Poles Apart

In a fortress overlooking the Polish town of Przemysl, 17 tourists listen to the entertaining tale of "the Good Soldier Schweik," who disappeared among the fortifications surrounding the city. The storyteller is Shulamit Wolner, a Polish-born Israeli. Her audience consists of colleagues, Israeli tour guides who lead groups of Israelis abroad and generally come to Poland with youth groups to see the Nazi death camps.

This week-long trip, billed as "There Is a Polish Poland, too," is different. It is designed to familiarize the guides with a side of Poland that is not specifically connected to Judaism or the Holocaust. It is an annual trip, sponsored by the Polish Ministry of Tourism and the Polish Institute. Each year the visiting Israelis are brought to a different region of the country; this year it is the turn of southeast Poland.

If there is one place where Polish and Jewish history are intertwined, it is in Przemysl, on the Ukrainian border. Before World War II almost half the population of the region's cities was Jewish. The Polish organizers do not ignore the connection, and make a point of adding synagogues and other Jewish and Holocaust-related sites to the itinerary of castles and museums.

Nobody questions that there is a Polish Poland, but how that resonates for Israelis is another matter. "Did they dump Jewish bodies here?" asks one Israeli as they walk along the moat. No, she was told. "Then why did they bring us here?"

Throughout the trip the Israelis try to demonstrate a polite patience for the Polish sites, all the while looking for things related to their own culture. In Kozlowka Castle, north of Lublin, they are distracted as they follow the guide past the painted portraits of members of the noble family of Zamoyski to the restored 19th-century kitchen. Only when they notice the wood-carved coat of arms of the Potocki family, to which the Zamoyskis were related by marriage, do their eyes light up. The Israelis know the name by virtue of the fact that one of the Potockis converted to Judaism, causing a rift in the family. A sawn-off branch on the coat of arms recalls the event, providing visual evidence of anti-Semitism among the old Polish nobility and suggesting its presence in Poland altogether.

Sense of mission

As the tour moves deeper into eastern Poland, the members of the group find less and less interest in Polish sites, and request Jewish ones instead. For example, on the one day in the itinerary when no Jewish sites are included, they insist on seeing the synagogues of every town they go through. In the end, instead of touring a factory for natural oils in the town of Krosno, they visit the synagogue of Rymanow; and by the end of the day, they have added three more synagogues and two Jewish cemeteries to their list.

The group is not homogeneous, and its members have differing views on the trip's itinerary and on Poland itself. The differences become sharper when the discussion touches on guiding Jewish youth there. "I don't tell them what they should learn [from the experience] and what conclusions they should reach," says Ehud Pe'er. "They will take away what they can, each according to his or her own insights. But in general I hear three things from them: It should never happen again; Israel must exist; and it has to be strong."

The Israelis are highly motivated and bring a sense of mission to the youth tours they guide. With one exception, they have all been doing the Israel-Poland route for years now. The itinerary always includes the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Warsaw Ghetto, and interchangeable sites like the Treblinka and Majdanek camps, or the Lodz Ghetto. Exceptions are made if one of the students has a special request, some site or an address with personal significance.

What characterizes the Israeli who feels the need to inculcate the memory of the Holocaust? One of the group confesses that she reads no newspapers, and searches the Internet only for topics related to the Holocaust. Another speaks about the "Holocaust bug" that bit him and changed his life. The general feeling throughout the tour is far from morbid, however. The atmosphere on the bus is light-hearted and pleasant, and it is obvious that the group's members share something powerful, something historical. "There are personal aspects of this as well," explains Oren. "People often take on a responsibility like this because they have some unresolved issue - a family history, for example."

Missed opportunity

These tour leaders identify themselves first and foremost as Israelis, and only after as Jews. The Poles they meet do not make the distinction between Jewishness in Poland and the Israeli version; the Israelis view them as ignoramuses. The comment of a local guide at the Open Museum that "I have learned about Jews, and I expected 'Fiddler on the Roof'" meets with derision from members of the group. "If she wants to find out what Jews are, let her learn about the IDF," one of them says.

The tours are long and arduous, the food is simple, and the group is on the road for some 12 hours a day. They only get to their hotel rooms in the evening, knowing that at 8 A.M. they have to be back on the bus.

The Polish guides do not miss the name of a single nobleman buried in this or that crypt, but they are not accustomed to the Israeli style of flavoring their explanations with colorful stories and anecdotes. The Israelis, on the other hand, are an impressive source of original ideas. On this particular tour, however, their unique guiding abilities are secondary: What counts is their ability to listen.

In light of reports about departures from the planned itinerary and cancellation of visits to Polish sites, the Polish Ministry of Tourism is considering suspending the "Polish Poland" program. Is the missed opportunity just an example of a characteristically Israeli lack of interest? Not necessarily.

"Polish Poland," as per its Ministry of Tourism, is a string of formal gardens and open museums that present examples of rural architecture.

Rzesznow, on the other hand, is an example of urban renewal, where the key is culture, creativity, a certain local chic and a sense of design, yet the visit there gets no further than a walk through underground chambers full of not-very-interesting historical artifacts.

The most interesting aspect of contemporary Poland is its current renaissance. It is an exciting country, but the excitement lies far beyond the windows of the bus as it rolls along toward yet another night of too little sleep.