Back from Poland

For many high school students, visiting the Holocaust sites is a tearful, but valuable, eye-opening experience.

Poland high school trip 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Poland high school trip 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Are school visits to Poland worthwhile? Do the teenagers realize their significance or is it just another jaunt abroad? Is their behavior appropriate for the sites of the greatest atrocity of all time? Is the expense justified or does it separate the less affluent pupils from their peers?
These were some of the questions presented to 17-year-old Mayan, a student at Haifa’s Leo Baeck school, on her recent return from a class trip to Poland. Her responses showed that with excellent preparation and support from specialized counselors, a program that balanced the tears with the group experience, this was a trip that has changed her understanding of life forever and helped her to understand society here.
When she began to prepare for the class visit to Poland, she passed through many stages of trepidation and dilemma.
“Now after the experience, I don’t know why I struggled so much with the decision. Every Jew must do it,” she says.
Mayan had grown up with the stories told by her maternal grandmother, who was one of the “hidden children” in Poland during the Holocaust.
A Christian family had sheltered her as an infant, protected her and given her a good home. After the war she was reunited with her aunt, who brought her and her elderly grandparents to Israel. Her mother had been murdered by the Nazis, and the uprooting of the child from the only home she had known was traumatic.
So with this background, Mayan was uncertain how she would handle a visit to Poland, a country in which her grandmother and family had suffered so much.
In telephone calls during her visit, her parents were surprised to hear her use words like “enjoyment” and “fun.” But the intention of the experienced counselors who prepared and accompanied them was to provide the teenagers with plenty of opportunity for rest and recreation.
“You can’t spend a whole week crying at Auschwitz,” says Mayan, describing the comfortable hotels that accommodated them and the lighter leisure activities that balanced some of the very intense and emotional experiences.
“The long journeys between the sites we visited helped to separate the experiences. We knew to separate the reality of the places we visited from the need for release.”
Mayan responds to criticism sometimes voiced about the behavior of these school groups. “We were quiet and orderly at the camps and other sites, but on the bus journeys and in the evenings we could relax and joke and have fun.”
She and her classmates spent many months preparing for the visit. With young counselors and teachers who specialize in Holocaust education, the youngsters spent hours attending workshops that taught them not just the history of the years around the Holocaust, but the in-depth history of the Jews of Poland and other European communities.
“Last year we learned Holocaust history for matriculation,” says Mayan, “but now we were learning about personalities, human dilemmas, survival.”
After a field trip to the museum of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance at Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot, south of Nahariya, the group spent day-long workshops in role play. “Every person can take on different roles in life,” reflects Mayan, describing her reaction when learning how some Jews cooperated with their Nazi captors by betraying or ill-treating fellow prisoners in order to survive, while so many made the ultimate sacrifice, thus saving the lives of others.
During the week in Poland, based in Lublin, Cracow and Warsaw, in which they visited Auschwitz and Treblinka, they also went into Polish schools and met Righteous Gentiles.
“Each one of us had our own breaking point,” says Mayan. “For me, it was the crematorium at Auschwitz.
When I saw the scratches on the walls of the gas chambers, I couldn’t take it. I went out. But then I said to myself, ‘Go in. It is the last time you will see it.’ By this time the group was outside, but I nagged a counselor to take me in again. Two of my friends went with me, holding my hand. It was good that I went in without the larger group. I had been afraid of my own fear.”
Mayan described the counselors as very special people with vision and a desire to change society. “They were not necessarily from families of Holocaust survivors, but each one knew how to teach us and support us in the difficult moments,” she says.
A breaking point for one teenage boy in Mayan’s class was when their bus followed the route of one of the death marches into a forest, the site of a mass grave.
“It was just a quiet forest; there was nothing else there,” describes Mayan. “We sang a prayer and lit candles.
There was absolute quiet, not a whisper. I felt that the dead were watching us, such a deep sadness.”
For her classmate, it was too much. He doubled over, crying uncontrollably.
On their pilgrimage, there were places that were difficult to visualize the way they looked during the Holocaust.
“Where the Warsaw Ghetto was are now brand new neighborhoods. It was difficult to connect them to the ghetto,” says Mayan. “But at the camps there was no avoiding reality because only the place is there – the empty buildings and yards. One just has to add the people, and one can imagine the horror of life in those places.”
At Auschwitz, Block 20, where Josef Mengele supervised the medical atrocities, the windows were blocked, for the interior was too terrible to look at.
Mayan was shocked at the indifference of the Polish gentiles at the time. “They were not living on a different planet. They could see the gates of Auschwitz, that Jews were taken off the streets.”
THE GROUP was taken to a Polish school to talk with children of the same age. “It was uncomfortable. They didn’t want to talk with us,” she says. “I know that these schoolchildren were not guilty, but they either claimed that they knew nothing of the Holocaust or that it was not relevant to their generation. Apathy is worse than hatred.”
Mayan was also shocked to see that souvenir shops stocked statuettes of the caricatured Jew, with hooked nose and other features portrayed in Nazi media.
But in one Polish village, the group met an elderly woman who at 19, with a small baby, had hidden and protected several Jews who were trying to evade imprisonment.
Today she receives gifts and delegations of visitors connected to these survivors. Asked whether her neighbors gave her any trouble over this, she said that it was such a long time ago, her actions had no further relevance for them.
Mayan’s class was told of the history teacher in Poland who discovered only 10 years ago that an infamous massacre in which 2,500 Jews had been locked in a synagogue and set on fire was actually perpetuated by the Polish neighbors, not the Nazis. When the teacher exposed the story, she summed up, “No matter how many times we wash ourselves, the blood will not be cleansed from our hands.”
By the end of the trip, the class suffered from accumulated fatigue. “We were traveling all day and stayed up late at night discussing each day’s experiences,” says Mayan. “On the last day, we felt that we had had enough.”
But a week later they met again with the counselors to sum up and talk about “the day after.” When Mayan is asked about her reaction to criticism of these trips, she responds, “I would like to see every teenager being able to go, in spite of the expense. It has helped me to know my strength. It is a good preparation for adult life and the army.”
The trip has also helped Mayan understand her family history and Israeli society. “I understand my grandmother better. Although she lived with a good family during the war, she suffered loss and relocation. The first years in Israel were very hard. She never takes food for granted and worries that others don’t have enough to eat.”
Speaking about her great-aunt, who died a couple of years ago, she says, “I’m sorry that I didn’t understand her. She saved her parents and other family members because of her skills and intelligence. She knew seven languages and could always get work. But she had a strange large apartment in Haifa, and near the end of her life she had nightmares. She had a large chair and she thought that a Nazi was sitting in it,” she says.
“I could never watch TV on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and pictures in the newspapers are somehow unreal,” says Mayan. “But when you are there, it is surrealistic; you can’t perceive that you are there. In some places it was hard to relate to that reality. For example, Treblinka is in the middle of an empty forest,” she says.
“I didn’t go to Poland as a victim, I went as a Jewish Israeli, not from weakness but from strength as a pre-army teenager. That was why it was legitimate not to cry all the time. It was a sign of resurrection.”
The writer is the paternal grandmother of Mayan.