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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It's more than a little odd

In 1939, the Jews of Europe would have paid anything... given anything... to get their families - or at very least their children - to a place of safety.

They could only dream of a Jewish nation in 'Eretz Yisrael' while desperately trying to hide their precious children in convents or the basements and attics of the rare sympathetic neighbor.

Yet this week we, a family of Jews; citizens and residents of the sovereign State of Israel, placed two of our precious children on airplanes bound for Poland.

Ariella and Gilad are traveling with their respective high school classes to learn about the vanished Jewish communities of Poland. Their trip will be far more than a tour of concentration camps, ghettos and cemeteries. They will also try to place themselves in a position to comprehend the magnitude and splendor of Jewish life that once existed there.

Zahava and I were not of one mind regarding the idea of sending our children to Poland.

On the one hand, allowing a country that was complicit in the murder of millions of Jews, to profit from Jewish tourism - even if the goal is to explore that complicity - is repugnant.

On the other hand, as the last witnesses to this dark chapter in history are silenced by the hand of time, it becomes essential to create subsequent generations of witnesses; not to the actions, of course... but to artifacts and results of those actions.

Creating a new generation of primary sources is essential in an age where all scholarship is suspect and even now, there is a growing chorus of voices gaining mainstream acceptance, claiming that the Holocaust never happened; that it was an exaggeration... a metaphor... a myth.

In the end we made the decision to send our children to Poland.

But I wonder what those Jewish parents of Poland in 1939 would say to me if they could see into the future. How odd they would find it, amid their frantic attempts to get their children to a place of safety, to see Jewish parents in Israel sending their precious children back to Europe.

Posted by David Bogner on August 31, 2011 | Permalink

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Interesting issues. One aspect of the trip that I don't hear raised much is the cost of the trip in relation to the average Israeli monthly salary. Perhaps another commenter could post some specifics there. The trip has become so expected but even beyond the usual issues of debate (I'm sure you can guess what side I fall on) how can we ignore the huge financial commitment this has become (are there other educational expenses that should be a priority)?

Posted by: Kate | Aug 31, 2011 12:06:15 PM

Kate... The cost of the trip varies slightly by school, but is around 6000 shekels per child. That is a lot of money for a typical Israeli family. Part of our deicison making process was to include the kids to see how committed they were to going. We did this by asking if they would bear part of the cost of the trip. They did.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 31, 2011 12:18:52 PM

We've dealt with this issue more than once, and it wasn't an easy decision.

Last fall, I wrote about a local alternative for kids who weren't going to Poland. (I hope you don't mind that I linked to my post.)

Posted by: Mrs. S. | Aug 31, 2011 12:26:06 PM

Mrs. S., your link is broken. Here is the fixed link:

To go or not to go

I'm also very much in two minds about the whole going-to-Poland thing. My youngest has just finished sherut leumi so the issue is not relevant any more, but when she was in 10th or 11th grade she could have gone to Poland with another school. Her school (private "chardal" school) does not arrange trips to Poland, whether out of ideology or economic considerations I'm not sure, but they ahve an arrangement with the local ulpana that allows students to join in with their trip.

I was very against the whole idea for the exact reason that Trep enumerated above: "allowing a country that was complicit in the murder of millions of Jews, to profit from Jewish tourism". But I silenced myself and let my daughter decide for herself. She decided not to go for several reasons:

1. She didn't want to go without her own beloved teacher or a member of her family;
2. She has heard first-hand stories from her grandparents;
3. She felt that visits to Yad Vashem were graphic enough and educational enough.

It's an interesting discussion which has valid points on all sides.

Posted by: anneinpt | Aug 31, 2011 1:28:17 PM

I am of Jewish/Polish descent.

If those families could look into the future, then they would be aware of the necessity of keeping the truth alive.

You're doing the right thing.

Posted by: chairwoman | Aug 31, 2011 2:00:07 PM

My husband's mother and grandmother, survivors from Poland (where the rest of the family perished), were glad when my children took the trip to Poland. The preparation was very good, and my children learned a lot and had a new perspective on history. They were much impressed with the survivor who accompanied them, and the survivor found unexpected comfort in telling his story, knowing that the young people wouldn't forget it.

Obviously, there is irony in the fact that German schoolchildren take their big school trip to Rome or Amsterdam to amuse themselves, and Israeli children go to Poland to light candles for their murdered great aunts and uncles.

We educate our children to commemorate and learn from the horrors of the past. I don't think there is an alternative.

Posted by: Lila | Aug 31, 2011 4:34:45 PM

I had a discussion with a born again Christian a few weeks ago about forgiveness. We talked about how veterans of WW II and Vietnam, on both sides, have gotten past their hatred and no longer seek revenge or wish suffering on those who caused them to suffer. Similarly, South Africa has managed to move forward with the help of their Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. She felt that a spiritual person, even not of the Christian faith, ought to be able to forgive, though not absolve.

I responded that it is easier for others to forgive and forget, even for the children of mortal enemies who killed each other's friends and family, because most nations are ready willing and able to go out and murder as many people as they can, with short intermissions of calm. War is the natural state, and international and interethnic peace is an intermittent anomaly. The Jews, on the other hand, are pacifists, we are not natural born murderers who occasionally hold ourselves back. Nobody has the right to kill Jews, and when they do, they should pay for it, for as long as the murderous impulse lives on in their culture. Poland hasn't even cleansed itself by confession. The few righteous who refused to take part are all the more precious because of their rarity, but as a whole, they're still a bunch of bloody murderers who would leap at the opportunity to kill you and your family and boast about it afterwards.

Visit Poland? The blood on the ground isn't even dry yet.

Posted by: Barzilai | Aug 31, 2011 4:38:08 PM

I had a discussion with a born again Christian a few weeks ago about forgiveness. We talked about how veterans of WW II and Vietnam, on both sides, have gotten past their hatred and no longer seek revenge or wish suffering on those who caused them to suffer. Similarly, South Africa has managed to move forward with the help of their Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. She felt that a spiritual person, even not of the Christian faith, ought to be able to forgive, though not absolve.

I responded that it is easier for others to forgive and forget, even for the children of mortal enemies who killed each other's friends and family, because most nations are ready willing and able to go out and murder as many people as they can, with short intermissions of calm. War is the natural state, and international and interethnic peace is an intermittent anomaly. The Jews, on the other hand, are pacifists, we are not natural born murderers who occasionally hold ourselves back. Nobody has the right to kill Jews, and when they do, they should pay for it, for as long as the murderous impulse lives on in their culture. Poland hasn't even cleansed itself by confession. The few righteous who refused to take part are all the more precious because of their rarity, but as a whole, they're still a bunch of bloody murderers who would leap at the opportunity to kill you and your family and boast about it afterwards.

Visit Poland? The blood on the ground isn't even dry yet.

Posted by: Barzilai | Aug 31, 2011 4:38:08 PM

I agree with you that it is a difficult issue that deserves careful thinking, which I am sure you all did. So far I have decided against it as far as I am concerned but would not dictate to others what they should do.
Trying to get the students "to comprehend the magnitude and splendor of Jewish life that once existed there" seems essential as obviously what is left of the camps cannot convey the magnitude of the mass murders that took place there.
Where were your respective families from (if you don't mind my asking)?

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Aug 31, 2011 7:39:34 PM

I wasn't going to comment on this post, David. I'm an American and a Christian, so I don't really have anything worthwhile to add to the discussion of Israeli school children and their potential travel plans.

Then I read Barzilai's comment(s) and I have to ask for clarification. I read the first paragraph and thought nothing unusual about it.

But the second paragraph puzzles me. If I read it correctly, you're saying it's easier for non-Jews to forgive and forget because war is the natural state of the world. Then you say that Jews are, by their very nature, pacifists and non-violent... or as you put it "we are not natural born murderers who occasionally hold ourselves back." Are you asserting that the average non-Jew is a natural born killer?

You ended the paragraph with "they're still a bunch of bloody murders who would leap at the opportunity to kill you and your family and boast about it afterwards." -- again, to whom are you referring? Poles in particular or all non-Jews?

Modern Israel has lived in a near state of war since it's inception. No other country has had to defend its borders more vigorously in the last 60+ years. And the IDF is as aggressive as any standing army in the world (more than most when it comes to combat because you are fighting for your homeland ON YOUR HOMELAND). These don't seem to reconcile with your pacifist narrative.

Finally, shouldn't pacifists (Jews) be able to "forgive and forget" better than "a bunch of bloody murderers"?

In closing, I'm hoping that a) I misinterpreted your meaning, b) you wrote your message poorly, or c) a combination of both. I hope you don't honestly believe all non-Jews are blood thirsty murderers -- I can't deny that there are plenty to go around, but I think you'll find they are still the minority. And for the record, there are Jews who have done evil in this world too, but I wouldn't hold it against the whole religion.

Shalom,
PJ

Posted by: ProphetJoe | Aug 31, 2011 10:01:43 PM

My kids have been on the trip to Poland and it was well worth their time. However, although I have had the opportunity, I have never been. One day.

You posted this: "On the one hand, allowing a country that was complicit in the murder of millions of Jews, to profit from Jewish tourism - even if the goal is to explore that complicity - is repugnant." And Barzilai expressed it more strongly.

While I understand the feelings, I would not condemn an entire country for the sins of a (largely) bygone generation. Not all Poles were involved. Or, to put it another way: all generalizations are dangerous; even this one.

Posted by: Ellis | Aug 31, 2011 10:06:47 PM

Let me join you in stating that my comment was poorly thought out and badly written. I understand that what I wrote was deeply offensive. I certainly know that there are many individuals and many cultures that abhor violence more than the Jews, and that there are many Jews that have done horrible and vicious things. Who can forget what the Danes and the Bulgarians did? Who can forget Schindler and Chiune Sugihara? Any attempt on my part to explain or defend the idea that underlay the comment would dilute my apology.

Posted by: Barzilai | Aug 31, 2011 10:23:57 PM

You and I talked about this right before David and I left on our own trip to Poland. Your points sparked several discussions before, during and after our trip. It was a tough trip on so many levels - we experienced such a vast array of emotions throughout the trip.

The man who led our group has led 18 March of the Living groups - he was born in a DP camp. He was able to show us and teach us about the vibrant Jewish community that existed before the war. And we witnessed the remnants of atrocities that happened there. But he also made sure that we saw what Poland is today. We had an open dialogue with several students from a Krakow University about how they felt the atmosphere in Poland is towards Jews - we saw none of the anti-Semitism we were warned about. And we shared Shabbat with one of the growing Jewish communities in Warsaw. I hear you about the tourism dollars. We felt the same way when we set out on our trip. In hindsight though, I have to agree with Ellis - it's hard to condemn the entire country for what happened. Not every Pole was involved. Our feeling of anger and sadness for what happened there are probably greater than they have ever been but we still feel that it was a trip that we needed to make.

Noelle will have the same opportunity to go in a few years. We will not encourage her nor will be discourage her from taking the trip. It will be interesting to see how that all plays out.

Posted by: orieyenta | Aug 31, 2011 11:02:39 PM

You and I talked about this right before David and I left on our own trip to Poland. Your points sparked several discussions before, during and after our trip. It was a tough trip on so many levels - we experienced such a vast array of emotions throughout the trip.

The man who led our group has led 18 March of the Living groups - he was born in a DP camp. He was able to show us and teach us about the vibrant Jewish community that existed before the war. And we witnessed the remnants of atrocities that happened there. But he also made sure that we saw what Poland is today. We had an open dialogue with several students from a Krakow University about how they felt the atmosphere in Poland is towards Jews - we saw none of the anti-Semitism we were warned about. And we shared Shabbat with one of the growing Jewish communities in Warsaw. I hear you about the tourism dollars. We felt the same way when we set out on our trip. In hindsight though, I have to agree with Ellis - it's hard to condemn the entire country for what happened. Not every Pole was involved. Our feeling of anger and sadness for what happened there are probably greater than they have ever been but we still feel that it was a trip that we needed to make.

Noelle will have the same opportunity to go in a few years. We will not encourage her nor will be discourage her from taking the trip. It will be interesting to see how that all plays out.

Posted by: orieyenta | Aug 31, 2011 11:02:39 PM

I think you did the right thing and I'm with the several other people who pointed out that it isn't fair to blame every Pole for the rampant anti-Semitism in Poland then.

It's the same thing with Germany. Germany...THE instigator of the worst atrocities committed against us....70 years ago. I went to Germany as a teenager on a music trip and found that the modern Germans I met were kind, friendly and engaging people. Not a strain of anti-Semitism was present in any of them. In fact, modern-day Germany actually sends a lot of students to Israel in order to engage with the Jewish people. Several of them were grad school classmates of mine at Tel Aviv University.

Besides - if we don't make some effort to engage with each other, don't we increase the risk of history repeating itself? That sounds like a cliche, but it's true, isn't it?

Posted by: Lena | Aug 31, 2011 11:52:37 PM

Chiming in only to address the issue of condemning modern Poland for the sins of bygone generation of Poles....

I hear and respect what a lot of folks have contributed to the discussion of stereotypes and generalizations -- and that fact that there were some righteous folk who risked life and limb during WWII.

Personally, it is the idea of these places and our ill-fated history being possibly perceived as "tourist destinations" which I find revolting. While I understand the imperative to maintain these institutions as both proof of the atrocities, and a means to commemorate the victims, the idea of someone, anyone, profiting from this nefarious chapter of history was enough to elicit passionate discussion in our household about all the various considerations of a trip such as this.

FWIW, my father's family immigrated from Poland and my maternal grandmother, z"l, was born in Lodj. Her immediate family emigrated to the US before WWI, but not the entire/extended family. On the occasions when I tried to ask her about the extended family left behind she always changed the subject....

I had (and still have) a complex mix of feelings about these trips. I recognize and appreciate the many valuable aspects of these trips, but also remain disgusted by other aspects.

I specifically asked our children to please not spend any money in Poland on this trip. Not even so much as a newspaper.

And this was not meant as an attempt "punish" today's Poles.

If the kids ever decided they wanted to go on vacation to the Poland of "today" I would have no problem with them spending money there. On hotels, on art museums, on what ever leisure items/activities which might draw a person to desire to travel there....

(We ourselves had a lovely time when we had a layover in Vienna last summer. And if my memory of WWII history serves me correctly, the WWII-era Austrians held no great love for us either!)

But to spend money on souvenirs on a trip whose purpose is to witness the artifacts and scope of the most devastating anti-Semitism and mass murder the modern world has known.... I can not adequately express or identify how/why I find this to be so morally repugnant, but I do. I am completely and utterly disturbed even the hint of such a thing....

Just my two cents....

Posted by: zahava | Sep 1, 2011 9:56:22 AM

OOPS! I meant to write paternal grandmother.... My mother's side of the family was from Belarus and from England....

Posted by: zahava | Sep 1, 2011 10:04:19 AM

Proof that this topic rattles me just a bit.... (sigh).

Posted by: zahava | Sep 1, 2011 10:05:18 AM

I lead trips like these to Poland. One of the issues that we deal with is how the story is not black-and-white. Poland also has the largest number of Righteous Gentiles honored in comparison to any other European country.

...on the other hand, see this story in today's JPost - http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishNews/Article.aspx?id=236311

Posted by: Abie Zayit | Sep 1, 2011 12:52:24 PM

a good friend of mine went and he asked his mother, a survivor, to join him, she said- "nah, i didn't like it the first time" (exact quote)

Posted by: roberti | Sep 1, 2011 5:44:08 PM

When I told an acquaintance that our daughter would not attend her school's Poland trip, not because of ideological reasons, but because we simply could not afford it, she said, "oh I would beg, borrow or steal if I had to". Truth is, I think these trips are very important for our young people to take and I felt badly not being able to give her the opportunity. Her school did have an alternate program, which was very nice, but still not the same and I do believe it does create a have/have not situation. Most of the girls who did not attend did so because if financial and not ideological reasons.

But I still don't think it's important enough to "beg, borrow or steal".

Posted by: Baila | Sep 2, 2011 2:01:56 PM

I certainly felt a bit odd twenty years ago when I dined at a Japanese restaurant in Düsseldorf...

Posted by: Elisson | Sep 2, 2011 7:22:31 PM

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