Why they march
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Why they march

Englewood man, March of the Living co-founder, talks about the program

Teenagers walk on the tracks between Auschwitz and Birkenau. (Yossi Veliger)
Teenagers walk on the tracks between Auschwitz and Birkenau. (Yossi Veliger)

Next month, David Machlis of Englewood once again will join March of the Living.

The march is an annual educational program that brings people — most of them teenagers — from all over the world to Poland and Israel. There, they study the history of the Holocaust and examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance, and hate.

Dr. Machlis, who has been a professor of economics at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., for 49 years, has been the vice chairman of the International March of the Living since before the first march in 1988. (He describes that march as having been “rather small — only about 1,500 people.”)

Since then, some 220,000 participants from 52 countries have marched along the three-kilometer path that connects the notorious Nazi death camps Auschwitz and Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day — Yom Hashoah, in Hebrew — in silent tribute to the victims.

The next week in Israel is highlighted by a march in Jerusalem on Israel’s Memorial Day and a huge gathering on Israeli Independence Day the following day.

“The founders designed the program with the goal of honoring the memory of those who perished in the Shoah, expanding Holocaust education, and developing a cadre of alumni all over the world who would serve as agents against Holocaust denial on college campuses,” Dr. Machlis said.

“We never anticipated the tremendous impact it would have on Jewish identity, bonding with Israel, and commitment to Jewish heritage.”

That impact has been studied through personal interviews with participants that City University of New York sociologist William Helmreich conducted in 2010 and 2015. In the second study, 66 percent of those who did March of the Living in 2005 said the experience made them more tolerant, 94 percent said they have visited Israel again, and 15 percent said the march even had an impact on their career choice.

Overall, half of the respondents said they would consider moving to Israel. About 90 percent said March of the Living strengthened their Jewish identity and made them more likely to marry a Jewish spouse, give their children a Jewish education, become involved in confronting anti-Semitism, and support Jewish organizations.

“What’s most remarkable about the march is how deeply it impacts participants over a period of many years,” Dr. Helmreich commented when he released the survey results. “It greatly impacts not only on Jewish identity but also on compassion toward other people.”

Considering that the 2013 ADL Global 100 study revealed that 35 percent of people across the world never heard of the Holocaust and 32 percent believe it is a myth or highly exaggerated, March of the Living seems to show a dramatic effect.

David Machlis of Englewood has been on almost every March of the Living. (David Azran)
David Machlis of Englewood has been on almost every March of the Living. (David Azran)

“I believe we’re successful for a few reasons,” Dr. Machlis said.

“First of all, psychologists say 16- to 18-year-olds are very impressionable and more prone to modifying their attitudes and behavior. Another unique feature is bringing together Jewish populations from very diverse backgrounds, from Orthodox to unaffiliated. This creates an appreciation of the other and a bond for the common goal of Jewish and Israeli survival.”

He said that combining Auschwitz and Jerusalem, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israeli Independence Day in one trip also helps to “produce those magical results.”

And then there’s the sheer power of numbers. “Anyone can visit the camps, but with a group of thousands of people it’s a game-changer,” Dr. Machlis said.

Local Jewish federations and Zionist organizations across the world take on the responsibility of recruiting, interviewing, and educating March of the Living participants prior to the trip. “We start recruiting in the summer, so the fall and winter is the study period,” Dr. Machlis said.

Although he is not a Holocaust educator, he has created some of the most successful components of March of the Living. Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, March of the Living world chairman, approached Dr. Machlis after hearing about his programming achievements at Adelphi, where he was associate dean of academic affairs from 1978 to 1982.

In 2012, for example, Dr. Machlis was allowed to start bringing World War II concentration camp liberators on the march. “The liberators provide incontrovertible, everlasting testimony to the truth,” he said. “When an army veteran says, ‘I opened the gate of Buchenwald,’ it has a huge impact.”

Survivors always have participated as well, but every year there are fewer survivors and liberators alive to share their testimony.

“Our students pledge to be the voice of the past in the present to preserve the future, for the Jewish people and nation and for the betterment of all humankind,” Dr. Machlis said. “We must learn from the past so there will be a more tolerant and just society in the future.”

About 10 years ago, he opened March of the Living to non-Jewish high school students in Austria. “We’ve had 500 in the past few years, and when you see them singing ‘Am Yisrael Chai,’ you realize how inspired they are by three or four days in Poland,” he said.

For this year’s March of the Living, which will bring four planeloads of North American participants on May 1 and 2, Dr. Machlis co-developed a special project commemorating the 80th anniversary of the implementation of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws and the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials, which sought to bring Nazi war criminals to justice.

On May 4, the day before Yom Hashoah, many prominent international jurists will join the group in Poland, in partnership with the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights and the Jagiellonian University of Krakow.

Co-chaired by former Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler, the “Nuremberg of Hate and the Nuremberg of Justice” conference is to include such luminaries as former Israeli Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella; Lord John Dyson of the U.K. Supreme Court; Professor Alan Dershowitz, and the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo.

“At the end of the program we want to create and distribute a meaningful manifesto on genocide and human rights all over the world,” Dr. Machlis said.

Next year, another of his ideas will be implemented — a March of the Living Fellows program for college and university professors on campuses that do not offer Holocaust or genocide courses of study.

“The fellows will take an online yearlong course with top Holocaust scholars, including two or three academic retreats with the scholars, and go on the actual march or on a similar journey,” he said. “The only requirement is that the college or university has to commit to create a Holocaust/genocide program.”

Dr. Machlis and Eli Rubenstein, the national director of March of the Living Canada, also co-founded the March of Remembrance and Hope, which so far has brought 50,000 college-age student leaders of all faiths and ethnicities to Eastern Europe to learn about the dangers of intolerance through the study of the Holocaust. This trip takes place every May after the March of the Living, this year from May 16 to 25.

Though he has participated in it almost every year since the early 1990s, Dr. Machlis said he never tires of watching the impact of the March of the Living.

“At the mega-event in Israel, with 5,000 to 6,000 youngsters from all around the world marching from Safra Square to the Kotel, and then gathering in Latrun for a party celebrating Israel’s independence, I get a feeling that remains with me forever,” he said. “It says, ‘You know, David, your work is worthwhile.’”

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