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Holocaust Memorial Education Center

Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center

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REFLECTIONS-SARA GORRELL BRENNER-MARCH OF THE LIVING 1991

It was a typical Friday night service at Temple Sholom in 1984, except it wasn’t. I was nine and a fellow congregant had just returned from the March of Living. He told stories of what he witnessed, and how it fundamentally changed how he saw the world. At the age of nine–I was still too timid to go to a sleepover at a friend’s house, but I knew in that moment, I would make the journey myself. I had to. And I did.

In 1991 when I was sixteen, I marched with over 3,000 other Jewish teens from around the world between Auschwitz and Birkenau. We visited concentration camps, Jewish sites and cemeteries around Poland. The experience was both one of solidarity with thousands of people and great sorrow. It’s hard to comprehend the totality of death when you are there—to be alive among so much death, to stand in the gas chambers, to see the volume of ashes, mountains of shoes and eyeglasses left behind, and to the smell the barracks.

As one goes on living, the March of Living helped me dedicate and rededicate my life’s work to repairing the world, tikkun olam. I now work in my non-profit company to help communities solve some of the most difficult problems in our country, and I work to help those communities stand up against injustices in all forms. Perhaps most importantly, the March of Living experience reinforced the importance of being physically present in community to understand and affect change. We have to be close to those who are suffering to be effective agents of change. We have to experience their world with them, and see their beauty and humanity.  We have to show up to have an appreciation for what another human being is experiencing.

To understand my people, I felt obligated to get as close as possible to the Holocaust—to see it and to smell it as it remained in 1991. I am grateful to carry that with me in my work.

I wrote a series of poems about my experience while journaling on the March to help process the experience. When I returned, my poetry series was recognized by the Rutgers-Newark High School Poetry Contest as a finalist in their statewide competition. As a consequence, I read my poems at Rutgers-Newark, and then, when our local Federation hosted a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC a year later, and they invited me to read my poems in the Hall of Remembrance. I went along with our county’s Jewish leaders, citizens, and Holocaust survivors including Margit Feldman (refer to photograph from the Messenger Gazette). It was a true honor to be there with survivors like Margit and to honor her with my words. Reading my poetry in Washington, DC, I hoped at the time people were moved to carry forward the responsibility of “never forgetting” for the Jewish people, and for all people who experience injustice then and especially now in 2017.

May we grow our capacity to understand others, may we see the suffering of others, and may we dedicate our lives to righting injustice for all people.

Sara Gorrell Brenner, speaking at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. with Margit Feldman.
Courtesy Sara Gorrell Brenner

POETRY BY SARA GORRELL BRENNER

Realities’ Deception

 1. Before

 stripped of every unique curve and every birthmark depicting
life’s umbilical cord of our mother’s mother
stripped layer by layer until destruction
I can only imagine
the air, the smell, the ground  called earth
I can only wonder  of the tears and the torture
staring in the mirrors blond hair decorates my face with two blue gems in between
a chicken pox scar embedded on the tip of my nose
I was taught  to be me          ,,
I can’t begin to comprehend hundreds of faces
all created from the same mold of hate
gray eyes upon rotten skin, dirt used for make-up
adding color to a wallcing ghost
and stories of nightmares made in heaven as each day they awoke in hell
I pray I will never have to face an empty mirror glass too intimidated to look back at me
g-d intended a balance of evil and benevolence
I want to stop and ask him why?
though in my heart I’m afraid of silence
 
2. (Untitled)
 
lost without comprehension
I’m still breathing in a field surrounded
by birds chirping  sarcastically, 
mocking my thoughts  Hebrew words, 
sounds of comfort in a world where 
I’m still crying last words from mother
to her son the ground nurtured by nature
a bed for those passed before us
I sit on the earth,
an unwarranted grave
the soil saturated with the loss of life 
a vacant field decorated  with stones
and I am fortunate

  I can hold your hand and remember.

3.   Majdanek

 from the inside, the horizon seems endless 
birds echo melodies, as dogs bark
far from my walls
comprehension is a term left for those
who see through naive eyes
in search of you, I walk to understand myself
I saw your battered shoes mounds
piled to the ceiling and your clothes
neatly hung on hangers displayed as artifacts
your lives transformed into a museum of death
I stood where you felt can you forgive me?
today I journey in the footsteps of victims left to ash and tomorrow
as I return to the land of the living
I face a world observing me
uniquely dressed in your worn shoes and
your stripped  clothing
with my own number

JEW

 
4.  On Leaving Majdanek
 
through an entangled
web I peer out at freedom
numbness encloses me,
a tight embrace,
footsteps beyond barbed wire, the wind
whips the boy’s hair as his feet entangle
with the dog’s paws
ker-plop; in a chase,
they nonchalantly parade life
while I lay fathoming how to take the next step
did your father watch my father as I observe you now?
I’m trapped upon ashes, buried in crimes of silence
the boy’s legs carry him racing in circles
a childhood game, ashes ashes, we ALL fall down
 
5.  After

here, we are lost in another

world wrapped up in a birthday

 present fastened  with a bow

how reality plays with our minds perhaps
I’ll never see your face again though I walked in your footsteps
searching  to understand my future as I comprehended your past
somewhere someone in our family is crying why are our ears closed?
I have much to gain from my outside walls
knowledge spills at my feet, 
calling for absorption life  
becomes an open book
filled with unwritten 
pages fluttering  in the wind  ‘
but can you catch them?
 
6.   You .
 
Please remember  my eyes
which never got to see a playground
and my arms which never
learned how to hang from a jungle gym
Please remember  my legs
which were cheated
out of learning how to ride a bike
and my hair which I lost
as my flesh was tattooed
with inferiority
Remember my hands
oh so small
with the same life line 
as my mother grasping
 her hand in terror
as they shot my brother
Remember me because
I lived and I laughed and
because I can’t remember
how to feel
Remember
me because
 I could have been
YOU.
 
7.  Realities’ Deception 
 
rain decorates my body
as g-d cries with me
the wind  holds out no arms
and  the sun is blinded with
deception though I’m alive,
hope smiles upside down
I saw death with my own eyes
barbed wire wrapped my heart 
paralyzing my soul
what  gives me the right to cry or laugh
a mirror  image of selfishness
I’m one scattered in a million
pieces no one can comprehend that
until  they walk through agony
breathless I am smothered under ash
 pleasant dreams, why am I 
the only one waking?
 
Sara Gorell, 16
 

Photo of Sara Gorrell Brenner
Credit: Sara Gorrell Brenner

Sara Gorrell Brenner participates in March of the Living, 1991.
Courtesy, Sara Gorrell Brenner