The March of Life was initiated and organized by TOS Church of Tubingen, Senior Pastor Jobst Bittner. Our honorary leaders of this first prayer walk were Shoah survivors Rose Price, (survived 6 camps before liberation at Dachau) and Peter Loth (born in Stuthoff concentration camp) with another 35 Jewish descendants of Shoah victims that came from America.
When the American group arrived at the tent in Tubingen, our German hosts were so grateful that Jewish people would come to walk with them that one man, Wolfe Reinhardt, came forward to confess that his father had been a commander of a concentration camp and mass murderer. In his sorrowful repentance, he asked for a basin of water and began washing the feet of our Jewish guests and many more descendants of Nazis joined him in this.
A little history about this church called TOS. Their name is an an acronym for Tubingen Offensive Stadtmissions, which loosely translated means "Street Mission of Tubingen". They started out an idealistic youth group at Tubingen University with a young Pastor Jobst Bittner who had been involved in mostly drug-rehab ministries before moving to Tubingen with his wife, Charlotte, to study at the University.
In their search for land to build a church they were having some trouble with civic leaders and local citizens alike. They were given the option of a piece of land in an industrial area of the city. This particular land had a small train station that had been used for deporting Jews to Dachau but was now defunct. TOS church accepted this property and built a small wooden bridge over those tracks as a memorial sign everyone would see as they go through the main entrance of the church; a reminder of these forgotten train tracks and of the city's past.
About 200 miles to the east in the suburbs of Munich, the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, was originally built to punish political foes of the National Socials (nazi) regime. Most sent there in the beginning were communists and dissenters of Hitler's sweeping new race policies in the 1930s.
As the 1940s came, German Jews were being sent by trains to Poland or Latvia, though many were also enslaved in localized labor camps in the rural areas around almost every city of Germany. Smaller labor camps supported the larger camps. Though they were not designated as death camps, the intent was still the murder of Jews through torturous forced labor. Jews in the nine labor camps surrounding Tubingen in the Schwabian Alps were given the impossible job of squeezing oil from shale rocks, and many died performing this pointless back-breaking work. But in 1944, when losing the war became inevitable for the Nazis, they wanted to hide their war crimes by "liquidating" these camps.
To do this, they started an enormous campaign of marching Jews through the countrysides to Dachau where those who somehow lived through the journey could be snuffed out en masse. Dachau served as the main hub of that purpose for labor camps in southwest Germany from Stuttgart to Nurenberg and down to Munich.
By the time we started marching in April 2007, almost of all of those labor camps had been long destroyed and forgotten. Many had no memorial to mark what had happened in those places and this was the silence we were to break. The first March of Life started in a field where the camp of Bisingen used to stand, with Hohenzollern Castle overlooking. This had been the family castle of Prussian Kings including Kaiser Wilhelm, who started World War I and ultimately created the circumstances which caused WWII.
Since we had such a large area to cover in this prayer walk, we would daily split into small groups and walk different sections of the 180 miles path. At night we would come together again at a sponsoring church in cities along the way. One day even included a special train that brought the children of our German hosts to meet us in memorial to the 1.5 million Jewish children who were slaughtered in the Shoah.
In this way, we were able to cover the entire 180 miles in a week's time and arrive at Dachau.
(Many more details to this story will be added as I get time, so be sure to check back)