Anya Kofayev, a guide at the Ghetto Fighters’ House on Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot for more than a decade, has taken hundreds of different groups through the museum, which tells the tale of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. But the group she was guiding yesterday had been particularly interesting, albeit somewhat scary, Kofayev admits.
Only the presence of Israel Prison Service guards clarified what this seemingly disparate group of 150 men, all in civilian clothes, had in common: They were prisoners, some of them in for serious crimes, who were out on a field trip.
The museum visit is part of a Prison Service project called Israeli Journey, which it launched two months ago.
Maj. Orit Rabinovich, the chief education officer in the Prison Service central district, said the museum tour was the climax of weeks of workshops attended by the prisoners.
“The inspiration came from similar projects run by the Education Ministry,” explained Rabinovich. “Many of them had never seen pictures from that era, or heard testimonies. Such a visit gives them a lot, teaching them tolerance, patience, and acceptance of the ‘other.’”
The prisoners in this group met certain criteria, a Prison Service spokesman explained. They had served at least a quarter of their sentences; some were already eligible for periodic furloughs; some were in rehabilitation programs; and some were close to being released.
Moshe (not his real name), who has spent almost 19 years in prison for robbery and murder and is due to be released in a year, was clearly moved by the visit.
“I’m looking at the pictures, hearing the stories, and wondering how people could have survived that hell,” he said. “Each of us thinks that his problem is the biggest problem in the world, but it all pales compared to these scenes. Of course, it influences you and makes you think more deeply.”
Maj. Gen. Nazim Sabiti, commander of the Prison Service central district, joined yesterday’s tour and spoke with the prisoners afterward. He said that the Israeli Journey program was essentially the continuation of a similar program launched five years ago called Triumph of the Spirit, in which some 1,400 prisoners visited the Ghetto Fighters’ House.
Sabiti, say museum officials, was the first to recognize the educational value of exposing prisoners to the stories of concentration camp survivors.
During these visits, the prisoners do not wear prison uniforms nor are they handcuffed or otherwise restrained.
“We are taking a calculated risk,” said Sabiti. “But I favor an approach that when it comes to [confronting] the Holocaust, there is no difference between a prisoner and any other person. The experience stays with them long after the visit.”
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