With School Trips to Poland Canceled, Could the Coronavirus Affect the Memory of the Holocaust?

Isael's Education Ministry canceled Holocaust commemoration trips to Poland for high-school students due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some worry that the memory of the Shoah could become blurred

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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Girls hugging during the March of the Living, Auschwitz-Birkenau, April 8, 2013
Girls hugging during the March of the Living, Auschwitz-Birkenau, April 8, 2013 Credit: AP
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

Even before Israel closed its borders to international flights in March because of the coronavirius crisis, the Education Ministry announced that it was canceling Holocaust commemoration trips to Poland by high-school students this spring. Its announcement was in late February, when it still seemed possible the trips might be reinstated after Passover. Now the ministry has canceled the summer delegations too, until September for the time being.

It remains unclear when the trips might resume. Even when they do, the number of families able to foot the bill for the children to travel (it isn’t covered by the state) is liable to drop precipitously because of the anticipated recession. Also, the Education Ministry itself will likely have its budget slashed.

In 2018, about 40,000 Israeli pupils flew to Poland for the commemoration trip, up sharply from 18,000 a decade earlier. One reason is because air fares were significantly lower: about 5,000 shekels ($1,400) per pupil; also, the ministry subsidized students in need.

The ministry says that about half the students in both secular and religious high schools go each year. “In other words, the trips to Poland have become mainstream, and are almost mandatory for Jewish Zionist students, not only from Kfar Sava and Tel Aviv (relatively wealthy cities) but from all of Israeli society,” says Uri Meiselman, a musician, tour guide for Poland and a member of the Dror Israel educational movement.

The trips to Poland have become a key method to commemorate the Holocaust among the young. Substituting them with some other activity requires thought, preparation, and mainly, budgets.

The families finance the trips. The cost to them covers preparations before the trip: lectures, frontal teaching and visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum. Schools from economically stressed areas won’t foot the bill to take the children for a trip inside Israel to mark the Holocaust: “The government has to decide to pay for that,” says Hagai Gross, director of the Education Ministry Society and Youth Administration, who is in charge of the trips to Poland. Yet regarding a potential domestic Israeli substitute for the trip to Poland, Gross admits frankly: “We aren’t there yet.”

March of the Living, Auschwitz-Birkenau, April 8, 2013
March of the Living, Auschwitz-Birkenau, April 8, 2013Credit: Alik Keplicz / AP

Ministry officials hope that the commemoration trips will be reinstated after the summer, and suggests that delegations that missed trips in spring and summer go this fall instead, assuming it’s possible.

It is true that in the last two years the Education Ministry has offered an alternative program for high school students who don’t travel to Poland: a trip lasting several days among sites in Israel, of Holocaust commemoration and “rebirth” such as the camp for illegal immigrants in Atlit, and kibbutzim founded by Holocaust survivors. The program is still a pilot, and only a small number of students have participated so far. But the money for these trips is not enshrined in the ministry budget, and every cutback endangers the program.

In December 2019, funding to take high school pupils to Yad Vashem was suspended, because no government budget had been approved for the year 2020. Under the circumstances of a new fiscal year starting without a budget (which has happened before), all the ministries operate based on the previous year’s budget but cannot approve any new or special expenditure. Dozens of trips were canceled.

'Brainwashing' and pizza deliveries to the hotel

As the number of students flying to Poland increased from year to year, so has public criticism of the trips. “I tend to see the trip to Poland as a conformist festival of blind ultranationalism, kitsch and death,” an 11th grader having difficulty deciding whether or not to join her school’s delegation wrote in Haaretz about two years ago.

Meiselman is aware of the criticism, and often identifies with it. “It could be said of the trips that it’s brainwashing, that the messages are ultranationalist, that the teenagers who go drink alcohol and order pizza delivered to the hotel. It’s all true,” he says. But speaking as an experienced guide who has been to Poland dozens of times, he believes that the trips play a crucial role in Holocaust commemoration in Israeli society: “Canceling the trips is like a knife in the heart for me,” he says. “There’s no substitute.”

Uri Meiselman
Uri MeiselmanCredit: Moti Milrod

D., a high school history teacher from the north, disagrees: “It’s really an injustice to think that Holocaust studies depend on trips to Poland,” she says.

But like Meiselman, the Education Ministry official Gross believes that learning about the Holocaust from history books is only one facet of its commemoration, and is insufficient. “History is something on the bookshelf. The role of the trip to Poland is to take the historical story and to turn it into something experiential, into a personal memory,” he explains. “The trip helps us to become better people. We ask the students on the trip: How did people avoid losing their humanity? Because they helped, shared the little they had with others. That leads to the question of how we can become better.”

In fact the trip is just the end of a long process, Meiselman explains. Sometimes knowing that at the end of the process they will be going on an expensive trip is what causes the children to attend the preparatory meetings, to listen, and to digest what they have learned. “A teenager from the periphery may be flying abroad for the first time, and that’s the trigger for motivation. But they devote weeks and months in order to study and prepare. They’ll never forget the trip,” Meiselman says.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, Meiselman has missed four trips. For him the monetary loss for guiding the trips is secondary to the damage to Holocaust commemoration for children born in the 2000s. It’s a race against time for him, he said, as he returned from the funeral of a Holocaust survivor who had devoted his life to Holocaust commemoration. “Those people won’t remain,” he says.

He is concerned that the memory of the Holocaust is gradually becoming blurred, and is afraid that canceling the trips will accelerate the process.

Israeli high-school girls caped in Israeli flags on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 2016
Israeli high-school girls caped in Israeli flags on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 2016Credit: Alik Keplicz / AP

A decade ago some parents opposed the trip by their children on the grounds that “Grandpa and Grandma said not to go to Poland, the Poles were murderers.” Today Israelis routinely travel to Poland as tourists. Israeli society is changing, Meiselman says, and fears that in contrast to reports in the press and on television, Israeli society doesn’t “remember” the Holocaust: it will require considerable resources and work to prevent the memory from evaporating, he says. And the Education Ministry should act quickly.

“We’re building alternative projects in Israel, a project with Holocaust survivors,” Meiselman says, and it has been relatively easy to raise money, from the Claims Conference, for example, which also provides some funding each year for the trips to Poland. “There are things that can be done in Israel,” he sums up. “But if they aren’t budgeted the schools won’t come. You have to make an effort for these things to happen.”

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