Raise a Flag, Don't Forget to Cry: The Cynical Industry Behind Israeli Teens' Trips to Nazi Death Camps

Israeli high-schoolers’ trips to Nazi death camps in Poland are based on three things: Unequivocal messages, structured situations and manipulation, a new book describes

Illustrative image: Israeli teens draped in flags at a ceremony in Auschwitz, 2016.
Alik Keplicz / AP

Israeli high-schoolers’ trips to Nazi death camps in Poland are based on three things: Unequivocal messages, structured situations and manipulation. These are reflected not only in the visits to familiar waystations – meant to bolster Jewish and Israeli pride, or marginalize universal messages – but also in the carefully orchestrated itinerary in which almost every moment is planned in advance, including at which points the teenagers will cry.

Over the past few years, Idan Yaron, who teaches sociology and anthropology at Ashkelon Academic College, accompanied seven student trips to Poland. His recent book, “Youth Trips to Death Sites in Poland” (in Hebrew), offers an exceptionally comprehensive and unfiltered view of what happens between Auschwitz and Treblinka, and of the adventures at hotels on the final nights of the trip to Holocaust sites.

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In 2018, some 40,000 11th- and 12th-grade Israelis traveled to Poland, up from 31,000 to 32,000 during the previous five years. Renewed emphasis on the importance of these trips began when Shay Piron was education minister, but his successor, Naftali Bennett, augmented it even further.

Dr. Yaron acknowledges that these excursions, which usually last about a week, constitute an important educational experience, but suggests that more time and space should be allocated to processing, reflection and maybe, even for just a few moments, pondering values other than the ethos of victimhood and nationalism. Of course, the chances of the Education Ministry accepting such ideas, especially under a right-wing minister, are slim. They certainly aren't part of the current curriculum or civics classes.

Yaron accompanied trips organized by different types of schools, lead by educators and special tour guides. He doesn't identify them specifically in his book, but provides general descriptions: a large, “average,” nonselective school in central Israel; a yeshiva high school; a rural school serving residents of villages and moshavim; a leading high school in a major city; a school for troubled girls; and a chain of vocational schools attended by both Jews and Muslims.

Idan Yaron, Israeli anthropologist/sociologist and author of a book on Israeli high-school Holocaust-themed trips to Poland, January 2020
Tomer Appelbaum

The trips to Poland are voluntary, but the various delegations are subject to a long list of regulations and objectives dictated by the Education Ministry. Yaron writes in his book that the underlying expectation of the ministry, the schools and the students themselves is that the trips will bolster the participants’ "national" feelings.

“The trip will increase your feelings of responsibility toward and belonging to your people and your country, and will awaken feelings of maturity and pride,” wrote the leader of one secular high school’s delegation, in a booklet distributed to students in advance.

This goal, Yaron says, is evidently achieved. “Pride” is a recurrent motif in many students’ summations of their visits.

In religious schools, this is even more explicit. As the leader of a group from a yeshiva high school put it: “Nationalism isn’t a dirty word. We try to educate our students to be good for themselves, for God, for the Torah of Israel, the people of Israel and the Land of Israel. That’s what we do here in our daily lives, and the trip to Poland is a reflection of these educational goals.”

During the visits to the death camps, he continued, “We stand tall in our own eyes. We’re more important than the Americans, the Europeans and the Muslims – than all our enemies and all those who love us too. We understood that we and they are diametric opposites that will never meet... We won’t be like them, we don’t want their culture or their wisdom. We’re fine on our own.”

The direct, tangible encounter with the consequences of racism against Jews isn’t translated into a principled position. Quite the contrary. Thus after one trip, when a student defined the Holocaust as a genocide, a discussion naturally developed in which her peers said things like, “Just like the Nazis, the Arabs also aren’t human beings”; “We need to wipe out the Gaza Strip;” “They deserve the Holocaust four times over”; and even “We need to destroy anyone who hates Jews.”

Apolitical pretense

Yaron devotes much attention in his book to the format of the trips. The seemingly “technical” details – the rules, the prohibitions, the bus rides and the impossible schedules – help shape the messages. There’s nothing more political than something pretending to be apolitical.

He describes the long rides between the death camps, for example, as traveling in a vacuum: The sites are everything; nothing else exists. The trip is one big Israeli bubble. And, not by chance, encounters with Polish peers happen only on the sidelines, if at all.

Israeli high-schoolers preparing for their trip to Poland at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, 2010.
Emil Salman

The “mad dash” from one camp to the next, as some teachers term it, dictates an itinerary that exhausts all participants and is especially harmful for students with attention deficit or concentration problems. This is the root of the vicious cycle in which teachers repeatedly accuse the participants of disciplinary violations and disrespect.

On almost every trip, Yaron heard complaints about the crazy pursuit of death. “The schedule broke the students,” one teacher said. “They came to me and said, “D., we simply can’t take it anymore.” Exhausted by the events of the day, many of the teens have trouble participating in the discussions that take place almost every evening. There’s no justification, one principal said, for “a trip of attrition.”

The educators are saying something ought to be self-evident: The students don’t have enough time for themselves and no chance to process their experiences. In light of that, it’s no wonder that one student admitted, “The five minutes allotted us for independent thought, in silence, were the most meaningful of the entire trip.”

And then there was this: “Let’s grab a place at the crematorium before the others get here,” one guide urged his group.

When the number of sites that participants see is of supreme value, a frequent reaction is boredom. At the Warsaw Ghetto cemetery, after a long night without sleep, Yaron witnessed a familiar situation: “I’m so bored here – I don’t know what I’m doing here!” one student said. Her friend added, “It’s not interesting. I don’t know what to do with myself.”

In response to these complaints, the guide reminded them, half seriously, half in jest: “The agreement was that we’ll bore you to death, and you’ll stand and listen as if you are enjoying it.”

"Do we have to travel all the way to here to love the Land of Israel?” one student asked.

One way to help diffuse the boredom while still sticking to the tight schedule is to include lots of personal stories and quotes from survivors, typically taken from information handed down from one generation of guides to the next. But after three or four days, even this tactic loses its potency, and the students’ resistance grows.

Israeli high-schoolers preparing for their Holocaust-themed trip to Poland, 2010
Emil Salman

During a trip organized by the high school in central Israel, Yaron writes, teachers resorted to shouting. “We’re talking about the Holocaust – this is an embarrassment!” the principal yelled.

The ceremonies held at the camps are the main tool for creating an “experience.” They need to be “short, send a clear message and be moving,” one guide said. But that requires order and discipline.

At Auschwitz, during the “every person has a name” ceremony traditionally held in a darkened hall in one of the barracks, a few students clapped after a fellow student spoke movingly about some of his relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. The guide was furious, Yaron writes in his book. “We don’t clap,” he roared. “This isn’t a theater and it’s not stand-up comedy. How many times have I told you that?”

“Let me explain the rules once again,” he continued. “Everyone ends by saying, ‘May their souls be a link in the chain of life.’ And then everyone answers 'amen.'”

'So people will see!'

The emotional experience is heightened by singing Israel's anthem at the end of every ceremony, and sometimes after other activities during the trip as well. Students are told they have to sing “Hatikva” with special pride.

But the clearest expression of that “pride” is apparently reserved for the waving of the Israeli flag. “Poland, for me, is waving the Israeli flag and proving that the people of Israel live,” one principal said, summing up the trip.

“The flag is waved with great pride, and sometimes even defiantly,” said one guide. It seems that the question of who or what exactly is being defied – Poles, Germans, Arabs, the entire world or all of history – is less important.

“I hold the Israeli flag up and wave it really high. I actually stretch my arm as high as possible, so people will see,” a religious student said, during a visit to Treblinka. “It’s true dedication. My arm is already aching. Like me, there’s another five or six with Israeli flags. Everyone insists on holding it up until the end. So people will see!”

But the acid test of the trip, it emerges, is how much you cried. The students have learned to expect tears, and when they don’t come, some of them lose patience. Others blame themselves for not feeling what was expected of them.

“I was disappointed with myself that I didn’t manage to digest the magnitude of the event,” one student admitted. “I was expecting this shock, this hammer blow to the head, so the trip would have meaning.”

On another trip, after visiting “the holy grail of the death camps,” as one teacher defined Auschwitz-Birkenau, many of the participants complained of “disappointment” and “frustration.” Said one: “I wanted [to feel] death, something powerful that would rend my heart.”

“I thought maybe something was wrong with me,” his friend added. “I didn’t know if it was because of me or because of the general atmosphere. I was pretty disappointed with myself and the others. Maybe it’s because I’m doing something wrong.”

During the first days of these excursions, some leaders threaten that any severe disciplinary infraction will result in the student being flown back to Israel at his parents’ expense. But on the last night or two, after several intense days and a roller-coaster of emotions, these threats lose their sting.

“The end is the most dangerous,” one teacher admitted. “We have to be on the [hotel] floors. The students let themselves fall apart.”

Another teacher said she learned something important about herself during the trip: “I can also get by without sleep.”

Reliving the horror

Some of the guides put the students through what Yaron calls “scenes of horror”: in the cattle car of a train on display at a camp, or alongside the death pits. The 2016 documentary “#Uploading_Holocaust” (Mahaneh Meshutaf), a compilation of short clips filmed by students on their trips to Poland, demonstrates this quite well. In a cattle car packed with teenagers, the guide is seen speaking with a trembling voice and his eyes shut: “At this moment I want to be Moisheleh. Where did they take them? Mommy, why me? Why me and not my big brother?”

“I want you to begin to feel!” the guide exhorts the group.

At another site, the students are asked to talk about “their children” who were murdered. They break down and cry.

“I can make them break down easily,” said a guide named Liron, quoted in Yaron's book. “I allow myself to reach the limit, but I don’t cross it: I will never push a child into the corner of the railcar or into a gas chamber, and tell him: ‘Imagine that you, yourself were here.’ I play a recording of the rattling of the train, but not sounds of shooting. It’s too scary.”

Liron added that even though “it is possible to use emotional manipulation on the trip,” he never looks to stir up the teens.

“Naturally," he said, "a trip with such a high level of emotion also involves problems and risks among a small minority of participants. Over the years, I have seen two cases of teens who went crazy, and it was necessary to fly them home. A lot of less serious situations arise as well: Sleeplessness, anxiety, trembling and a lack of desire to continue on the trip.”

For its part, the Education Ministry has a different description: In the course for trip leaders, participants are asked “not to create a situation of both stabbing and twisting the sword.”

“For everyone who goes and really gets something out of the trip," said one principal honestly, "there are 10 who for most of the time are asking themselves what are they doing here at all."

He added, "It is hard to see the ‘something that comes out of nothing’ – suddenly the students are asked to ‘imagine,’ but since when does a request like that come up in our educational system?”

Like Yaron, the principal said he believes that “it is possible to profit from the trip,” but only on the condition that “we aim for loftier places than the ‘what did they do to us’ approach – meaning, not the places that characterize the thinking at the Education Ministry.”

Given the present environment, however, there is no danger that that will happen.