What It's Like to Visit the Treblinka Death Camp for the 12th Time

Israeli school trips to Nazi death camps in Poland should teach about 'life here and now: Arabs, refugees, racism,' a guide says; four childhood friends debate whether Israel is a good place to live.

Tal Madar.
Tomer Appelbaum

Tal Madar, 35, from Moshav Geulim, near Netanya; arriving from Krakow

Tomer (the photographer): Hey, I remember you. We interviewed you two years ago. I remember that you had good things to say about your husband and your grandmothers.

Shall I tell you what happened since then?

We’d be happy to hear, because I don’t remember anything. Wait a minute, could it be that you fly a lot?

That’s right. I take delegations [of high-school students] to Poland every year. My husband is now CEO of a company in Germany, so he’s the one who flies a lot. But I’m not willing to give up my annual voluntary work.

Is that where you’re returning from?

Yes, I was with a delegation from an ORT [vocational network] school. We went through Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau and visited the world of Polish Jewry of the past.

How many trips have you been on?

Twelve all told, and this was my eighth as delegation head. I came out of this one quite strengthened. First of all, the team was able to create understanding of how the Holocaust happened and how we will take responsibility so that it will not happen in the future – and not only to us. 

There’s a public debate about these trips and their value. What do you see as the heart of the matter?

There is much soul-searching on many issues, such as the cost, maturity, readiness for the process. As I see it, what’s most important is to shed light on humanity and the connection between the students. Teaching them about the Holocaust means taking them to the place where the greatest evil happened. At the same time, though, they’re living together on the same bus for seven days and have to interact with one another. All the conclusions concerning this site and that person come to fruition when you have to extend a hand to a friend and make decisions in the here-and-now. I had a conversation with a boy who said after all the briefings that he feels, just as all the Nazis said so-and-so about the Jews, there are many Israelis who say so-and-so about Arabs. I see that as an achievement. The point is to generate content that relates to life here and now: Arabs, refugees, racism.

That doesn’t happen a lot?

Elor Azaria [the Israeli soldier who received an 18-month sentence after shooting and killing a Palestinian assailant lying supine on the ground] came up in conversations during the trip, and it was the students who brought up the subject. But many of the group leaders and teams on other trips stir emotions using national symbols instead of talking about content. Many of the students who go to Poland say, “I want to feel the Holocaust.” But that’s a superficial comment commensurate with their age. It’s not tough to make them cry and be moved, but the trick is to tell them how the common man got up in the morning and didn’t have the gram of insight to say, “This is not my thing.”

Based on your own experience, are there things that should be done differently on these trips?

The trips to Poland have become mainstream, and that’s dangerous. Problematic things, which I completely disagree with, happen – in part because of the Education Ministry’s policy to allow everyone to go. That is not the right policy, in my eyes, and leads to undesirable results. A filtering process is needed. Another problem is that we expect students to discover things there and to change. The change has to come after the trip. The Education Ministry’s directive calls for the process to continue afterward as well, but I know that in some schools it ends with the trip – and this is very bad.

So the problem is that the experience is not processed?

Education is ultimately people; the education and teaching teams need to be more prepared themselves. I’ve had experiences with people who were excellent and with others who were not. I see the Poland story as the tip of the phenomenon of education that is not ideal. But it’s important to take responsibility, and the [sense of] victimization concerns me.

What does it feel like to visit Treblinka for the 12th time?

I am doing a job, so it could turn into a technical thing, but every time you enter Treblinka you make another discovery. This time, I learned about the kapo who looked after the twins [experimented on by Josef] Mengele. I hadn’t known about him. I remember that the first time I went to the camps I was myself a student of 17, and the trip ended at Treblinka. Treblinka is an empty space, only monuments and stones, and there you truly ask yourself, “What next?” The year I went, there was a civil war in Kosovo and I read out a text relating completely to that war. In other words, as a student I underwent a proper process and was able to make the connection.

Other conclusions must arise, too.

Some students arrive at the insight that we need a state and an army, which is a logical insight. When you have a state and a place of refuge, your nation cannot undergo another Holocaust. But on that foundation, it’s necessary to build the structure that says a nation that experienced the Holocaust has to ensure that no other nation will experience it

Barak Daniel, Kobi Elmaliach, Ynon Amiad and Matan Maman.
Tomer Appelbaum

Barak Daniel, Kobi Elmaliach, Ynon Amiad and Matan Maman, all 22, from the Ma’aleh Efraim settlement in the Jordan Valley; flying to Bangkok

Barak: We’re in the paper, darling, so smile.

Where do you know each other from?

Barak: Childhood friends from Ma’aleh Efraim, from age zero.

Kobi: He used to pick up my pacifier and put it in the stroller, steal my popsicle and I would cry. There are pictures.

Barak: Are you spaced out or something? (They laugh)

Who’s who in the group?

Barak: I’m a computer geek, Ynon’s the funny one, Matan is [Israeli singer] Nathan Goshen and Kobi is the athlete. 

Kobi: In the army, I was classified as an outstanding athlete in soccer. But I gave it up, I tore my thigh tendons.

Ouch.

Kobi: I went to kick, but there was nothing there and I kicked the air.

Barak: Okay, how much ball, ball, ball do you need?

What was it like growing up in Ma’aleh Efraim?

Matan: A real hole.

Kobi: Fifty minutes from anything.

Ynon: But I see city kids, and there’s nothing like growing up in a moshav [cooperative farming community].  

Kobi: You go bicycling and leave the bike anywhere – there’s no theft.

Ynon: At all ages, everyone is friends with everyone.

Matan: And you stay friends.

Ynon: But things won’t stay the same, it’s a different generation.

What’s changed?

Kobi: Once it was a totally secular settlement. But now, for every family that leaves, a religious family comes in. But nice religious folks, not the kind that shut down roads and things like that. There was talk about closing the middle path, but our rabbi, who’s really nice, said no.

Will you stay there?

Matan: I don’t think so.

Ynon: I don’t see myself living there.

Kobi: There’s no work there; on the other hand, you’re used to your home.

Barak: And you have a home that’s a mansion. Do you know how much a house like that would be worth next to a city?

Ynon: That’s what I say. You know, anyone who doesn’t think crooked in our country doesn’t succeed. I’m kidding, but things are tough. And in our generation, everything is more confused. There’s a ton of possibilities and my head is full of thoughts. What should I do – find a job? School? It’s stressful. I don’t know if it was like that in your time.

Neither do I. 

Matan: There’s an endless number of professions today.

Barak: And technological developments. And it’s easier to get to places.

How are you earning money in the meantime?

Kobi: As soon as I got out [of the army], I did a course as a fitness instructor and lifeguard. But I’m trying to find myself.

Ynon: I’m a security guard. 

Kobi: I’m a patriot, but I’m disgusted by the way the state behaves: the taxes, salaries, what happened with the soldier [Elor Azaria]. Even people who go to study and invest in themselves need nepotism. If you’re not rich, you feel inferior.

Matan: You’ll feel inferior in other countries because you’re a Jew.

Kobi: But we’re being eaten alive, everything is expensive. After the army, we lived for a year in Tel Aviv. You work hard, have two jobs, pay rent, buy food – and you’re left with 100 shekels [$27] to spend.

Barak: There are places where it’s easier to live.

Kobi: There are also worse places. In Africa, for example, they don’t have houses. But that’s no consolation.

Ynon: Your conscience doesn’t let you ever leave here.

Matan: I’m a Zionist through and through, a patriot, and I’ll always stay here, even if it’s hard.

Kobi: But bro, what will you do if they don’t respect poor people here, or Holocaust survivors, or gay people? We still have a long way to go.

Ynon: In our generation we’re aware of the problems. How will I ever afford a home?

Barak: Abroad it takes 70-80 salaries to buy an apartment; here it’s double that. You can never get out of the middle class. That’s why we’re a generation that’s looking for shortcuts. 

Matan: We need an economic meltdown, and then, bro, the price of all the real estate will drop. I saw a TV report, bro.

Ynon: I’d like to live in a past era.

Barak: I’d like to live in another hundred years; just let me sit in my smart house with the TV on and having a good time. I don’t like this era.

Matan: And the country has no water.

Ynon: Our childhood was ruined. Our whole childhood was just public service announcements saying, “Lake Kinneret is drying up.”

Barak: And its face is peeling.

Ynon: To this day, when I pass a tap I turn it off straightaway. I’m traumatized.

Matan: The whole weather system here is getting cold and getting hot, and they say the end of the world is approaching.