Students reflect on their March of the Living experience

March of the Living participants: Alyssa Rzepa (L), Mika Raber, and Lilah Silver. Photo by Fedele Arcuri, Rum Punch Media, Courtesy of Calgary Jewish Federation.

By Maxine Fischbein, Photos by Fedele Arcuri, Rum Punch Media, Courtesy of Calgary Jewish Federation.

Alex Buckman OBM. Photo by Fedele Arcuri, Rum Punch Media, Courtesy of Calgary Jewish Federation.

(AJNews) – Hearts spoke to hearts at Beth Tzedec Synagogue on June 19, as Calgary high school students Mika Raber, Alyssa Rzepa and Lilah Silver shared reflections from the April 2023 March of the Living (MOL) trip to Poland and Israel and honoured the memory of Holocaust survivor Alex Buckman, of Vancouver, who passed away while sharing his testimony in Warsaw.

The three young women and four of their peers from Edmonton were among 50 teens in the first Coast to Coast (CTC) MOL trip to Poland and Israel since 2018. The smaller-than-usual cohort – consisting of approximately 50 Canadian kids living outside Toronto and Montreal – were among 10,000 Jewish students from around the world who marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom HaShoah and later marked Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel.

Always an emotional rite of passage, the 2023 trip proved more challenging than usual, said Calgary Jewish Federation Director of Development Diana Kalef and her Edmonton colleague Jennifer Magalnick, who attended the June 19 Calgary event.

In addition to coordinating Edmonton participation in the CTC trip and serving on the planning committee, Magalnick – who is the Jewish Federation of Edmonton Associate Director, Holocaust Education and Community Engagement – served as a trip chaperone.

It was the first CTC trip since the COVID-19 pandemic, noted Kalef. A Toronto and Montreal trip was cancelled last year due to security concerns arising from Russia’s war on Ukraine.

As always, the 2023 MOL was preceded by months of intensive education about the history of European Jewry, antisemitism, and the attempted destruction of the Jewish people.

It is important to help youth “integrate what they have witnessed and experienced,” said Rabbi Cantor Russell Jayne, who served as a chaperone on the 2018 trip…. Their community has their backs, and we’re there to help them every step of the way.”

“Landing in Poland, the 2023 marchers toured Krakow, commemorated Yom HaShoah, and the next day they donned their blue jackets and walked the three kilometres from Auschwitz to Birkenau with thousands of others from around the world,” Kalef said.

Alyssa Rzepa and Mika Raber on the 2023 March of the Living. 
Photo by Fedele Arcuri, Rum Punch Media

Buckman was with them every step of the way and traveled with the group to Warsaw, where he collapsed during a Q and A session.

“It is still incomprehensible to us that we went from marching with Alex to marching for Alex,” said Mika Raber.

For Lilah Silver, the journey was deeply personal.

“While we were in Warsaw, I turned 17, the age my great-bubbie was when she survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising,” Silver said. “We have heard the stories, seen the camps and the unmarked graves, and now we have become witnesses….We will not be bystanders, and we will continue to carry the stories and live through the legacies of Alex and my bubbie and every other survivor.”

“I’m so thankful that I went on this trip and have never felt more proud to be Jewish,” said Alyssa Rzepa. “I know that Alex was a big part of my pride and hopefully sharing our experience to all of you will encourage you to spread kindness, just like Alex would want.”

Fedele Arcuri first heard a Holocaust survivor speak in 2020, when he filmed the moving documentary that complemented the made-in-Calgary photographic exhibit Here to Tell: The Faces of Holocaust Survivors.

“It froze me then and it still freezes me today,” said Arcuri, who served as CTC photographer and videographer, also pitching in as a chaperone.

Arcuri recorded all the interactions Buckman had with the students on the day he passed.

“Alex [asked] the exact same question to every single student …‘When you go home, will you speak about the things that you saw today?’” Arcuri said.

Arcuri captured the sorrow of the MOL as well as the pride and even levity as the young adults belted out Hatikvah and O Canada in the former Jewish shtetl of Tykocin, sang Sweet Caroline on the tour bus, enjoyed their first falafels in Israel and sang Am Yisrael Chai (the people of Israel live) with gusto.

Alex Buckman OBM with CTC Marchers. Photo by Fedele Arcuri, Rum Punch Media, Courtesy of Calgary Jewish Federation.

Buckman would have wanted it that way. When he accompanied youth on the 2010 MOL, he mourned in Poland but celebrated in Israel, recalled Kalef, then a chaperone on the trip.

“He didn’t want to miss a single moment with the students. He shared his story of survival while we sat in an orphanage not unlike where he was hidden. He walked into the gas chambers of Auschwitz and mourned the place where his family was killed,” Kalef said.

“Then we arrived in Israel and Alex didn’t stop smiling…He rafted on the Jordan and danced at Yom Ha’atzmaut. He was so full of life.”

Jennifer Magalnick saluted the 2023 participants.

“I know that it’s a hard thing to do,” said Magalnick, who was a youth participant on the 1990 MOL.

“It’s painful to see that you have to do this at such a young age, and I am also, at the same time, so proud of you all for doing it,” Magalnick told the teens.

Despite the pain of losing Buckman, a highlight of the trip was experiencing it with him, Magalnick said.

“It was just so powerful to be able to have had that experience with him, to have had the experience with these wonderful students, to be able to hear them speak about the experience when it is still so fresh and so difficult…. “It really speaks to the March of the Living as a program, so affecting and effective on so many levels.”

Alumni Alison Numerow and Daniel Birnbaum, who were accompanied by Buckman during the 2010 MOL, shared an excerpt from his memoirs.

Following Arcuri’s video tribute to Buckman, Rabbi Jayne chanted the El Maleh Rachamim memorial prayer.

Attendees were treated to gateau a l’orange – orange cake – from a recipe Buckman’s  aunt had surreptitiously written down, at great personal risk, while a prisoner at Ravensbruck. Buckman had shared the recipe with students wherever he spoke – including the annual Holocaust Education Symposium in Calgary. He urged kids to keep both the recipe and his testimony alive by sharing it with their loved ones.

Reflections from Edmonton

Photo by Fedele Arcuri, Rum Punch Media, Courtesy of Calgary Jewish Federation.

Earlier this month, Edmontonian Ellie Vogel shared with AJNews the impact of the MOL on herself and her peers.

“I would highly encourage every Jewish teen to go on the trip,” said Vogel, stressing the vital importance of her generation learning and sharing the testimony of Holocaust survivors.

Vogel says she will never forget Buckman.

“Alex was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” said Vogel as she recalled that many on the March, herself included, broke down and cried while touring Auschwitz.

“No matter how hard it was for us, it was 100 times harder for Alex. Yet he would go up to us and give hugs and say… ‘I’m proud of you for doing this,’ and ‘you are so strong.’ I think this shows his character and how much he cared about us and making sure that we all never forget,” recalled Vogel.

Vogel valued the opportunity to debrief with peers.

“We would talk about how certain things made us feel and found out that many of us were having similar reactions.”

What they saw on the trip will inform how participants respond to antisemitism, Vogel said.

The MOL “gives you a great appreciation for Israel and how truly important it is to the Jewish people,” Vogel told AJNews, adding, “Once the plane landed, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, I felt at home.”

“But some of my favourite moments were ones that showed why we were [on the MOL]…like singing Hatikvah in Majdanek, or the teens deciding to say the Mourners’ Kaddish at the unmarked graves,” added Vogel. “Seeing so many Jewish teens stand in the same place that our people were once murdered…was so empowering.”

Dr. Erin Wright, the Edmontonian who accompanied MOL participants as CTC physician, characterized the experience as “hard at times, but at the same time affirming and uplifting.”

“There were issues,” noted Wright, who knew that better than most. He was the first responder when Alex Buckman collapsed and, sadly, could not be revived.

Wright praised the rapid and skilled response of Polish EMTs.

Dr. Erin Wright
Photo by Fedele Arcuri, Rum Punch Media, Courtesy of Calgary Jewish Federation.

Magalnick had similar praise for International MOL staff and leaders of other delegations who pitched in to support CTC marchers as they coped with the sudden loss of a man they had drawn so close to in the all-too-brief time they had together.

A delegation head who is a clinical psychologist pitched in – as did a Toronto Rabbi – to help support the CTC marchers, ensuring that they got the support they needed as a group and one-on-one.

The MOL is a highly structured and well-planned trip, noted Magalnick, but time was made to allow for those who had traveled in Buckman’s company to support one another as staff and volunteers made thoughtful decisions about how to carry on.

Notably, Patrick Buckman rejoined the group for Shabbat services.

“He really wanted to be with the group, and we wanted to support him in any way we could,” Magalnick said.

By all accounts, MOL participants enjoyed their time in Israel, though they narrowly missed another horrifying situation when five people were injured in a car ramming attack near the Machane Yehuda market just 20 minutes after the marchers had left the popular tourist destination, Wright told AJNews.

Abby Flackman, the Winnipeg staffer who led the CTC delegation was in constant communication with the security team on the ground, said Wright.

“We had to make changes on the go,” added Wright, who said that the adult leadership team was “rock solid.”

“Our kids were great,” he added, “I am really impressed with how they handled everything…. They were a real source of pride.”

It is important that the March of the Living continue, Wright said, especially in a world that will soon be without living Holocaust survivors.

“People say never again,” when referring to the Holocaust, he added, “but we need to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

There are other important takeaways for marchers, said Magalnick, emphasizing that seeing thousands of young Jewish people in the same place “isn’t a typical Alberta Jewish experience.”

“It’s just amazing that they are there from all over the world, and yet there’s this common thread.”

Perhaps most important, says Magalnick, is that Jewish kids are “…really taking back the power.”

Visiting death camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Majdanek, and many places where Jewish life once thrived, gives marchers insight into all that was lost, said Magalnick.

“We are proud… and we are here,” said Magalnick, adding that the marchers delighted in celebrating their heritage, especially in the very places where deeply-rooted Jewish communities were obliterated or very nearly destroyed.

“The strength of the organization, the group and the students themselves was breathtaking…. This isn’t an experience anybody would have wanted for anyone else, but at the same time, the kids grew immensely in so many ways throughout the trip and bonded closely with one another.

“It was a really powerful immersive experience.”

Did you know?

While the March of the Living takes place annually, Coast to Coast communities participate every other year. Historically, an average of 10 Edmontonians and 20 Calgarians take part. The next Coast to Coast trip will take place in 2025, but Alberta youth can participate during alternate years by joining other contingents. Some subsidies and bursaries are available.

For more information about the March of the Living, teens and their parents can contact their local Jewish Federation. Calgary: Diana Kalef,,; Edmonton: Jennifer Magalnick,

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.



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