The ceremony, held at the beginning of the month at the memorial site at Auschwitz, was unusual. In the building known as the “sauna,” which was used for disinfecting and cleaning prisoners and their clothing, Israeli and Polish students stood side-by-side and read out names of their relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust and during World War II at Auschwitz, Birkenau and other death camps.
Along with Jewish names like Lederman, Wolf, Klein, Mandelbaum and Lifschitz, they called out Polish Christian names as well. Later, under the stars, they flew Israeli and Polish flags and played the two countries’ national anthems.
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“The entire event was very special, because this was the first time a ceremony was held there in this format,” Katarzyna Rybka-Iwanska, a senior figure at the Polish embassy in Israel, told Haaretz. She helped organize the ceremony, and also participated in it.
“For the first time, Poles, too, could state the names of their relatives in the ‘Every Person Has a Name’ ceremony,” she said. “I saw tears in the eyes of the participants from both sides. The event was very touching.”
For the Polish government, which has in recent years been promoting the narrative that emphasized the non-Jewish Polish victims of the Nazi regime – and not just the Jewish victims – this was a major achievement.
“The Israeli students were impressed that World War II was a global event with many victims, in which many people from different countries were murdered, including millions of Polish victims,” added Rybka-Iwanska.
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But the people behind the joint ceremony were not politicians or diplomats. They were teachers and the tour guides of the trips to Poland for Israelis. The person behind the event was Rachel Hadayo, a history teacher at the Ironi Dalet municipal high school in Tel Aviv. For the past seven years, at her initiative, she has organized meetings between students of the Israeli high school and those from a Polish school in the city of Brzeszcze, near Oswiecim, where the Germans built Auschwitz.
With the growing tension between the two countries because of the Polish “Holocaust Law,” which criminalizes blaming Poland for any crimes committed during the Holocaust, Hadayo decided to strengthen and improve this connection. “Instead of preserving the doctrine of hatred and separation, which will not lead to anything good, I wanted to promote dialogue, to connect their hearts and do that through the young people, who are the future,” said Hadayo.
The connection between the two groups of students was deemed a success. “This cooperation quickly became real friendship,” said Ivana Matusik, principal of the Polish school. “Our goal was to expose the young Israelis to Polish history and the young Poles to the Jewish Holocaust, including all the difficulties and dilemmas that arose along the way.”
At first, the Polish students had reservations about whether to join in the name-reading ceremony. “They were a bit embarrassed, because they were not used to it like the Israelis, who read the names year after year,” said Yael, a tour guide for Israeli trips to Poland who accompanied the group. But later, slowly, the walls began to come down and the students named the Polish victims aloud as well.
“When the Polish children read the names of those murdered, the Israeli kids added after every name, ‘may their memory be blessed,’” added Yael with tears in her eyes.
Some of the Polish students read the names of their relatives who were murdered in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Mauthausen and Buchenwald. Others read the names of famous Poles who were victims of the Nazi regime, including Janusz Korczak. One of the students chose a controversial name and commemorated the memory of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish monk who on one hand was a clear anti-Semite, but at the same time provided shelter for those persecuted by the Germans. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz and volunteered to die in the place of another prisoner, a non-Jew.
“My family was killed at Auschwitz. We didn’t come here to sell the Poles forgiveness certificates for what some of their ancestors did,” Hadayo added. But according to the teacher, “Only if you educate to love will you receive love. If you educate to hate, you’ll get hatred.”
Just before the trip, ties between Poland and Israel reached a new low, especially when acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz quoted former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir saying that the Poles suckled anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk. “I was shocked when I heard that,” Hadayo says. “What did the foreign minister, who is supposed to forge ties, not break them, want to achieve by this statement?”
The encounter between the Israeli and Polish young people proved, according to Hadayo, how mistaken Katz’s statement was. “Within seconds you couldn’t tell who was who, who was Polish and who was Israeli,” she said. “They look the same, laugh at the same foolishness. That’s the future,” she added.
Goli Nativ, an 11th grader from Ironi Dalet who took part in the ceremony, learned ahead of the trip that 2 million non-Jewish Poles also lost their lives in World War II. “We found a common denominator with the Polish students. We didn’t see anti-Semitism although it’s clear to me that it exists. Just like there are good Jews and there are bad Jews, there are good Poles and bad Poles,” she said. Nativ said the relationship with the Polish youngsters led her to wonder “what the whole flare-up and the fuss was about” between the politicians on both sides.
“They saw what we went through and we saw what they went through – that’s the added value of this ceremony,” said Maya Pivich, another 11th grader on the trip. Pivich said she was surprised when she heard about the Polish victims of the war. “I didn’t know there were so many. They called out the names and it was like ‘wow.’ It turns out that they also had relatives who died,” she said.
Their friend Hili Kuperstein added: “The ceremony reminded us that all of us in the end are human beings and that the victims – it doesn’t matter if they were Poles or Jews, were persecuted because of some difference.”
One of Kuperstein’s realizations connects to the Polish government’s line. “You can’t blame all the Poles [for persecuting Jews], you can’t generalize. There were individuals, maybe many individuals, who did things, but not everyone,” Kuperstein said.
Another stop on the trip, where the Israeli students went without their Polish counterparts, was the town of Jedwabne, whose inhabitants murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in 1941. Since 2000, after the story was uncovered in the book “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” by the Polish-Jewish historian Jan T. Gross, that town has become a symbol of the rift in the relationship between the two peoples.
The students said that when they arrived on their bus to the monument, they were met with hostile looks from the locals, who are already used to the stop, which for them seems to be a defamation campaign against them.
“It’s not us, it’s the Germans,” locals called out to them. But even if Jedwabne was an example for them of pure evil, the students also heard about a Polish woman from a nearby village who hid a few Jews in her barn who had managed to flee the pogrom. “You see the other side too,” Hadayo said. “Humanity versus inhumanity.”
According to Hadayo, she did not encounter criticism from parents, students or teachers about her intention to hold a joint ceremony. However, now that the story has been published, it will probably spark debate among historians, Holocaust survivors and other groups in Israeli society, about the question of whether the victims of both peoples should be mentioned together.
Opponents may argue that this is a distortion of history and creates a false parallel between the Holocaust of the Jewish people, which was generalized, “industrialized,” and comprehensive, and carried out as part of the “final solution” to wipe out the entire Jewish people, and the Polish victims of World War II. The latter suffered from the Germans, but were not systematically murdered like their Jewish neighbors.
Meanwhile, the Polish Embassy is already thinking ahead and they are planning to suggest the new ceremony at Auschwitz to other Polish and Israeli schools. “I’ll be glad if next year there are 10 ceremonies like this,” Rybka-Iwanska said. But Hadayo knows that the road is a long one.
“Years ago, when I initiated the first relationship, the Education Ministry was against it,” she said. “They called me a traitor, they accused me of introducing Israeli teens to anti-Semites, to the children of murderers. But I didn’t give up. Today they’re in another place already.”