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Youth Pay A Sobering Visit To A Different Kind Of Camp

12/04/2015 01:57 EST | Updated 12/04/2016 05:12 EST
Liz Pearl/Her Magazine

In 2014 I had the privilege of participating as a chaperone in the March of the Living (MOL) with the Toronto contingent of high school students. The MOL is a unique two week experiential journey that takes place in Poland and Israel. Hundreds of Canadian students travel abroad to mark important dates in Jewish history, including Holocaust Remembrance Day, when students participate in a three-kilometre march from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a silent tribute to victims of the Holocaust. Students observe Israel's Memorial Day and celebrate Independence Day while they are in Israel.

The experience was meaningful, transformative, exhausting and exhilarating. In making some sense of this complex journey, I compiled a personal journal and wanted to share one excerpt from it:

Camp is freedom, fun, friends and memories forever. Camp is a cool lake on a hot summer day, roasting marshmallows and snuggling in cozy bunk beds. Camp is possibly the best part of Jewish Canadian childhood and adolescence.

In the 1940s, my parents met at Camp Massad in the picturesque Laurentian Mountains. They spoke Hebrew and dreamed of one day visiting Israel, They built a baseball field, a community and a partnership that has endured more than 60 years. In the 70s, I enjoyed many summers in Ontario's scenic cottage country including the Halliburton Highlands and Orillia. Swimming, singing and cheering. In the 80s, as an enthusiastic camp counsellor, I befriended my future husband, also a life-long camper. For over a decade, my three kids have treasured their summers away at camps at glorious lakefront sites in Muskoka and the Kawarthas.

The vast majority of the participants on the MOL-Canadian contingent have been privileged to enjoy their summers at recreational camps. For many, they eagerly look forward all year-long to return to their cherished home-away-from-home nestled in the beautiful and serene countryside. For many, they are participating on the MOL trip together with their cabin-mates and much-loved, lifelong camp friends. Camp is a special place where they feel relaxed, safe and loved. Summer camp is a magical dream-come-true opportunity. Heaven on Earth.

Labour camp. Nazi concentration camp. Death camp. Extermination camp.

Auschwitz-Birkenau. Belzec. Majdanek. Treblinka.

Decked out in our MOL garb we marched into Birkenau and we took in the magnitude of the camp. The seemingly infinite size of the site was overwhelming. The grass was green, the air was fresh and the birds were chirping. Even the expansive fields were inviting. Wild flowers peeking through rusted barbed wire.

Then, we entered a camp barrack. The original wooden plank floors, the cramped bunk beds and rafters stood still, silent and timeless. I looked at my MOL kids looking at the barrack and all at once the juxtaposed impact of camp crashed down on me like a giant wave. My parents' camp, my camp, my kids' camp, my MOL kids' camp. Now this. The barrack at Birkenau concentration/extermination camp is a stark reminder. A picture in my mind I will not soon forget.

There were no multi-coloured flip-flops lined up on the floor. There were no damp, Disney-themed towels hanging from the rafters. There were no sticky junk food wrappers hidden under the bunk beds. There were no wide-eyed, smiling children waiting in cheerful anticipation for visiting day with adoring parents and doting grandparents; knowing in their hearts they would be reunited soon, embraced with comfort, security and love. And greeted with bags stuffed with treats and their favourite foods from home. Here, there were no happy campers laughing or cheering, no teenaged lust, no joy or zest of life.

On the ground we walked there was only unseen blood, silent cries, muted moans, invisible tears, echoes and shadows of endless pain and the soundless reverberation of death. So many kids met their horrific fate at camp. Children were callously ripped away from their parents and grandparents. Young lives were cruelly taken. Childhoods were stolen. Teenage-hood was abruptly broken and futures were lost. Extinguished. The Nazi concentration camp is an unimaginable nightmare. Camp that reeks of death. Hell on Earth.

Where are the children and teenagers? Precious lives way too numerous to count. How can we possibly remember them all? Their names are not scribbled in bold Sharpies on the barrack walls.

And what has become of the children and teenagers who miraculously survived the horrors of these deaths camps? Their youths' forsaken. The survivors live each day with the dark shadows and thundering echoes of those left behind. And yet, with dignity, courage and compassion they guide the way to a brighter day. They continue to smile, to laugh, to sing, to dance and to thrive. They open their arms and embrace our children, providing wisdom and support.

Our large delegation walks quietly within the sprawling camp barbed wire parameter, through fields and rows of barracks. Inside a dark barrack the Toronto contingent gathers in silence to hear the incredible testimony of a survivor. His granddaughter stands by his side. His narrative is powerful. And we all listen to his wise lessons of fate and our future. This is our legacy

We have been blessed with freedom, family and love. And the fond memories of our joyful youth and our exciting adolescence spent frolicking at summer camp.

Let us remember the barracks at Birkenau; let us remember the lives lost; and let us sustain the bright flame and passion of their legacies. Let us honour the testimonies of camp survivors.

Let us preserve the link between them and us. May our children continue the wonderful tradition of summer camp, a privilege never to be taken for granted. Amen.

About the Author: Liz Pearl is an educator and therapist with a particular interest in psychogeriatrics and expressive arts therapy. She is the founder of PK Press, the editor of several collections of personal narratives, and a regular Contributor to Her Magazine.

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