Visit Poland

Fully understanding Israeli identity is impossible without understanding the Jewish culture that was destroyed in the Holocaust.

February 8, 2018 21:31
3 minute read.
Majdanek concentration camp in Poland in the snow

Majdanek concentration camp in Poland in the snow. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

High school trips to Poland have been controversial since the Education Ministry began organizing them in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Those who were critical of the trips argued they commercialized the experience. The main benefactor of this “Holocaust tourism” was none other than the Polish people. An absurd situation was created in which a society permeated by antisemitism was making money from “Shoah business.”

Also mitigating against the trips was the classic Zionist ethos of rejecting exile and the Jewish culture that developed there as unnatural and a relic of the past. According to this ethos, trips to the destroyed Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were a distraction from the more important educational goal of state-building.

Even proponents of the trips could not ignore the irony. Just over a generation after the creation of the State of Israel, a project designed to supersede and reject Diaspora living, the state’s Education Ministry was sending Israeli children back to the Exile to discover their roots.

Controversy surrounding the trips has grown after the Polish government’s decision to pass a law that seeks to punish anyone who uses the term “Polish death camps” or who “publicly and against the facts” blames the Polish nation or state for being complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes.

Many are questioning whether Israel should continue to send high school students to a country that is trying to whitewash its past and severely restrict freedom of expression on the question of the extent of Polish collaboration with the Nazis in carrying out the systematic murder of Polish Jewry.

Others, such as Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Moshe Azman, have called to stop the annual March of the Living and school trips to Poland.
Yet, we would argue that discontinuing trips organized by the Education Ministry for our high school students or calling for a wider boycott of Poland is wrongheaded. If anything the opposite is true. Now, after Poland has tried to stifle free speech about the Polish people’s role in carrying out the Final Solution, even more people should go to see firsthand how the Nazis and the Poles who assisted in the murder and persecution destroyed the vibrant Jewish communities of Poland.

While it is true that the Zionist ideal of living in Israel and devoting one’s energies to its well-being remains a strong value of Israeli society, there is also a recognition that contemporary Israeli identity cannot ignore Diaspora culture. Indeed, fully understanding Israeli identity is impossible without understanding the Jewish culture that was destroyed in the Holocaust.

Only by visiting Poland, particularly the sites that were once thriving Jewish centers, can one truly understand the dimensions of the loss. Nothing can substitute for being in the place where the Nazis carried out their genocide on occupied Polish land where in 1939 a full 10% of the population, or 3.5 million persons, were Jews. Six years later barely 100,000 Polish Jews remained alive.

Once they’ve seen the destruction, our high school children can return to Israel and proceed to strengthen and build what is the most important, most vibrant and most promising Jewish community in history.

After being at the site where just over 70 years ago the foremost laboratory of Nazi barbarity existed, Israelis can return home with renewed energies and drive to participate in the foremost laboratory for Jewish innovation and growth.

Is modern Polish society antisemitic? It undoubtedly has strong antisemitic undercurrents, whether in the form of classic negative Christian depictions of Jews or as a distorted form of anti-communism. And the current diplomatic spat between Jerusalem and Warsaw has unleashed a wave of antisemitic activity on social media.

Are there Polish philosemites? Yes there are. And the present right-wing Polish government happens to be one of the most pro-Israel governments in Europe. As is the case elsewhere, reality in Poland is a bit more complicated and nuanced than comes across from bombastic headlines.

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