With March of Remembrance, Nazi descendants memorialize, atone for the Holocaust

Marches will take place in 20 cities around the world as non-Jews look to speak out against antisemitism for Yom Hashoah

As Jews around the world mark Holocaust Remembrance Day this year with ceremonies and memorial events, Claudia Kiesinger, a German-born Christian, led a march in Houston — undeterred by the torrential downpours and flooding that gripped the city this weekend — to show solidarity and atone for her own family’s roles in the Holocaust.

When Kiesinger was in her 40s, curiosity led her to look through the German government’s archives. She grew up being told that she was a descendant of former German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a source of great pride for her family, who at the time were unaware that the chancellor had been a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party. Kiesinger later found out she was not in fact related to the chancellor — but was even more “shocked” to learn that both of her grandfathers were Nazi perpetrators, ardent followers of Adolf Hitler. 

Eager to repent for her family’s dark past, in 2007 Kiesinger took part in the inaugural March of Life, a German memorial march that takes place around Yom HaShoah. She has participated every year since, first in Germany and then in the U.S. This year, Kiesinger, who moved to New York in 2010, was the national coordinator and a speaker at the march in Houston. 

In the U.S., it is known as March of Remembrance to avoid confusion with the anti-abortion movement’s event known as March of Life. (It also has no affiliation with the March of the Living educational program.) The march took place in more than 20 cities worldwide on Sunday — including in Rochester, N.Y., Bowling Green, Kent., Basel, Switzerland, and Asunción, Paraguay. The name memorializes the so-called “death marches” between concentration camps that Nazis forced Jews to partake in during World War II. Thousands died during the marches from starvation and brutal conditions.  

Each march is a grassroots, locally organized event, with participation ranging from 40 to 500 people. At the Houston march on Sunday, which had one of the largest turnouts despite the heavy rains and storms throughout the city that resulted in crews rescuing more than 400 people on Saturday and Sunday, attendees included representatives from the Israeli-American Council and the local Israeli consulate. 

Kiesinger called the marches “a way for us as Germans, as descendants of Nazi perpetrators, to raise our voices… and show support for Israel.” 

“What [motivates] us is the silence of our forefathers in the Holocaust,” Kiesinger told eJewishPhilanthropy while on her way to the march. “Growing up there was silence about the war… Many of us realized that we really didn’t know what our families were involved in. It happened years ago, we weren’t alive but through this journey we found out what our grandfathers did… silence is approval.” 

“Beyond what my grandfathers did, I have a responsibility to speak up and talk about what they were participating in,” she continued.

Holocaust Remembrance Day will resonate differently this year, as Jews worldwide are focused on the aftermath of a more recent crisis, the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel and the 133 hostages remaining in Hamas captivity. Kiesinger said in light of Oct. 7— the deadliest atrocity against the Jewish people since the Holocaust— and the subsequent global rise of antisemitism to levels not seen in generations, marches this year will look different than past ones. 

“At the marches we encourage calls for the release of hostages,” she said. “And we have added more security. We just see it as even more important than ever.” This year the event has also caught the attention of Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, who sent a letter to march participants on Thursday.

“Regretfully, the importance of the Holocaust as a critical, active teacher in our present has become painfully clear in recent months,” Herzog wrote. “I am hopeful that the bold decision to visibly stand on the side of justice, and the enormous goodwill that is evident in the Marches of life, will offer a powerful counter-voice to hate. And revitalize the clear moral stance that supports Israel and the Jewish people at this time of terror and enormous grief.I am certain that your March will leave an indelible imprint upon each of the participants, and continue to inspire our collective, sacred labor of Holocaust memory and education. I am further hopeful that the Marches offer you an opportunity to raise your voices on behalf of our innocent hostages, who, unbelievably, remain in the grips of a murderous terror organization in Gaza.” 

The marches also come as Holocaust denial and distortion are on the rise through social media. A fifth of Americans ages 18-29 believe the Holocaust was a myth, according to a December poll from The Economist/YouGov. A Claims Conference study found that in the U.K., 29% of adults saw denial or distortion on social media, while in Canada, 22% of millennials and Gen Z were not sure if they had heard of the Holocaust, and in France, 25% of millennials were unsure if they have ever heard of — or have not heard of — the Holocaust. 

The March of Life movement started in southwest Germany’s city of Tübingen (which is also Kiesinger’s hometown), by the Evangelical TOS Church’s founder, Jobst Bittner, who remains the group’s president. The inaugural march was from Tübingen to the Dachau concentration camp. Since its founding in 2007, “the numbers are growing,” Kiesinger said. In Germany, most of the participants are Nazi descendants. “But here in America, it’s just people who want to stand with the Jewish people… we want to encourage non-Jews to stand up, especially right now.” 

“Non-Jews should be doing more,” Kiesinger said. “Everybody should be on the streets, and especially given the history of Christian antisemitism.” In her own family’s experience, “you were in church on Sunday and then on Monday you were a concentration camp guard.” 

In a statement to participants, Bittner said, “In our Marches of Life, we do not go with the flow of this time but tell the truth about our families. This is where we hear the memories of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. And here, too, former antisemites and people.” 

After the march in Houston, Kiesinger is slated to fly to Israel for another march, which will take place throughout five cities, to coincide with the country’s Independence Day. “It’s similar to the U.S. event but also to show Israel we are with you,” she said. Even amid war, “we are coming no matter what.”