Yael Bogen

The Summer Camp That Brutally Taught Russian Jews About the Holocaust

Counselors dressed as Nazi soldiers, campers as young as 10 forced to wear yellow patches and witness horrific images – these were just some of the methods the Jewish Agency used to teach the Shoah in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s

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.

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.

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, 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.”

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