It was spring 1965 when 15 Israeli teenagers arrived in Auschwitz following survivor Fredka Mazya’s unthinkable response to an invitation from the Polish government to attend the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial ceremony: “Enough with our returning to the graves and crying!” the 43-year-old underground veteran told her colleagues in the Partisans and Underground Fighters Organization, where the invitation arrived. “We should send there a youth group and show everyone that there is a continuation to this nation they wanted to annihilate,” she demanded.
The demand was heeded with no debate, and the teens, cobbled together from many places around the country, unwittingly pioneered what would later be followed by thousands of Israeli youths.
In Krakow they visited the historic Jewish cemetery; in Warsaw they laid wreaths outside the bunker at 18 Mila Street; in Treblinka they stood speechless opposite the field of 17,000 commemorative stones before spontaneously singing “Don’t say this is my last path” – the Partisans’ Hymn they knew from school; and in Auschwitz, when 18-year-old Kobi Yakir of Ein Gedi faced the “girls’ little braids,” and the “piles of small shoes,” and the “tiny dolls the children left moments before being swallowed by the ovens,” he and his friends “felt we were breaking down.”
In the absence of smartphones, websites or even TV, all this was a novelty in Israel, where the recent Eichmann Trial first exposed Sabras to what until then had not been discussed.
Understandably, then, Maariv’s headline for the story that recapped the tour quoted the teens’ unequivocal conclusion: “Every Jew must visit Auschwitz.”
Some of that tour’s experiences are no longer feasible, like hobnobbing with a large crowd of Polish survivors who showed up for the ceremony in Auschwitz in their striped uniforms, or holding a Seder with a hundred bewildered Polish Jewish survivors.
Moreover, what was repeated the following year and seemed like the beginning of a tradition was abruptly discontinued following the Six Days War. Still, Israeli youths returned to Auschwitz in 1983, and since 1988 the March of the Living has been sending there annually some 10,000 Israeli youths.
The IDF soon followed suit.
Every future company commander visits Auschwitz, an Israel Air Force flyover roared atop the death camp in 2003, chiefs of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz led the March of the Living each in his turn, following Ehud Barak’s visit in 1992 when he memorably said: “We have arrived 50 years too late.”
Now, as it returns there next Thursday, the march to Auschwitz is gathering opponents who cite educational, social and ideological flaws with which they feel these journeys are fraught.
The criticism is mostly right, but the journeys should march on.
CRITICISM OF the journeys to Poland was initially about Zionist practicality, when Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun warned that the massive visits might eventually renew permanent Jewish presence in a land where Jews should never return.
Then a social problem emerged, as the government made the journey voluntary and therefore at the parents’ expense, meaning parting with well more than $1,000.
Since that sum is for many unaffordable, poorer students usually miss the experience, and while at it are also offered a memorable illustration of their social disadvantage.
Educationally, opponents say the journeys – despite their famous snapshots of teenagers ambling along the tracks pensive, crying and holding hands while wrapped in blueand- white flags – are in fact less effective than meets the eye; that the teenagers’ shift from the flight’s euphoria to the camp’s trauma is too sudden, that their encounter with the surrounding non-Jews is shallow and stereotyping, and that their exposure to prewar Jewish life is partial at best.
“Once the journey is joined by the masses and becomes mechanical, wholesale and without real internalizing, these trips can and should be waived,” Dr. Anat Livne, director of the Holocaust Museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, told Haaretz.
“I am against this journey,” she said, “because it is meant to hoist Israeli flags and make declarations, and less to study.
There are in it unnecessary elements of power display and not enough identification with the victims and the loss.”
And speaking from a Judaic point of view, Rabbi Donniel Hartman questioned the Holocaust’s cultivation as an engine of Israeli and Jewish memory.
“For more than 30 years,” he wrote in 2010, “Zionism is redefining the Holocaust in order to supply us a new Israeli narrative based on the premise that we constitute an army poised to confront those out to reenact history and attack us again.”
The IDF, he observed, turned from the defender of Israel into “an army for Holocaust prevention,” while Auschwitz became “a physical and ideational meeting point for the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora; just like Diaspora Jews joining the March of the Living reach Israel through Auschwitz, the Israeli narrative suddenly reaches Jerusalem through Auschwitz.”
These arguments are all valid.
Yes, Israel should not fuel a Jewish return to Poland; the March of the Living must be made affordable to everyone; the journey should not be a substitute for depth, or a pretext for chauvinism, and it should not overshadow the Diaspora’s achievements, nor make youths and troops dismiss Jewish-Gentile harmony.
Even so, the journey to Poland is priceless.
For one thing, it tells the Mideast’s anti-Israelis and Europe’s anti-Jews: you will never be as efficient as the Nazis, and we will never be as helpless as their victims.
But more crucially, the journeys are necessary for the very masses whose swamping of Auschwitz Dr. Livne laments. Nothing will trigger their curiosity more effectively than this visit, even if it takes years before they buy a book, attend a lecture, or download a film that can shed more light on what they so briefly saw.
“Remember the days of old,” said Moses, “consider the years of ages past.” The trip down memory lane that this undervalued command entails should neither begin nor end in Auschwitz.
For many, however, it is where it can best be sparked.