My Trip to Poland

I had the privilege of staffing a Young Judaea trip to Poland, traveling with 28 remarkable North American gap-year students. During the trip, I posted some pictures at three death camps captioned somewhat cynically, believing that my innate contempt for Poland was universal, needing no commentary. So I was surprised when a colleague at Yad Vashem suggested that I be less sardonic and more specific about my observations. But first, a parable and some background before I get into the specifics of the trip.


Imagine that a certain man owns an apartment building full of immigrants.  At first, the man is a good landlord, welcoming the immigrants, along with their hard work and, of course, their money.  For countless years it is a good deal for everyone.  But eventually the man and his friends grow to hate the immigrants because they are, well, so different.  So the landlord starts to abuse them, steal from them and extort them.  Then, one day, one of the landlord’s acquaintances decides to take matters one step further and kill the immigrants and take their possessions.  The landlord, at first, is passive, “only” providing the killer with the apartment keys.  But gradually, the landlord helps his friend kill the immigrants and steal their possessions.  Happy, and guilt-free, the landlord keeps whatever the friend has left behind.  The landlord, who was an accessory and a thief, is still guilt-free because, after all, it was entirely his friend’s idea.  After the slaughter, the friend is brought to justice.  His descendants seek forgiveness from surviving tenants of the building and their offspring, paying mightily for their crimes, both morally and financially, while the landlord and his children cling to their portrayal of themselves as the real victims, because, after all, it was their building that was damaged!   They turn the apartment into a museum, with admission and lodging fees for the survivors’ relatives to pay the landlord’s family.

Last month, Rabbi Jacoob Ben Nistell from Haifa, Israel served the needs of Jewish tourists in Poznan, Poland.  According to the Jerusalem Post,  for many years he “… led activities about Judaism for children and young people. 2He also participated in ecumenical prayer services with Polish bishops, and held interfaith meetings with priests and imams on behalf of the Ponzan Jewish community.”  As it turns out, though, Rabbi Jacoob Ben Nistell is not a Rabbi.  He is also not from Haifa, does not know Hebrew, is unfamiliar with Jewish customs.  And he is not Jewish.  He is a Catholic ex-cook from the Polish city of Ciechanow named Jacek Niszczota.  The landlord’s child has reinvented himself, yet again.  Welcome to Poland.

The Polish perspective, understandably, differs greatly.  In a 2014 Times of Israel interview, Krzysztof Bartosz, Economic Counsellor for the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv, was asked about his countries role in the Holocaust.  Bartosz rebuffed responsibility by stating, “Obviously it was more convenient for the Nazis to kill the Jews on site than to transport them, so that’s what they did.”  He admonished those placing the blame, “to remember that there was an important and large resistance that fought the Nazis – and included Jews among their ranks.”  And, of course, the interview could not be complete without Bartosz reminding us that “…we mustn’t forget that we Poles were victims as well – three million Poles were killed by the Nazis, too.”  What he meant to say was that six million Poles were killed, three million each Jew and non-Jew.  So the Jewish Poles who had been in Poland for over 400 years were still not considered Poles by their diplomat?  One never hears the following sentence: “14.9 million Americans and 1.2 million American Blacks served in World War II.”  As I said, we all have our perspectives.

I have been told that Poland is a great friend of Israel – economically and politically.  In 2014, when dedicating the new “Museum of the History of Polish Jews”, Israeli president Ruby Rivlin suggested, “…we have already begun to write, a new and promising chapter in the centuries old history shared between us.”  As you have seen, that is the party-line in both Jerusalem and Warsaw.  However, my cursory search to validate this claim yielded nothing of substance.  Poland, which is the sixth largest European economy is only Israel’s 27th best trading partner, accounting for 0.4% of Israeli exports.  Politically, while it is true that Poland abstained from the UN’s 2012 Resolution 67/19 that made “Palestine a nonmember observer state”, this is just about the only sign of “friendship” exhibited by Poland in anti-Israel votes at the UN since 1988.  “Unlike in many other European cities,” said Polish trade representative Bartosz, “you do not find mass anti-Israel demonstrations in Poland.”  Alas, Israel has such a low bar for friends these days, that we can even spin one UN abstention and lack of demonstrations into a love story.

For argument’s sake, let’s suppose that Poland is now our friend. Anecdotally, most Poles are friendly, exhibiting no signs of open anti-Semitism.   Indeed, all of the non-Jewish Polish students whom I have taught at Yad Vashem have all been exemplary and sincere.  But anecdotes prove nothing when looking at the big picture.  My fine Polish students, tour staff, and hosts notwithstanding, only the past matters when examining the overall historical picture.

In that picture, Jewish/Polish history is nothing less than a relentless march toward virulent anti-Semitism.  Proving a hatred of Jews in Poland – before, during and after the Holocaust – is like proving that the ocean is wet.  Both proofs are possible theoretically, but only through a bewildering array of rhetorical gymnastics.  Anti-Semitism in Poland is a fact.  The proud people of Poland, the landlord in question, willingly served up their millions of Jews to the Germans, shamelessly seizing Jewish property along the way and after the fact.  Just after the Holocaust, a quarter of a million Jews tried to resettle in then-communist Poland. These survivors were wholly unwelcome in Poland, completely despoiled by the Poles, and subject to post-war Polish pogroms.  Although the Poles did not need institutionalized Soviet anti-Semitism to encourage their hatred, communism still fueled their white-hot fire.  This episode of Polish anti-Semitism culminated in 1968’s brutal expulsion of 20,000 Jews. Anyone wanting a taste of the true face of Polish anti-Semitism can see it in the fine Polish films Aftermath (2012) and Ida (2013).  Those with more patience should watch Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 magnum opus Shoah, a 9½ hour documentary that exposes modern Polish anti-Semitism.

All of this frames my underlying cynicism regarding Poland in general, and “genocide tourism” specifically.  At the end of the day, it is impossible to deny that the Polish economy is infused by the cash of a million annual visitors to Holocaust sites.  These are no small potatoes in a country whose per capita GDP is one third of Israel’s.  Further, movie crews have spent millions of dollars reenacting Holocaust stories that principally took place in Poland, most notably Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993).  Thankfully, the movie industry no longer sees filming in Poland as essential, although not necessarily on moral grounds.  For example, the three most important Holocaust films since Schindler’s list – The Grey Zone (2001), The Pianist (2002), and Son of Saul (2015) – have all achieved masterpiece status without having been filmed in Poland, the killing ground they are depicting.  Good for them.

Solidarity programs like The March of the Living tout having brought 220,000 Jewish students to Poland since 1988, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the Polish economy.  Yet, by far the biggest organized group to funnel the Polish economy, ironically, is the Israeli school system, which sends 25,000 12th-graders to Poland each year.  What started out 40 years ago, innocently, as an act of defiance – Israeli children showing that we have not gone away – has turned into a ritualistic rite of passage, complete with the obligatory picture on the Birkenau tracks with an Israeli flag-cape.  Isn’t there something just a little twisted here?  That little voice in the back of my head, the spot where reason collides with emotion, keeps chanting: why reward these perpetrators and their heirs?  Indeed, many intellectuals, rabbis and educators in Israel are now openly questioning these trips to Poland, both on educational and on moral grounds. Their objections are broad, scathi3ng and compelling. Nonetheless, two years ago, my daughter, Batya, was among those Israeli high school students.  For her, the trip was impactful.  I’m not suggesting, as many have, that the trips be discontinued.  I am suggesting that Poland remains focused and in perspective.

The first major stop was Auschwitz/Birkenau.  On the whole, these camps are impressively maintained and presented.  My specific complaints boil down to institutional obscenity.  At the “Auschwitz Gift Shop” – as if the5 phrase is not obscene by any standards – matching refrigerator magnets were for sale: “Auschwitz” and “Birkenau”.  As the saying goes, “there’s no business like Shoah business.”  I was further mystified when discovering that none of the prepared food in the Auschwitz visitor center is kosher.  Further, the 1,400,000 visitors each year must pay the equivalent of $.50 to use toilets at Auschwitz.

The most disturbing feature of the day, however, was the Birkenau property line, adjacent to the Birkenau parking lot, where nice6 Polish families have built their pretty barbecue decks overlooking the entrance to Birkenau.  I need not dwell on this; if such a thing does not disturb your sensibilities then stop reading now and return to your postmodern, moral-relativistic loony bin.

The Majdanek death camp, too, was a testament to the insensitivity of our “host cou7ntry”.  For those unaware, Majdanek was such a vile and vicious slaughterhouse that Majdanek prisoners actually yearned to be transferred to Auschwitz.  So horrific was Majdanek that the Soviets began displaying it even before Auschwitz had stopped functioning.  Unfortunately, the Russian narrative exclusively addressed “Soviet suffering”, even though more than two thirds of the Majdanek victims were Jews.  In addition, the Soviet “remodeling” of som8e of the barracks was so inaccurate that some barracks have been used as examples by Holocaust revisionists to assert that Jews were not gassed.

In 1947, Majdanek was dedicated by the decree of Polish Parliament as “The Monument of Martyrology”. Further improvements include two of the most grotesquely inappropriate monuments I’ve ever seen, which serve as the centerpieces of the Majdanek Museum experience.  Neither monument speaks directly to Jewish suffering; both were erected as anti-Nazi propaganda by the Soviets and neither have been corrected.  One massive monument depicts Dantes Inferno, distinctly non-Jewish literature and principles.

The other major monument at Majdanek, built in 1968, purportedly houses the open ashes of Jews and other victims , left to toil in the Polish winters virtually unprotected.  If true, to expose holy Jewish ashes and remains to the harsh Polish elements is amazingly disrespectful.  As Rabbi Naftali Brawer wrote, “…where a Jew was cremated against his or her will, such as during the Holocaust, the ashes, if retrieved, are to be treated to a proper Jewish burial in a Jewish cemetery.”  However, the consensus of our nativeguides is that the pileis simple burnt rubbish from the regular maintenance of the camp.  10The Jewish Virtual Library weighed in on the issue, stating, “the ashes were recovered from a compost pile in the camp, where they had been mixed with dirt and garden refuse and composted in preparation for spreading on the vegetable garden in the camp…  There are a few bone fragments visible.”  Regardless, the open display is unspeakably inappropriate.

At Majdanek, too, like at Birkenau, houses have been built directly next to the perimeter, with modern townhouses overlooking the entire camp, big balconies positioned to over look this, the most cruel of all camps. 

Our extraordinary group leader, Alan Goldman from Jerusalem U, taught us that, of the 40,000 German camps dispersed throughout Europe during the war, only six are considered “death camps”,  distinguished by having gas chambers.  Those six death camps are: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, and Bełżec.  Chelmno and Treblinka were distinguished by being secluded in the woods and appropriately memorializing Jewish suffering with monuments and tasteful statues.  The Israeli sensibility toward Holocaust memorialization has left its imprint on these camps.

We also visited the thriving Jewish Community Center in Kraków, which, belive-it-or-not, was built at the behest of England’s Prince Charles.  There we heard touching stories of Jewish rebirth in Poland.  Hearing about the 20,000 Jews of Poland trying to rebuild Polish Jewish life feels like trying to grow potatoes on Mars.   We also stayed at the rebuilt Yeshiva of Lublin, which is both a hotel and museum to the yeshiva.  This building was not only the purported birthplace of the modern yeshiva system, but also of Daf Yomi.  Here, too, the glass has 50% water: the building was returned to the Jewish community in 2003, which took only sixty years.

That being said, I still cannot soften my disdain for our gentile Polish hosts.  I am told that the new generation understands their history and is contrite.  I have witnessed this firsthand at Yad Vashem.  But, honestly, I need a few more generations of contrition.  Still too soon.  I’ll revisit my opinion after the landlord tears down the death camp-adjacent homes, discontinues refrigerator magnets, serves kosher food, buries our ashes, and lets Jews use the toilets for free.

I feel compelled to relate  the brief encounter I had with a pharmacist in Kraków on Friday afternoon. Upon entering the pharmacy, as I approached, a young blonde woman working behind the counter smiled from ear to ear.  Since she was half my age, I glanced over my shoulder to see if one of my students had trailed behind.  Yet, as I approached, I spotted a small star of David hanging from her necklace.  The young woman glanced at my kippah and told me how comforted she felt when seeing Jews. I asked what her family did during the war. They converted to Catholicism.  Within the last 10 years, she explained, her generation has rediscovered their roots. I asked what she would be doing for Shabbat. She had to work. Nothing more to the story other than the glimmer of Jewish solidarity between us all.

With all that in mind, I look forward to staffing other trips to Poland, hoping to see more improvement.  In a few months, too, my 17-year-old son, Yehuda, will make the trip with his class.  I have encouraged him to go and to form his own opinions about Poland.  I will look forward to his memories and observations of the apartment and the landlord.  And I might also tell him where to find a friend in the Kraków pharmacy.

Some original photos courtesy of Talia Zimmerman and Nicki Aviel.

About the Author
Rich Brownstein was born in Portland, Oregon in 1962. He received a BA in psychology from Reed College in 1985. In 1989, Rich created what became Hollywood’s largest transcription company: The Transcription Company, used by virtually every major studio and network, including NPR, ABC News, and Oprah. Rich sold the business and moved his family to Jerusalem in 2003. He started teaching Holocaust film for Young Judaea in 2010 and branched out into Jewish film in 2013. Since 2015, Rich has been a lecturer at Yad Vashem, specializing in teaching educators how to teach the Holocaust using film. He has lectured at colleges and universities about the history of Holocaust film.
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