‘They Are Like a Hurricane’: Israelis Flock to Poland, and the Locals Are Not Happy

Poland’s growing popularity as a destination has exposed a culture clash between brash sabras and European gentility

Tourists in front of the Royal Castle in Warsaw's Old Town, July 2019
Meir Bulka

It’s been seven years since the Polish ambassador to Israel made an impassioned appeal in these pages to Israelis: “Come to Warsaw, come for a weekend, for shopping,” Jacek Chodorowicz said in an interview with Haaretz that was published in December 2012.

We want you to visit not only the Holocaust sites but also the other attractions in Poland.” Chodorowicz has since concluded his posting here, but his plea apparently found a receptive audience. According to the Polish Tourism Ministry, last year 296,000 Israeli tourists visited Poland, an 18.4 percent increase over 2017.

At first glance, one might think that we’ve gotten past the crisis of “the Holocaust law” and embarked on a new, more positive chapter. However, there is also another side to the growing Israeli presence in Poland, one its Tourism Ministry would rather not mention.

>> Read more: Poland is rediscovering its Jews, but landmines remain in its ties with Israel ■ Poland vs Israel: Who's really winning the war over Holocaust history? | Opinion

Israeli chef Meir Bulka kissing a manikin in front of a Polish 'patriotic' store, Warsaw, July 2019
Meir Bulka

“Most of the hotel owners I spoke with don’t see Israelis as their dream tourists,” Polish journalist Ewa Jankowska wrote this week, putting it rather delicately, on the gazeta.pl website associated with the respected Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.

The accounts she collected are not pleasant to read and illustrate the seemingly unbridgeable cultural chasm between the rough Israeli character and the very courteous Polish character. “Israelis in the hotels are like a hurricane,” Krystyna Szczesny, a tour guide, was quoted as saying.

“They always leave a mess after breakfast. They pile huge amounts of food on the plate and don’t finish it,” complained the proprietor of a guesthouse who did not wish to give his name.

“They leave garbage in the room, they have no respect for others’ property. They think that if they pay, it’s fine for them to make a mess and wreck things. After their stay we find shoe prints on the walls and bits of chewing gum stuck everywhere. If they’re staying for a few days, they leave the air conditioner and the lights on all the time,” said Maria, who rents out vacation apartments in Lublin.

Tomasz Biela, the manager of a hotel in Wroclaw, said of the Israelis: “They have high standards, they always expect to get something extra – like a different brand of water in the room or hot chocolate instead of coffee.” He says he can also spot the Israeli tourists from afar, even when they try to be “mysterious” and aren’t eager to say where they’re from or to tell much about themselves.

Marta, a tourism agent from Warsaw, says that the Israelis come prepared with pictures of the rooms as advertised online, to make sure they’re not being cheated. “They always haggle over the price and ask where the moneychanger with the best rate is. They come with empty suitcases and do a lot of shopping,” she says. Despite everything, she says she’s fond of the Israelis and has learned to live with the sort of intrusive questions even her family wouldn’t dare ask her. “Sometimes they ask me when I’m going to get married or when I’m going to have children.”

Israeli chef Meir Bulka posing with a police mascot, Warsaw, July 2019
Meir Bulka

Meanwhile, on the popular Hebrew Facebook group “Vacation in Warsaw, Krakow and the rest of Poland,” which has nearly 43,000 members, Israelis keep looking for new destinations in Poland. “You can find messages from people asking for a ‘Holocaust-free’ trip to Warsaw,” says Daniela Singer, who manages the group, which includes sub-groups like “Poland – Vacationing with Kids” and “Poznan – A Holiday Treat.”

“Some of the Israeli tourists have been to Poland before, on high-school trips to the camps. They saw the beautiful country out the windows of the bus on their way from one concentration camp to another, and they were left with a desire to come back for the part that is not related to the Holocaust, and maybe even to get over the trauma that such a trip can create,” she explains. “They immediately feel that they’re carrying with them a burden that’s connected to the Holocaust.”

This week, one member of the group posted a request for recommendations of attractions in Warsaw and Krakow, “without ghettos and so on.” Singer is not judgmental. She says she approaches it with “patience and tolerance and a little black humor.”

“There have been times when I winced when I read certain questions, but I understood that we’re a traumatized people and everyone reacts differently. ... Ultimately, it’s a group about traveling, and travels are usually supposed to be fun and interesting.”

The complexity of the situation is quite apparent in the Facebook group. Interspersed among the tips on what face cream to buy at the mall in Warsaw, where to find shoes on sale in Krakow or vegan restaurants in Lublin and an explanation of how to obtain tax refunds at the airport, are other voices – such as one woman who asked, “Why are you supporting these anti-Semites?”