Opinion

Holocaust Trips to Poland for Israeli Youth Should Start in Germany

Because of the structure of these trips, tens of thousands of young Israelis unintentionally associate the Holocaust with Poland, sometimes far more than with Nazi Germany

Young people hug each other during the March of the Living in Oswiecim, Poland. April 8, 2013.
AP Photo/Alik Keplicz

The international reactions to the Polish Holocaust law, and the present crisis in Israeli-Polish relations, offer an opportunity to reexamine the trips that Israeli teenagers make to the country. These trips began after the fall of the communist bloc, after Israelis were allowed to travel to Poland following decades of no diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The idea was an understandable and correct one: Confront students from Israeli high schools directly with the terrible reality of the extermination camps built by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. Prior to that, there were no such youth trips. Schools taught about the Holocaust for decades, but without trips to the concentration camps in Germany. One of the reasons was that many in Israel – and Holocaust survivors in particular – were deterred by visits to Germany.

Trips to Poland – to Auschwitz, Majdanek or Treblinka – made it possible to illustrate the horrors of the Holocaust without visiting Germany, but he results were paradoxical and unexpected.

All the trip participants heard lectures and briefings that described the extermination policy as a product of Nazi ideology and the Third Reich’s implementation of it in occupied Poland. But there’s a difference between a lecture and actually being present in a terrible place like Auschwitz. These trips were etched in people’s consciousness as “trips to Poland,” which is what they were called by the Education Ministry, rather than “trips to German extermination camps.” Unintentionally, tens of thousands of young Israelis associated the Holocaust with Poland, sometimes far more than with Nazi Germany.

There were also instances of students returning from Poland were asked, for example, about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and said that it was part of the fight against the Poles (after all, the ghetto was in Warsaw, wasn’t it?). There was a culture of anti-Semitism in pre-war Poland, and during the war many Poles handed over Jews to the Germans. These facts contributed to blurring the distinction between Nazi Germany’s systematic policy of extermination and the active cooperation of Polish citizens with the German murder machine.

In addition, many of the teens who came to Poland didn’t know what distinguished Poland from other countries during World War II. Poland is the only European country that was totally dismantled by Nazi Germany. Its diplomatic, military, local, academic and educational institutions were destroyed while its territory was turned into an area of direct German occupation.

The Germans even erased Poland’s name (the occupied region received the strange name General Government) and the seat of the German government was in Krakow rather than Warsaw. In all the other European countries there were collaborationist governments, or a local administration that obeyed the instructions of the German authorities. Only in Poland did the Germans murder 3 million non-Jewish citizens – in addition to 3 million Polish Jews – as part of their racist policy which considered Poles, like all Slavs, an inferior race.

The time has come to change the structure of the student trips to Holocaust sites. The trip should begin in Germany, with visits to concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald. The students should be taught that the Nazi policy developed in stages: Until the outbreak of the war, tens of thousands of German citizens were imprisoned in concentration camps in Germany – Jews, socialists, communists, homosexuals; the rights and citizenship of German Jews were revoked, their property was confiscated and they were encouraged to emigrate.

Only after a visit to the concentration camps in Germany itself should the trip continue to Poland and the extermination camps on its territory, as is the practice of Israeli army delegations to Holocaust sites. That way the Nazi policy will be presented in its correct historical and chronological contexts. During the visit to Poland, guides should mention not only the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but the Polish uprising in Warsaw as well.

The part played by Polish citizens who turned Jews over to the Germans should not be concealed. But groups should also discuss the heroism of thousands of Poles who rescued and hid Jews, at risk to their own lives, and were recognized by Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center. The murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany is a unique and terrible event in European history, but it did not take place in a vacuum and was part of the totalitarian policy derived from the Nazis’ racist ideology.

With all the justified criticism of the new Polish legislation, it’s important for Israeli teens to be exposed to the basic fact of the Holocaust: It was a product of German policy.

There were those who collaborated with it – governments as well as individuals. This fact was recently well expressed by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who unequivocally said that Germany and only Germany was responsible for the Holocaust. We must not forget that, and Israel’s education policy must not blur this historical fact and German responsibility – even if it happens unintentionally.