18 July 2015

March Of The Living & Nazi death camps: guide dogs for the blind

The March of the Living is an annual educational programme for students who come from around the world to Poland, where they explore what remains of Jewish history and the Holocaust. The study period does not end with a death march. Rather it ends with The March of the Living which illustrates the continued existence of the Jewish world, despite Nazi Germany's attempts at exterminating the entire community in Europe.

I have not been on the March of the Living to Poland as my relatives were either protected (in Russia) or safe in the New World (Australia, Canada, USA and Israel). So I was very interested in a short documentary film called Blind Love. It told of a 2013 voyage to Poland by six blind Israelis who travelled with their trusty guide dogs. It started in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw where the blind visitors touched old gravestones that had been there for gener­at­ions.

Then the 2013 International March of the Living went to Majdanek Concentration Camp on the outskirts of the Polish city of Lublin. Lublin was a exciting city with a vibrant Jewish community that comprised nearly half of Lublin's population. Of the 45,000 Jews in this city in 1939, perhaps only 5,000 Jews survived the war and left for Israel.

The Jerusalem Post noted the tour guide Amir Haskel had to give a minutely detailed verbal descript­ion of the scene, since the pilgrims could not see with their own eyes - a large room with rows of exposed water pipes and shower heads on the ceiling, adjacent to the Majdanek gas chambers. They reached down to the Labrador guides, dogs with an uncanny canine intuition that helped them recognise human pain. It was a powerful experience: the visitors may have lost their grand­parents, aunts and uncles during the Holocaust but the dogs were 100% present and loyal.

The trip was sponsored and filmed by The Israel Guide Dog Centre for the Blind, the only such training facility in the Middle East. The non-profit centre has so far given for free more than 500 guide dogs and there is a long waiting list. The film wanted to show a world filled with blind love, rather than blind hate. And what could be more hate-filled than a gas chamber in Poland.

Blind Israelis march from Auschwitz and Birkenau with their dogs
photo credit: Jerusalem Post

Welcoming gate of the old Nazi death camp at Auschwitz and Birkenau
"Arbeit macht frei" or "Work makes you free" fooled no-one.
photo credit: Auschwitz, Poland - Jewish Youth March In Memory Of Holocaust

There were at least three great ironies in this film.

Firstly the tour guide himself suggested something that was very telling: a concentration camp is one of the few places on earth where the ability to see might not be an advantage. He said “I had to describe each place in detail, size, colours, from what material things are made of and to give them every opportunity to feel things with their hands. This experience opened my eyes. There are places in Poland where there is nothing left, that even people with eyesight find it difficult to imagine what took place there.” Or worse: sighted visitor would have crumbled with the nightmarish sights before his/her eyes.

Secondly the first "selection" at the camp during WW2 was for Polish Jews who were able to work. Those who were not about to work, because of age or physical defect, were sent directly to be exterminated. Here in 2013 were Israeli visitors with disabilities who were travelling like any other people without disabilities. During WW2 the chances of survival had been very small for a regular Jewish Pole, but the chance of survival for a disabled Jewish Pole was non-existent.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of psyc­h­iatrically disturbed or physical disabled citizens were murdered in the Euthanasia Programme run by the Nazis, the programme that later became the model for the mass murder of Jews and others. The program­me served as a training ground for SS members who later manned the concentration camps.

The third great irony jumped out at me instantly and that was the presence of handsome, obedient and well trained golden Labrador dogs. Across the 3k journey between Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Nazis had used dogs as weapons to intimidate, maim and kill. How different it was in 2013! Now the Israelis marched proudly with their guide dogs that had been trained to be supportive of the very people the Nazis planned to wipe off the face of Europe. And very nearly did.

When my children were growing up in Melbourne, they always had a Labrador to love. So it was a particular delight to see the dogs, once used by the Nazis to kill and maim Jews, now being as their greatest support.


Andrew said...

Unlike people, animals are not inherently bad. That was an iteresting and heart warming story.

We Travel said...

My parents were in a slave labour camp and lived. They were keen for the grandchildren to go on the March of the Living, as soon as they were old enough.

Hels said...


nod... it was an amazing story. The March of the Living programme first took young people to Poland in 1988 when there were still Holocaust survivors alive. But by 2015 the survivors have been reduced to a handful now in elderly care homes. I have seen school and university students, survivors children and grandchildren, politicians, Jews and Christians, blacks and whites. But I have never ever seen blind people with their seeing eye dogs!!

Hels said...

We Travel

I absolutely understand survivors wanting their children and especially grandchildren going back to Poland, to see how Jews were treated. In fact I would warmly encourage high schools to send their students.

But the concentration camps were extremely confronting, even now empty and decrepit. So I would not let my sons go, unless and until there were plenty of briefing sessions before the visit and plenty of counsellors' support during and after the visit.