Holocaust survivor revisits his nightmare to help young people understand what happened


Marcel Zielinski’s early childhood memories involve people clamouring to avoid incineration in the Nazi death camps of his native Poland during the Second World War.

But for every person who escaped that horrible fate, he witnessed hundreds of others who were shot, beaten, hanged or gunned down in mass executions at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, where he was imprisoned for three years.

He doesn’t think his 10-year-old self could understand the atrocities he observed but now, at 81, he knows he is a survivor of unquestionable, merciless evil.

“The camp was massive. It was an industrial installation designed to exterminate every Jew,” Zielinski said from Poland, where he is accompanying the Montreal delegation on the March of the Living to offer personal insight into what went on behind the barbed wire of the camps. “I saw terrible things there. It’s not something you would ever want to witness.”

But he did, and now he’s stepping back into the nightmare, because he believes it’s crucial for young people to be exposed to survivors’ stories and the brutal reality of “what human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings.”

And he’s right, said Ali Newpol, director of Montreal’s March of the Living. She says survivors make the experience more meaningful, and she dreads the day when there are no more of them able to make the trip.

But this year the Montreal group is going with 10 survivors, the most survivors it’s ever had, and the largest group of any of the delegations taking part in the march. They are accompanying 189 students on the trip.

“We have two survivors per bus and it creates a really intimate opportunity for the students to learn about their stories,” Newpol said from Poland. She said survivors tell her it takes weeks for them to shake off the experience after they return home.

This is the first time Zielinski and his wife Miriam have gone on the march, an annual program that brings people from around the world to Poland and Israel to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate in conjunction with Holocaust Remembrance Day. However Zielinski first went back to Poland in 2007, a trip he admitted required him to overcome great anxiety.

Then last year, he did the second annual Ride for the Living, retracing on a bicycle the arduous journey he made by foot to get back to Krakow when Auschwitz was liberated in the winter of 1945.

Now he is back in Poland to participate in the March of the Living, a three-kilometre walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau that will be held on Thursday as a silent tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. Federation CJA provides subsidies to ensure that both youth and elderly survivors can participate in the program.

“If we aren’t going to repeat it, we have to remember it,” Zielinski said. “It is so important to educate and bear witness to a new generation.”

Originally published HERE