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Graduation party at the detention camp

What's a school celebration for sixth graders in Israel without a little barbed wire?

“Thank God, it was Atlit and not Auschwitz, sighed somebody’s father. At least, we got off cheap.”

“Twisted minds, those who came up with this event,” objected another kid’s mother, her voice tired, adding: “It was supposed to be an evening of simple joy.”

This intriguing conversation took place on a bus, speeding to Tel Aviv, at about one in the morning. We two dozen parents were on our way back home from an elementary school graduation party. The party took place in Atlit, 80 kilometers north of Tel Aviv, at the open air museum, a former detention camp that the British used to imprison illegal Jewish immigrants captured while trying to enter the Land of Israel.

I intentionally omit identifying details, first because I know that the loving staff of this small Old North Tel Aviv school, where two of my kids studied, wishes the students only well; but also because this can happen in every school – and it actually does, nationwide, in one form or another.

Granted, Atlit was just a detention and not an extermination camp, yet this historic site has its own powerful educational message. To realize this, it is enough to look at the barbed wire fences or at the names of the prisoners, carved in the wooden walls of the jail, and meticulously covered with lacquer in order to preserve them for the posterity. But I still wonder what it has to do with graduation party for 12-year-olds, which is basically supposed to be a friendly gathering of parents, kids and their educators.

What’s a party without barbed wire? (Maxim Reider)

The kids’ bus left Tel Aviv half an hour before the parents’ bus, yet when we arrived in Atlit at around 9 pm and unloaded numerous boxes of sandwiches and plastic bowls with salads, we did not find them among the swarms of children from other schools. As it came out later, ours were busy touring the open air museum of My People’s Love of Freedom. “One of the barracks was turned into a prison and we were told that it was so crowded that 50 prisoners were forced to share one bed. I wonder how they did it,” my son later wondered. “Not that other barracks looked nicer,” he added. Then the parents’ turn came. This barrack and that barrack, a documentary about the Holocaust.

After seeing our kids for a few moments, we were separated from them again: they were taken by bus “to carry out a mission.” We spent the following hour and a half sitting in a shed, doing nothing, chatting, playing with smart phones and wondering what the hell it was supposed to be.

“Who came up with this idea?” I angrily asked my son’s best friend’s father. “I’m sure this was one of the latest directives of the Ministry of Education and Sport.”

The music critic in me hummed Carmen’s Habanera: “(Bennett), prends garde à toi!” I already saw myself dancing victoriously, Salome style, with a silver platter of a journalistic investigation, the grinning bald head of the education minister on it, but the reality was even more depressing than two operas taken together. Holding the party in a detention camp appeared to be a local initiative. It turned out that Yossi the teacher had been there a few years earlier, loved the site and proposed it to the parents committee.

Finally, another museum guide picked us up. More siteseeing and more stories (honestly, the lady emerged as a brilliant storyteller, but, again, why tonight?).

We were soon told that our kids, who were re-enacting yet another thrilling episode of the illegal immigration, were advancing on the site, and that we were cast in the role of the British and our task would be capturing the trespassers. Hiding behind the bushes together with other parents, this Russian-born author, who by this time had exhausted his native tongue’s treasure of profanities, celebrated this new role assignment by switching to variations on the good old English four letter word.

I simply could not stand the absurdity of it anymore.

And lo! The siren howled, the merrily laughing kids were encircled by their parents, only to be liberated by yet another group a few minutes later. Luckily enough, they were from Palmach and not Lehi – the latter tended not to take prisoners.

It was 11 pm. The kids finally got their modest yet tasty meals, four hours after leaving Tel Aviv. The official ceremony followed, taking place on a rather small dusty clearing lit by dim light from a lamp on a lonely pole. Yossi the teacher walked back and forth, microphone in hand, while the other teacher followed him around, dragging a heavy loudspeaker after him. The sound faded in and out. When Yossi finally stopped, the kids and the parents took their position on the log at the edge of the clearing. After brief speeches by teachers and parents, each kid was handed a Tanach and an outdated calculator. They would receive their diplomas and graduation albums a week later, at yet another event.

“Moti Galili has graduated from the sixth grade! Lili Askenazi has graduated from the sixth grade! Tami Tzarfati has graduated from the sixth grade!” Yossi chanted happily, his intonation never changing.

Luckily, the artistic part was rather brief: a choir singing “We were smaaaaaaall and now we are biiiiiiig” in good old tear-jerking style, followed by a girls dance ensemble stomping on clouds of dust with dexterity that would be the envy of even the proudest African tribal dancers.

It was after midnight when we boarded the buses. “The kids did not enjoy it,” said my son. “I wish I’d stayed at home.”

Set me free. (Maxim Reider)
Please can we go home now? (Maxim Reider)

It all ended well, and everybody reached home by 2 am. But I found myself unable to fall asleep and kept thinking of this weirdly conceived and poorly organized event and, above all, of what was behind it.

Why can’t we Israelis separate ourselves from our past and live here and now, investing our efforts in solving our current vital challenges? Why should our kids be systematically brainwashed instead of getting well educated and acquiring a wider world view? I remember my little daughter coming home after a memorial ceremony with the words: “I don’t want to be Jewish anymore, because there will be a new Holocaust and they will come and kill us all.” Who on earth needs this victimization, which goes hand in hand with another complex, the disproportional glorification of heroism?

I remember how the same school once managed excellent end of the school year events – laconic, family style; once, a popular author even participated in the event and my son told me: “It was two years ago, but I still remember it because he was so funny and then there was time to talk about it!”

This fall he joins his big sister at Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzlia highschool. As is well known, its principal has cancelled educational trips to Auschwitz once and for all.

So as our national anthem goes, “Our hope is not yet lost.”

Maxim Reider is a trilingual Israeli journalist, translator and photographer. Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, he has been making Tel Aviv his home since 1989.

About the Author
Maxim Reider is a trilingual Israeli journalist, translator and photographer. Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, he has been making Tel Aviv his home since 1989. Author Photo by Ernest Aranov.
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