity to be able to travel to Poland and Israel on a trip called March of the Living. At this point, I believe I was too young to fully make sense of what March of the Living was. It wasn’t until Grade 9 that I really started learning about the Holocaust. At Gray Academy, we learned about the historical developments leading up to war, the rise of Nazism and the horrors that took place. This led to the Grade 9 Washington trip where our Grade 9 class had the chance to visit the Holocaust museum. Needless to say, that was an incredible learning experience. And, it was around this time that I began contemplating going on March of the Living.
After the Washington trip I began wondering more and more about the March of the Living program. I started asking my sister about her experiences in Poland. I wanted to know what she saw, who she met and how she felt at different moments. It was a combination of my personal interest on the subject matter and the strong impact that her words had on me that convinced me that it was an experience I wanted to have as well. And so, the following year that I decided to sign up to go on the March.
Prior to the March, the group attends a series of preparatory sessions, which are quite intense. These are weekly session ran by Morris and Roberta with the purpose of developing our knowledge on the Holocaust and trying to prepare us for what we will see in Poland. Now, I don’t want to take anything away from the value of those sessions. They were extremely informative and very helpful in preparing us. But, I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for what I saw and felt during the March.
We arrived in Poland after about a day’s worth of a sleepless travel. When we landed in Warsaw, there was no time to rest. The first day of the March of the Living was packed with tours of a Jewish cemetery, and ghettos. We ate our first meal which was comprised of let’s just say not the food that I was used to eating at home. Everything was fast paced and intense. And this is exactly what I mean that no session can prepare you for the pace or the content of what you experience in Poland. By the end of the day, the happy travelling mood had been completely changed. Those of us who had been excited to begin our trip were all of a sudden hit with a harsh reality of what the following week was about to be.
Over the course of the next week, we made our way to different cites of Poland. Among the cites we visited were Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camp. There isn’t much left of Treblinka today. However, in memory of the ones who were killed, there are hundreds of rocks that have engraved on them the names of the hometowns of those perished. We were given time to walk through the concentration camp at our own pace. It was important for me to walk slowly and take in the horrifying feelings I felt as I walked through Treblinka. I could not help but think how extensive the killing was.
Majdanek was a particularly hard place to see for me. The Nazis did not have the time to destroy Majdanek like they did with Treblinka. In Majdanek, many of the structures were still standing, including the crematoriums. As you walk further into the camp, there is also a monument that contains the ashes of cremated victims. It was such a powerful and difficult sight to stand in front of. It left a lasting impression on me. I remember not wanting to do very much talking on that particular day.
But It was not only the concentration camps that had an impact on me. One day we made a quick stop in a forest. We got off the bus and gathered around a small monument. The monument represented all the Jews from the nearby town that had been taken to the forest and killed. The monument did not have the number or the names of those who died. As we gathered around to hear our tour guide, Jonathan, an elderly Polish man came up to our group and told us that he was there when all this happened. He told us he had seen many Jews taken to the forest when he was young boy. The man’s story was very difficult to process. Often, when we study the Holocaust in a history class, it seems like it occurred long ago. Yet, this man’s testimony proved that this was not the case. It made me feel as if we were not so far away from it all.
Another chilling story is when we listened to David Shentow’s story. David was the survivor that travelled on the march with us. It is one thing to learn about the Holocaust in the classrooms of our schools, it is another to be sitting outside one of the barracks in Auschwitz, listening to a survivor tell his detailed experiences while he pointed at the exact places where they happened. It was horrifying and unbelievably difficult to listen to what his life was like some 70 years ago.
Then came the march. Thousands of Jews from all over the world came together and marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau in a symbolic act of defiance that was meant to contrast the death marches our ancestors had to endure. For me, that day in Auschwitz was particularly emotional because it took an unexpected turn that I will never forget. Before we began marching, a guide took us to see the exhibits and the remaining barracks in Auschwitz. The mood was damp and there wasn’t much talking happening. In fact, our group leaders Roberta and Morris had told us to keep our voices down out of respect for the other visitors. Then, all of a sudden, as we’re walking near the “Arbit Macht Frei” sign, I hear a voice yell my name in a Spanish accent. I see Roberta immediately try to quiet down the person yelling. As I turn around to see who it is, I see my aunt and my uncle from Argentina, who I had not seen in years, running towards me to embrace me. I knew that my aunt, uncle and cousin from Argentina would be on the March, but given that thousands of people that were marching that day I figured we would not have the chance to see each other. So there we were, Jewish family members who had not seen in each other in years hugging and crying in embrace in Auschwitz. It was a very powerful moment for me. In the very place where so many families were torn apart, my family was brought together. Not only was that the most memorable moment on March of the Living, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life.
During the march, I walked side by side with some of my new friends from the group. It was remarkable to watch a sea of Jewish people from around the world in blue and white walking together to commemorate this event. Once we arrived in Brikenau, as the distinguished speakers were preparing to speak, I went looking for my cousin. By chance, in the midst of thousands of people, I was able to find him. We spent the next few minutes hugging and catching up and finally listening to Hatikvha together. The whole experience was surreal. At our end-of-the-day debrief session that day, I was very emotional when it was my turn to share my experience.
I had never been to Israel before the trip and during the March and I can confidently say I never wanted to leave after that week. As soon as we left Poland, I could feel the mood completely 180. By this point, our group of marchers had become very close. I remember we walked together through Ben Gurion airport chanting Am Israel Chai in embrace. We were absolutely ecstatic to 1. Have gotten the heck out of Poland and 2. Having arrive in Israel.
I learned a lot in Israel. I have learned about Yom Hazikaron since I was in Grade 1, but once I experienced it in Israel, I finally felt like I understood the full meaning of the day of remembrance. The week in Poland had made me understand the importance of the State of Israel and made me feel so proud of my Jewish identity. I felt a strong sense of unity as a Jewish nation as we commemorated the fallen soldiers that fought for the Jewish homeland we were standing on.
The transition from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’azmaut is an emotional roller coaster of its own. The country really transforms overnight. On Erev Yom Ha’azmaut we participated in an amazing celebration in Mini Israel where our entire coast to coast group came together to party for Israel’s 60th birthday. We spent the night singing, dancing and loving Israel. It was truly a night to remember.
As for the rest of my time in Israel, it was incredible to be able to experience the beauty of the country for the first time. We floated in the dead sea, swam in Ein Gedi and stayed in a kibbutz in the North, where we got to push Roberta into the pool with us. During the night time, we spent time bonding with the amazing group of friends that we made on March of the Living. We chatted, sang, danced, and talked about the unforgettable experiences that we were having.
In all, I would just like to take the time to express not only how important this program has been for educating our Jewish youth on the Holocaust and strengthening their Jewish identity, but how important it will be going forward. As we move forward, there are less survivors living to tell their stories. Soon enough, it will be incumbent on us to maintain their stories alive and to ensure that our communities never forget what happened in the Holocaust. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to encourage Jewish students to go on this journey and listen, take everything in because it is up to the next generations to carry the voices and legacies of the survivors with us and teach future generations everything we have learned from the survivors.
Even after eight years of having gone on this journey I look back and say to myself - what an important and unforgettable experience to have as a young Jewish man. This experience changed my outlook on life. It made me into a more mature individual, taught me how to reflect, and taught me the importance of human rights. From then on, I have become passionate in topics like peace, conflict and justice studies, which ended up being my major at the University of Toronto. This shows, that impactful experiences such as the March of the Living can open up a student’s life to wonder, research, inquire and explore on important issues. And more importantly, try to make our world a better place to live in. This is what I took out of my experiences on this journey and I am confident to say that every Jewish student should have the opportunity to experience it for themselves.
Finally, I want to whole heatedly thank Roberta and Morris for the relentless commitment to the program and to the Jewish community at large.
Thank you and good night.