A Protestant woman from Hong Kong joins the 2012 March of the Living to ‘feel’ the Holocaust, not just remember
HONG KONG – Linda Cheung’s journey to the 2012 March of the Living began five years ago when the Hong Kong Jewish community sent its first delegation. The Protestant convert, in processing the paperwork for the delegation as an employee of the Hong Kong Jewish Community Center, was curious and spoke to the community’s assistant rabbi about it. On her own she also looked at the website and shared it with her friends, eventually coming to the realization that she could not understand the impact of the Holocaust by “just looking.” “Feeling” was the step she needed to take.
Generally speaking, the average Hong Kong Chinese has little to no understanding of Jewish history or practice, or the Holocaust, according to Cheung. And when it comes to anti-Semitism, she explains, this idea doesn’t even exist in Chinese thought. There is simply no awareness of it.
As for the Chinese views about the Jews living in their midst, Cheung explains that absent the “Protestian” [Protestant] values she has internalized, Jews are understood simply as one of many groups of foreigners living in Hong Kong. Essentially, the only local Chinese with real information about Jews, Jewish history and Israel are those, as Cheung explains, who were educated abroad.
But Cheung, with her reverence for the “people of the Bible’s Old Testament” coupled with her exposure to Jews through her position in the community center, has a thirst for knowledge. In 2011, this self-described history buff took part in the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society’s heritage tour of Harbin, a northeastern city which had a large Jewish population before World War II.
But prior to the Harbin expedition, in 2006 she made her first trip to Israel followed by a second in 2009. Though she visited Yad Vashem while there, for her this was not enough. “The more I learn [about the Holocaust], the more I understand that what I know is not enough,” she explains.
For the past year and a half, Cheung has also been studying Hebrew under the tutelage of an Israeli expat in Hong Kong. She bashfully reports that she is “only still learning the past tense,” underselling her abilities to send messages in Hebrew to members of the community, recognize vocabulary in a Siddur and memorize a number of songs including “Hatikva.”
While in Poland, in addition to participating in the three-kilometer group march from Auschwitz to Birkenau that retraces the steps the victims took on the Death March, Cheung’s trip also included visits to the concentration camps of Treblinka and Majdanek and Jewish historic sites in Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow.
She explains that the impact of seeing piles of discarded clothing, bags, shoes, old toothbrushes and handicap equipment was able to take her so far, but walking the steps the victims walked took her much closer to feeling the pain. “I wanted to walk with them here, not just work with papers. This is real life.”
She explains that the trip wasn’t a mere history tour. “When we visited a place, like a crematorium, we all took part in a group memorial service. This isn’t something you can get from books or local guides. It was an authentic experience.”
An entire near-forgotten world opened to her: A Jewish university student was standing outside a camp gate. He reached out to her, put his hand on her shoulder, and with tears in his eyes said, “I am afraid to go alone.” Together they walked inside and she talks about feeling the pain with him.
Armed with the memory of the trip, she feels that she is now a witness and has the duty to share this legacy with others. While Yad Vashem was informative, Cheung explains, “it was a museum. Poland was real.” There she gained a fuller understanding of what was lost by expanding her knowledge of the richness of Jewish life in Europe before World War II.
Cheung is looking for ways to share this experience with others. In addition to posting her photos on her Facebook page, she hopes to do more. She feels that this information needs to be disseminated “bit by bit” with her community, and they “will slowly open to it.” She sees Holocaust films as a great introduction to the history, but there is no substitute for the actual March experience. “I too worry about the legacy. People might not remember. They need to feel.”
As to why Cheung and her friends didn’t choose a Christian group to pair with for this experience, she indicated that they quite frankly were unaware that such a delegation existed. In retrospect though, she wouldn’t trade the experience she had and thought it was made more authentic by the group she shared it with, a delegation that included four survivors. She gained invaluable benefits from their personal struggles for survival and was able to come closer to understanding the meaning of these places. “It was more in depth than if we had a local guide” and with the group, “it was very moving.”
For the group as a whole, Cheung in turn added another dimension to the experience for them as well. A Hong Kong March of the Living participant, Dale Biteen, explained, “I’ve often wondered if non-Jews can really understand the Holocaust. Having Linda and her friends with us proved that they can, and do.”
Biteen adds that for her, “the absolute highlight of the week was standing next to Linda and listening to her beautiful voice proudly singing ‘Hatikva’ along with 11,000 people at the end of the ceremony at Birkenau.”