Just before the I left for the March of the Living in 1998, my girlfriend at the time gave me a going away package. I was a high school sophomore and she was a junior, which should have made me feel sophisticated but didn’t. The gift was a small shoebox filled with Hershey’s kisses, a necklace with a vial that held a piece of rice with her name on it, and two mixtapes. As if to punctuate how pre-9/11 this was, the box bore instructions forbidding me to open it until I got on the plane.
The first mixtape was a melange of shitty 1990s country music. The Texas-born son of two East Coast parents, I had grown up on a steady diet of classical music, Billy Joel, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and original cast recording of Les Miserables; I reflexively hated country music. Knowing I didn’t have a Walkman, my girlfriend included hers in the package; after all, she was trying to indoctrinate me. The other mixtape was of her favorite artist–Jimmy Buffett, whom I found much more palatable.
“She gave me the sweetest gift,” I scribbled in my journal on the flight to Poland. “I miss her so much already. I just hope I control my hormones over the next few weeks.”
The red-eye flight landed in the morning and we boarded the buses, which were heavily guarded by Polish police.
“I went to take a picture of the policeman with the submachine gun,” I gloated in my journal. “And after I did he came up to me and gave me an intimidating stare and said ‘No photo!!!’”
The first place we stopped was the Collegium Maius in Lublin, which according to sixteen-year-old me was “a famous study place for prodigies in countries around Poland. Its children were murdered during the Holocaust; didn’t have a special feeling toward it…There was another group there, probably Italian, and we both spent time making fun of each other in our languages.”
Our next stop was the death camp Majdanek, the camp infamously known for being liberated by surprise and left the most intact. And even though I had just listening to Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” on my girlfriend’s Walkman, the directions to eat our lunches in the parking lot outside Majdanek were too much even for me.
“We were told we were on a tight schedule, but I replied that Jews didn’t suffer here for us to leisurely visit and have a fucking lunch. So I ate on the bus while everyone else ate outside.” I scribbled later.
Of course, Majdanek shocked us. The bins of shoes, glasses, hair, books, dolls, the memorial with the wide steps for the many who descended into the hell and the very narrow steps for those few who survived, the crematorium, the mausoleum.
“Whenever I imagined being one of the prisoners, I always saw myself as a survivor, but not now,” I wrote.
One of the survivors who toured with us showed us the barracks and talked about carving her name into the wooden beds. It was her first visit back. Next we saw the crematorium and the mausoleum, which held the ashes of countless Jews. There all of the visiting groups sang ‘Hatikvah’ and we had a service where we said Kaddish.
“I returned to the bus numb. Changed forever. Then we went back to the town of Lublin and had a really crappy meal of this Kosher food they keep giving us and we went back to the hotel.”
I fancied myself to be a thoughtful teenager. But as I read back on the emo, shallow musings of my first day of the March of the Living, I recognize that I wasn’t prepared for it in the least. Despite the weekly educational sessions beforehand and the endless discussions, sending a Jewish teen on a field trip into the depths of history’s darkest moment is a dicey proposition. If you cringed at the excerpts above, you should know that the journal and the trip only got worse.
We arrived in the Warsaw Ghetto and decided to Israeli dance against our bus leader’s wishes. We scream-sang ‘American Pie’ through the streets of Krakow. Eventually the taboos fell away and the drinking and hooking up began. A big portion of those who came on the trip attached, seemingly cheated on their boyfriends or girlfriends at home–except for me, but only because I had no game.
Also, emotionally, our reactions weren’t what they have should been. We chided ourselves for not being able to cry at the right moments. On the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, some of the participants taunted the Polish onlookers who stared at us from the margins. Later, I wrote:
“The Polish people seemed to have mixed reactions during the march. Some waved, others stared, and some laughed at us. I didn’t mind because every step I took was like a personal fuck you to all the Polish people who objected to our presence there.”
But the Poles weren’t the enemy. Certainly there was no shortage of dark spots in Poland during the war, but from our limited engagement with Polish people and Polish culture and Polish institutions on the March, you would think Władysław Raczkiewicz schemed up the Final Solution.
As I mentioned before, I was ambivalent about this trip to Poland because somehow the idea set that I should hate Poland despite the fact it too suffered brutally during the Nazi campaign.
Perhaps I am an anomaly. Perhaps it was because I was too young to absorb the experience intellectually. Perhaps it’s because the March of Living is structured to make Poland the trial and Israel is the catharsis. The second half of my March of the Living journal (from the week spent in Israel) is littered with the detritus of this narrative.
“I am so unbelievably happy to finally be here, my whole perspective has changed,” I wrote after we left Ben Gurion airport and arrived at a lookout point over the Kinneret.
Suddenly, we were planting trees, meeting Israeli soldiers, hiking Masada, souvenir shopping, floating in the Dead Sea, going on party boats, celebrating Yom Haatzmaut, getting our ears pierced (guilty), and not saying Kaddish all the time. The solemn moments had a nobility to them; after all, we were “in the country of Jewish life.”
Following this week in Poland, where I’ve been granted the engagement I missed the first time around, my view has shifted. Entirely unprompted, most of the people I have spoken with here–from academics to diplomats–have sought to correct the very perception I’ve held about Poland for 15 years now. They’ve argued convincingly to look at history. While I may never love this country, I enjoy the idea that I no longer hate or fear it. That’s a bad thing to learn when you’re young.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.