This year I was in Auschwitz-Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day as part of the March of the Living (MOL) contingent from North and South Carolina and Virginia. These few days reminded me to be so thankful for everything that has been given to me.
The emotions I felt as a 25-year-old on my second pilgrimage to Poland are so much deeper than when I was a teen. When I saw the beautiful Polish forest where Jews were forced to build their own graves to be shot and buried in, it made me wonder, how could a place so beautiful be the site of so much pain?
I love shoes, especially sneakers. When I stood in Auschwitz in front of 80,000 pairs of shoes stripped from Jews, I thought of my shoe room at home. These prisoners were lucky to have even one pair. It didn’t matter what sex, how old, or how much money your family earned, you were stripped of what belonged to you, and forced to march. All the shoes are equally as filthy and their owners shared the same unfortunate fate.
I marched with over 10,000 teenagers from countries all over the world. We marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau to demonstrate our commitment to not just remembering what happened, but allowing it to inspire us to take action within our own lives. Our shoes got dirty, but they also led us to Israel, the second part of the MOL experience.
Unfortunately many of our family members never lived to see Israel. Many of the ones lucky enough to survive, have not had a chance to visit. In their honor, and the other nameless six million who perished, we did another march on Israel Independence Day to celebrate the rebirth of modern Israel in our ancient Jewish homeland. We celebrated our strength. I celebrated sharing in many of my teens’ first trip to Israel. This will be my sixth, although I was around their ages when I visited the first time. We marched from death to life, from mourning to rejoicing, from anguish to hope. Together we fulfilled the hope “Hatikvah” of two thousand years, to “be a free people in our land.”
I know in my heart and my soul I am continuing a journey my grandparents hoped would continue for generations. Although they died when I was much younger, I have never felt closer to them in my entire life. We say, “never again,” yet so much tragedy is happening around the world, and we are silent. It was recently revealed from U.N. archives that the United States and its allies had information about the Nazis mass murder of Jews in occupied Europe much earlier in the Holocaust than previously known and chose not to act on it. I will not allow the negativity in the world to keep my feet still and my mouth shut. I will channel it to treat others better, listen to stories from different communities, and to never stop inspiring people to better the world around them.
I am so lucky my grandparents were able to escape the horror that so many others faced. The scratches from the walls of the gas chambers are scratched into my heart. The words I’ve exchanged with survivors I met will stay engraved in my soul forever. My Jewish community might have gotten smaller after the Holocaust, but it seems my world just keeps getting bigger.
Rayna Rose Exelbierd is Southeast high school coordinator for StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization.
Originally published HERE