Israel Mulls Restarting Student Holocaust Trips to Poland After Lengthy COVID Break

A tour of Nazi death camps had long been a rite of passage for 12th-grade students in Israel, but was halted when the pandemic struck. Now some parents are pushing to renew them as COVID cases go down

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
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Young Israelis on a trip to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland five years ago.
Young Israelis on a trip to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland five years ago.Credit: Alik Keplicz / AP
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

Israel’s Education Ministry is exploring the idea of resuming its high school delegations to Nazi death camps in Poland, following complaints by one of the country’s largest parents’ associations.

The week-long trip was for years a rite of passage for tens of thousands of 12th-graders in Israel. However, it was halted following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

Odelia Sheindorf, deputy chairwoman of the National Parents’ Leadership organization, complained in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this week that “no thought has been given to what the proper replacement for delegations is, and how to proceed.” She implored the education authorities to “not neglect the issue.”

Speaking with Haaretz on Tuesday, Sheindorf said the government was failing to provide an adequate alternative to the trips. It is “basically telling everyone, ‘Wait, let’s see what will be,’ but it isn’t giving us any final decision on if or when the delegations will restart.”

Students and their parents “want an answer for good or bad,” she said, demanding that if the government determines the resumption of trips to be too dangerous, then it “needs to find an alternative.”

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As far as Efraim Zuroff is concerned, there is no alternative for such trips. The Nazi hunter and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office said that “whatever is done in Israel cannot compare to the trips to Poland. This is an experience that leaves a lasting impression and has influenced hundreds of thousands of young Israelis.”

Asked if the Education Ministry was in touch with Israel’s health authorities vis-à-vis necessary steps for the trips to resume, a Health Ministry spokesperson said the two agencies were engaged in a dialogue, but declined to elaborate.

In a statement, a spokesperson said the education minister had ordered “discussions on the return of trips this winter, and to carry out the necessary actions – subject to COVID restrictions and in coordination with the Health Ministry.”

Meanwhile, students have been visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, received specific classroom lessons and met with survivors, the spokesperson stated.

However, Gil Faran, head of the association for Israeli tour guides to Poland, said neither he nor his colleagues had “heard anything from the Education Ministry” regarding a possible resumption of the trips, which he described as less a job and more a “mission.”

The exhibition at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Faran said he hoped the ministry was indeed working on the issue.

“I don’t know what steps they are taking to resume operations,” he said. “The Education Ministry should do as much as it can so students now in 12th grade, who are going to the army next summer, will have the opportunity to go to Poland this winter.”

In the meantime, Faran said, several of his colleagues have been approached by parents looking to organize private tours for their children during school vacations.

The discussion regarding possible resumption of the tours comes as Israel and Poland are locked in a diplomat spat over Warsaw’s recent adoption of a controversial measure curtailing Holocaust-related restitution claims. That sparked Israeli allegations of state-sponsored antisemitism and the withdrawal of ambassadors from both nations. Full diplomatic relations have not been restored since both countries recalled their ambassadors in August.

“There is a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland due to the fact that Poland passed the Polish property law a month and a half ago,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. “During this crisis, there were statements in Poland regarding the school trips to the death camps. The trips have been postponed for the last 18 months because of the COVID situation here and in Poland.” He added that he could not comment on the crisis’ possible impact on efforts to restart the Holocaust tours.

In August, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Paweł Jabłonski said Warsaw was considering limiting Holocaust commemoration trips for Israeli students because the Israeli education system had been producing “propaganda based on the hatred of Poland, which permeates the minds of young people from an early age at school.”

He said at the time that the Polish government would soon make a decision about these tours.

However, Haaretz understands that Warsaw does not plan on taking action to obstruct the eventual resumption of the trips.

Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said that while he was not qualified to say if the trips should resume from a medical perspective, he believes “it is forbidden to mix politics with visiting these places,” and that he would “do everything to help so the trips can continue at the right medical time.”

He added that as the public health situation in Poland has improved, there has been a significant increase in the number of public Holocaust commemorations being held, many of which had been postponed due to the pandemic.

“In the last two months, I have never been invited to so many ceremonies about Jewish memory,” he said.

Orit Margaliot, director of the Educational Guiding Department at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, meanwhile, said that while the death camp trips were important, they were not the be-all and end-all of Holocaust education in Israel.

Yad Vashem guides approximately 240,000 students from Israel and abroad annually at the international School for Holocaust Studies. The educational work is conducted mostly at Yad Vashem, and the educational journeys to Poland are only a part of the wide educational activity,” she explained.

“Today, only one-third of Israeli students travel to Poland, and therefore it’s important to stress that Holocaust education does not only lie in journeys to Poland, but they are an additional methodology to learn, discuss and connect young people to the Holocaust.”

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