The Summer Camp That Brutally Taught Russian Jews About the Holocaust

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An illustration showing a sad young Russian Jew surrounded by artifacts, including a yellow patch, the Israeli national flag and a kippa
Credit: Yael Bogen
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

On the grounds of the Jewish Agency’s summer camp near the Belarusian city of Minsk in 1993, the counselors decided an empty, abandoned and neglected swimming pool was the perfect place to hold an activity to mark the camp’s “Holocaust Day.” It was neither Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, nor International Holocaust Memorial Day. Instead, it was just a summer’s day with activities devoted mostly to the Holocaust. Such days – along with days devoted to subjects such as immigrating to Israel, the Israel Defense Forces or Israel’s independence – were customary at many summer camps organized by the Jewish Agency in former Soviet Union countries in the 1990s.

'They woke us up with a siren and gathered everyone in a hall. It was dark and on the walls they’d painted symbols of the Holocaust – barbed wire, yellow patches and swastikas. It was forbidden to leave – not to go the bathroom, not for anything'

The counselors wore outfits that were supposed to resemble Nazi uniforms, some with armbands. In order to demonstrate the full horror of the killings that had been conducted in ravines, they ordered the young campers: “Jews, go down there!” This story is related by Semyon (his full name is known to Haaretz), who is now 39 and was about 15 at the time. “I don’t remember if there were dogs or a recording of barking dogs,” he recounts. “There were German marches. It was hot in the pool, the sun was beating down, there was music all around and there were a few people who fainted. At that moment, it stopped.”

According to Semyon, the counselors stressed that they had not meant to upset anyone, but that they “just wanted to show you what happened to the Jewish people.” Semyon adds that the pool incident – which became notorious among Jewish Agency employees for many years – was a one-time incident. There is evidence, though, that the counselors again used the swimming pool as a way of presenting the Holocaust in later years.

The educational methods the Belarusian counselors employed were by no means unique. In fact, in interviews with former campers and counselors, Haaretz heard that similar methods – which were meant to provoke a strong emotional impression from children and adolescents entitled to immigration to Israel who attended the summer camps – were common up until the mid-1990s at camps in all parts of the former Soviet Union, from Belarus to Kazakhstan and from Moscow to the Urals.

The testimonies show that, among other things, there were role-playing activities at the camps in which the campers had to wear a yellow patch while the counselors dressed as soldiers.

Counselors also built improvised memorials, labyrinths or museums – miniature Yad Vashems – that were aimed at arousing a strong emotional response from the campers. The elements for such a museum, which was set up at the camp before Holocaust Day, included candles; a lot of black cardboard, occasionally adorned with barbed wire; large-scale images of horrors from the Holocaust; moving music; quotations from Holocaust survivors’ memoirs; and recitations of poems.

Campers engaged in a Jewish Agency summer camp activity in the 1990s.

Many of the testimonies suggest that from the counselors’ perspective, crying was a sign of educational success: “If you didn’t make them emotional, you hadn’t done your job,” said one.

Katya Kupchik attended the Jewish Agency camp near the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 1997 and later served as a camp counselor. She says the staff did not prepare the campers for Holocaust Day in advance (usually, one day of the seven- or 10-day camp session was devoted to the subject). The more experienced campers, who had attended the camps more than once, knew what to expect.

“Everyone got ready to cry. There was an atmosphere of ‘How can you not cry?’” she says. “It was a day of hysteria at the camp. No one tried to lower the intensity or offer any reassurance.”

Like a number of other campers and counselors with whom I spoke, Kupchik stresses that the counselors did not have evil intentions, and that educational methods at the camps have undergone significant changes in the past 25 years. But as far as the 1990s were concerned she says: “No one asked themselves what this was doing to the children, from what kind of families they had come, whether they even knew anything about the Holocaust.

“I and many other children came from families in which they hadn’t told us much about Judaism,” continues Kupchik. “We took matza at Passover from the synagogue; we heard something about a grandmother and grandfather in the shtetl; we knew there was anti-Semitism and that Father wasn’t accepted to the university because of that. But I, for example, didn’t know anything about the Holocaust. For me, it was like a hammer coming down on my head on the fourth day of camp. Today, I wonder what those people were thinking.”

Immigration at any price

The original summer camps (or “pioneer camps” as they were known) to which many parents in the old Soviet Union sent their children during the long vacation – sometimes for a month or more in a remote location, without their mothers and fathers – were an important social and cultural institution, which had both advantages and disadvantages. With the breakup of the Soviet empire, this institution, too, disintegrated and the “Jewish camps” under the auspices of various organizations, first and foremost the Jewish Agency, filled that vacuum and were warmly accepted – both by the parents and the children.

The campers and former counselors with whom I spoke, as well as people who are members of a nostalgic Facebook group devoted to the Jewish Agency camps, recall the camps as a delightful experience.

Semyon, who attended Jewish youth camps beginning in 1991 and later also worked in them as a counselor, says that in the context of “the darkness in the streets, the food rationing coupons and the crime epidemic, the Jewish camps in the early ’90s were a bright spot.

“They talked to you there,” he adds. “At the age of 14 it was also possible to drink some alcohol occasionally, to flirt with some girl. It was all very, very open.”

Kupchik says that for Jewish children like her, the camps were the first time they felt like they truly belonged.

Yehudit Weinstein-Gross. "We would wake them up in the middle of the night or before dawn, dressed up as soldiers."Credit: Viktoria Timofeeva

Yehudit Weinstein-Gross, now 34 and a resident of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, first went to a Jewish Agency camp in Kazakhstan at the age of 11. From there, she quickly became a counselor, as well as a regular daily visitor to the Jewish Agency youth club in Almaty. She believes the educational methods that existed during the pre-Soviet era at the Jewish Agency camps “were unique, and I think they did wonderful things. They achieved the goal that existed at the time: to infect a large number of people with love for Israel, and to cause them to want to immigrate here at any price.”

One of the methods used in the camps where Weinstein-Gross went as both camper and counselor – and where the youngest campers were 10 or 11 years old – was to suddenly awaken the campers in the wee hours. “We would wake them up in the middle of the night or before dawn, dressed up as soldiers. We’d take them all outside, shining flashlights, shouting something over the loudspeakers and conduct weird rituals,” she recalls. That was the opening signal for Holocaust Day events.

She remembers the “Holocaust labyrinth” and the ceremony that was held after every child passed through it – sometimes during the ceremony, they would sit around lit candles arranged to form a Star of David – as an especially powerful emotional experience.

“One time, we were at a camp where there were old iron showers outside. They were not in use. I remember we said that if we didn’t have a swimming pool, it might be cool to use those showers instead. The truth is, I don’t remember if we did that in the end or not. What’s certain is that there was a point at which that idea might have seemed reasonable to us.”

Yehudit Weinstein-Gross at a Jewish Agency summer camp in 1996 or 1997.

Weinstein-Gross stresses that the Holocaust Day events were part of a sequence of powerful experiences the children encountered at the Jewish Agency camps, and that both as a camper and counselor they seemed natural to her.

“Today, in retrospect, I wouldn’t want my daughter to have an experience like that,” she reflects. “I think it’s too strong and it’s very manipulative. And in general, as an adult, I don’t think it’s necessary to build our Zionist identity on the basis of the Holocaust.”

Kupchik recalls that some of the campers – children of mixed families – wore crosses, which the counselors made them remove. “Those children didn’t distinguish between Christian culture and their Jewish father or mother. For them it was mixed – Christianity was a cultural thing for them. When I became a counselor that was an issue about which there were heated discussions in the counselors’ room – from whom had crosses been removed? How many were removed?

“In retrospect, I can understand the Jewish Agency emissaries’ desire to give the children a shot of Judaism, to explain to them who Abraham was and who King David was. But I don’t think they had any right to intervene. The moment those children are entitled to immigrate to Israel and you want to bring them to Israel, you must accept them as they are.”

Verbal abuse and humiliation

Among former counselors, there are many different opinions and memories about the camp’s educational practices – especially with regard to teaching about the Holocaust. Some of the campers and counselors with whom I spoke don’t recall any special activities related to the subject. One person who was a counselor in Belarus at the time of the infamous swimming pool incident refused to respond to questions about it.

Slava Kazansky, who was a Jewish-Zionist activist from 1989 and counselor at Jewish Agency camps in Belarus from 1991 to 1995, says the activities concerning the Holocaust were nothing more than a reflection of the way Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed in Israel.

“We were part of what was happening in Israel,” he says. “We wanted to live in Israel or to be part of it there. In Israel, this is done in an emotional way, and probably there too it was communicated in that kind of way.”

Kazansky was present at the Minsk camp when they made the campers go into the empty pool – not as a counselor, but as the person in charge of the logistical side of the event. According to him, the pool was one of the places the counselors had prepared for campers that day. The fact campers fainted surprised everyone. “That I do remember – we ran, we got help, we brought water,” he recounts. “That hadn’t been the intention, of course. It was born from a Zionist idea – to give the children or young people who came to these camps the basis of Judaism. Who we are and what we are.”

Kirill Demidov. "From time to time, someone was taken out of the room in quite a rough way."

Kirill Demidov, now 36, was a camper at the Jewish Agency camp in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg from 1995 to 1997, and subsequently also a counselor at the camps. For him, the means of learning about the Holocaust were very tough. He cites an activity devoted to the Holocaust at a camp held on the deck of a ship, which sailed for two weeks on the Volga and Kama rivers.

“They woke us up with a siren and gathered everyone in a hall – there were about 60 or 70 of us. The walls were black, it was dark and on the walls they’d painted symbols of the Holocaust – barbed wire, yellow patches and swastikas,” he relates. “The counselors were dressed in black. It was forbidden to leave – not to go the bathroom, not for anything.”

The counselors then ordered the campers to do push-ups and other exercises. “From time to time, someone was taken out of the room in quite a rough way. Some of the people came back, some didn’t,” recalls Demidov. “This went on for about two, two and a half hours.”

According to Demidov, this was a kind of “Holocaust game” and from the campers’ perspective it wasn’t clear how long it would last and what the rules were. There was no physical violence on the part of the counselors, he says, “but there was a lot of verbal abuse. They screamed, they shouted, they humiliated,” he adds. He says he went out to have a smoke in the middle of the activity, together with some of the other campers. “There were two counselors there who began to yell at everyone: ‘Why are you smoking? Who gave you permission? Come back in immediately!’ I knew those counselors because it wasn’t my first time at the camp, so they said to me ‘You can stay, but the others – the young ones – have to come back.’”

At the end of the activity, the participants were split into groups and the counselors gave them a kind of historical explanation of what they had just experienced. Demidov says the idea behind every activity was to make people cry. Many of the girls indeed wept, while the boys were also depressed. At other camps where Demidov was a counselor, gentler Holocaust games were introduced. He recounts, for example, a role-playing game that all of the campers had to participate in, where they had to answer dilemmas such as: Whom would you rather they killed – you or your child? Or whether, as head of a Judenrat, you would prefer to pay the Nazis or allow them to send 20 people to a concentration camp? “You play, you get points and in the end everyone dies,” says Demidov of the rules of the game.

Brutal Zionism

Sasha Klyachkina. "I returned from the camp with many questions, in the best tradition of informal Jewish education."

Sometimes, similar experiences arouse completely different feelings among former campers. Sasha Klyachkina, 35, currently works in informal education, including as an emissary for the Jewish Agency. In 1996, she was a camper at a Jewish Agency camp near Nizhny Novgorod in Russia and soon afterward immigrated to Israel with the Na’aleh program (for teenagers making aliyah before their parents).

“I returned from the camp with many questions, in the best tradition of informal Jewish education – impressions, musings about my place in the world,” she says, adding that she remembers a number of incidents connected to the Holocaust.

“I can’t say they are ideally suited to the pedagogical principles that guide me today as I write programs or lesson plans for camps, but it really wasn’t terrible – it wasn’t the swimming pool, let’s say,” she says. Klyachkina also recalls a series of performances on the topic of the Holocaust that really impressed her.

According to Michael Bogomolny, who directed the Jewish Agency department of informal education for Russian speakers from 2007 to 2015, and worked as a counselor and teacher in the organization starting in 1998, the context for the Agency’s activity in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s was all about immigration to Israel. “The rest was more or less an addendum,” he says. The content was built around “brutal or less brutal Zionism, and that was fine because in any case people were immigrating to Israel during that period,” he notes.

The counselors who were sent to the countries of the former Soviet Union – the majority of whom were young people who had just completed their military service – were not given any formal training but received only basic preparation: a weekend seminar. Bogomolny says the instructional materials that were distributed to them, which had been prepared by the Jewish Agency itself or by Beit Lohamei Hagheta’ot [the Ghetto Fighters Museum], were like instructional pamphlets explaining how to transmit a specific message to campers.

The messages themselves, he says, were based on the mainstream Israeli paradigm. “The ideology was like this: Maybe it was said by implication, but the essence was that those who hadn’t wanted to journey to the Land of Israel perished in the Holocaust, and now there is the State of Israel and we must love it and defend it, because it is the only thing that will protect us next time.”

Bogomolny adds that even though the Jewish Agency emissaries adopted the Israeli model, in Israeli schools the children were more protected because it was a formal setting.

This paradigm changed in the early 2000s when the counselors in Israel, as well as in the countries of the former Soviet Union, began to undergo serious pedagogical training, based on humanistic educational models. Bogomolny believes one of the reasons for the change was the cessation of the significant influx of immigrants. The function of the Jewish youth camps underwent a transformation, from an auxiliary tool ahead of immigration to Israel into real centers of informal Jewish education.

According to some of the counselors, one of the main harbingers of this transformation was informal education figure Dima Zicer, who is considered the guru of humanistic education (or person-centered education) in Russia. He served as a Jewish Agency emissary in St. Petersburg, worked to prepare and train counselors and, according to various testimonies, sought to root out the approach that had prevailed at the camps before he arrived.

Humanistic education guru Dima Zicer.

According to Zicer, Holocaust education at the Jewish Agency camps was an extreme expression of the manipulative approach prevalent everywhere in the world, but Israel in particular, at the time. “When at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the ’90s, in place of the ideology that was breathing its last at the time, people were offered a new ideology – Jewish or Zionist – that replaced the old one and people flocked to it happily.”

However, he says, the sources of the manipulative approach are much deeper than any given ideology. “The manipulative approach begins when the adults decide when the child should go pee and when he has to ask to go to the bathroom (for example, in the classroom). “For some reason, that doesn’t shock us,” says Zicer. He wonders whether there is any significant difference between the ceremonies or activities that were held in the Jewish Agency camps and “children swaying to the melody of the beautiful song ‘My God, My God’ when we require them to cry.”

Zicer recalls an incident that occurred while he was working as a teacher at a school in Israel: Two girls burning an Israeli flag on Holocaust Memorial Day. “That’s an adolescent response to manipulation by adults,” he says. “The Holocaust affected the families of many Israelis, and instead of affording this cognitive, intellectual and perhaps also emotional significance, what they offer is experiencing it – and that is the height of manipulation,” Zicer adds. “I say this because, among other things, I really hope no educator – whether in Jewish Agency camps or in today’s Israel – wishes that our children will actually experience even an echo of what happened in the Holocaust.”

The Jewish Agency responds

The Jewish Agency issued a statement in response to this article: “Our investigation shows that more than 20 years ago, counselors at some of the camps conducted activities on the subject of the Holocaust of the Jews in the former Soviet Union through powerful and unconventional means, in order to connect the campers to a significant aspect of their history and identity, which had been repressed for many years by the Soviet regime. This activity, which was conducted over a short period, was rejected and discontinued entirely at the end of the 1990s, following the realization that this is not the right way to teach the subject of the Holocaust.

“Today, the educational activity at the camps is based on humanistic approaches that enrich the campers, alongside open and constructive discussion with each and every camper. As part of the lessons learned from experience, the subject is also studied in the training of educators and counselors as a way of understanding how not to conduct educational activity and to learn more restrained educational methods, even when touching upon difficult subjects.

“The summer and winter camps in the former Soviet Union are aimed at strengthening the younger generation’s connection to Israel and Jewish heritage, and developing future leadership among Russian-speaking young people. The campers who attend these camps participate in educational activities that deal with clarifying identity, the connection to the State of Israel and the Jewish community in their own country, Jewish tradition and history, deepening knowledge about the subject of the Holocaust, and more.”

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