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Poland's New Holocaust Bill: Why Doesn't Israel Hold a March of the Living in Berlin?

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People wave Israeli flags in front of a gate with the words "Arbeit macht frei" (Work sets you free) at the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswieciem, Poland, 2016.
People wave Israeli flags in front of a gate with the words "Arbeit macht frei" (Work sets you free) at the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswieciem, Poland, 2016.Credit: KACPER PEMPEL / REUTERS

In response to the prospective law in Poland on mentioning involvement by the Polish people/nation/state in Nazi crimes, calls were heard last week to stop the trips by young Israelis to Poland from Knesset members such as Yakov Margi (Shas) – who even proposed “creating an alternative Israeli trip in Israel” – and Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union). Such calls also came from the public, which was comforted by dreams of harming tourism to Poland.

For example, the secretary general of the Ezra religious youth movement called on its thousands of members and counselors not to participate in such trips to Poland, and sent a letter to the Polish ambassador in Israel saying: “There are limits to cynicism. Those who do not recognize and take responsibility for their actions and part in the Holocaust of the Jewish people, cannot continue ‘to enjoy’ the money of the people they harmed,” he wrote.

But it is hard to avoid the feeling that trips to the main branches of the memorial enterprise for the Holocaust, which are naturally located in Poland, have a major part in the negative image of the Poles and their land; and for the fact that the historic stain the Nazis left on the land of occupied Poland not only hasn’t faded with the years, but has undergone the exact opposite process: This image has been strengthened at the expense of the identification of the capital of the Third Reich with the Nazi horrors. It is hard to discount the possibility that these trips to Poland couldn’t help but contribute to the false historical impression that the extermination camps were Polish.

The law is unacceptable; it is not the role of governments to shape the memory of history by restrictive legislation. Nonetheless, it is possible to understand the Polish resentment that their country, which was occupied by the Nazis and in practice disintegrated, has become a synonym for the Nazi extermination enterprise, and for Poland becoming the geographic address for the feelings of disgust over the Nazi crimes.

It is impossible to deny the large measure of historical irony in the voluntary exile to Berlin of young Israelis who are worried, justifiably of not, of the “budding fascism” in this country, while every year thousands of Israeli students crystallize their historical awareness as victims of Nazism in Poland. Just as people in Israel have been voicing criticism of the March of the Living at Auschwitz for years, the Poles can also only wonder why Israel does not hold a March of the Living on the Unter den Linden boulevard in Berlin.

It is impossible to dismiss as just a “technical” matter that three Israeli F-15s flew over Auschwitz in the famous flyover, and not over the Reichstag. Or that Israel, at the explicit request of the air force, pressured the Polish government but did not risk offending the sovereignty of Germany. We cannot ignore either that during the flyover of Auschwitz the air force showed that “in the name of the State of Israel and the Jewish people” that the Nazi decision to build the death camps in occupied Poland paid off twice: They distanced the extermination enterprise from their own land, and also the memorial enterprise.

Israel, which is careful to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust has a concrete aspect, whose peak is the visit to extermination camps in Poland, cannot deny the powerful influence the in-person experiences have on the memory, which are much stronger than words – especially as time passes and the words are read out by young people from books and are not heard from the mouths of living survivors.

The identification of “Auschwitz” with Poland is natural; Auschwitz was built in Poland, after all. The Polish government is making a mistake in how it tries to fight the evolution of the memory, but instead of threatening it with the cancellation of trips to Poland, Israel should see it as an appropriate opportunity to end them – and to open a new page in its attitude toward the memory of the Holocaust: To be freed from the chains of the past and instead to look forward, to the future.

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