Efraim Zuroff

The foolish price Israel paid to restore school trips to Poland

Will our kids really be taught the Polish government line that no Poles helped murder their Jewish neighbors?
Archaeologist Yoram Haimi talking to young people from the Dror School in Israel about his findings at the site of the former German Nazi death camp of Sobibor, in eastern Poland, on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
Archaeologist Yoram Haimi talking to young people from the Dror School in Israel about his findings at the site of the former German Nazi death camp of Sobibor, in eastern Poland, on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

After reading the draft agreement between Israel and Poland on the resumption of educational trips to Poland for Israeli high school students, I understand why there was little publicity in the Israeli media on its specific details. In fact, if Israel was willing to sign such a terrible agreement, one which did not solve the two important reasons that the trips were stopped (besides Corona), one has to wonder why it took so long to “surrender” to the Poles.

Originally, the two major points of contention between Israel and Poland about the trips were regarding security and educational content. From the very beginning of the trips, and in fact, for decades, Israeli students were accompanied by Israeli security personnel, and everything went smoothly in that respect.

Once the right-wing Polish political party “Law and Justice” came to power, they began insisting on Polish security guards for Israeli students, a demand that normally Israel would have rejected.

A second highly problematic demand further complicated the situation. The Poles demanded that a meeting of Israeli and Polish teenagers be included in the itinerary of every delegation. This was driven by the Poles’ feeling that the Israeli teachers, survivors, and guides were often promulgating a very negative narrative about the role of the Polish neighbors during the Shoah. 

Why the Polish officials thought that the Israeli students’ Polish contemporaries could convince them otherwise, makes little sense, but that was one of the demands, both of which the Israeli government rejected.

So why did the current Israeli government sign an agreement which included both demands? Very simple, because the government that initially rightly rejected them was headed by Yair Lapid, and the current government that signed such a shameful document is headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has time and again, apparently for political reasons, refused to combat, or even criticize, dangerous Holocaust distortion by post-Communist countries. And indeed, Lapid lashed out at the agreement saying he was “ashamed of the Israeli government for giving up on its morals and principles.”

What is clear to anyone who reads the text of the agreement, is that it is based on two totally false assumptions. The first is that of symmetrical historical narratives, as if Jews and Poles had wonderful relations ever since the former arrived in Poland, and that during World War II, both peoples were equally persecuted by the despicable Nazis. This assumption ignores centuries of Polish antisemitism, especially during the thirties, which paved the way for collaboration with the Nazis in the destruction of Polish Jewry. 

In that respect, a central tenet of the lies regarding the latter period is that numerous Poles supposedly did everything possible to save their Jewish neighbors and that none, G-d forbid, helped murder Jews or turn them over to the Germans to be executed. According to recent research, however, by scholars of the Holocaust in Poland, such as Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, the number of Jews killed by Poles and/or who were turned over by Poles to be murdered is at least 200,000. The second false assumption is that many young Poles visit Israel, which has never been the case, so insisting on meetings of young Israelis with their visiting Polish contemporaries is meaningless – it was only apparently included to be able to claim that the demands from each side were symmetrical.

And if genuine symmetry is the issue, all one has to do is compare the lists of the places recommended for visits by the students. The Polish list consists of 29 museums dealing with Polish history, and only three in any way related to the history of Polish Jewry. Even worse, is the fact that some of the places listed commemorate Poles who murdered Jews during the Shoah, such as the Museum of Cursed Soldiers in Warsaw, and the Museum of Remembrance of the Inhabitants of the Land of Oswiecim, which according to former Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydio is a “counterbalance to the Auschwitz Museum.” 

But what is really shocking is the list prepared by the Israeli team, which is almost completely made up of tourist sites, with only one (!) Holocaust museum (Yad Vashem) listed, despite the fact that we have numerous museums and institutions dedicated to the Shoah, such as Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Massuah Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, the Yad Mordechai museum, Shem Olam Faith & the Holocaust Institute for Education, the Kiddush Hashem Archive, and numerous memorial sites dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. Even more shocking is the omission of Anu (Beit Hatfutsot), if we are truly interested in teaching young Poles about the Jewish people.

Having participated as a scholar in residence in several educational tours to Poland, I am an enthusiastic supporter of such trips. I also believe, based on ten years of reserve duty, 30 days a year, for the IDF’s Speakers’ Bureau, that the trips to Poland have made a highly significant contribution to the participants’ knowledge of Holocaust history, and a strong feeling of identification of Israeli youth with the victims of the Shoah, two highly important aspects of contemporary Jewish identity. One can only hope that the positive aspects of the trips will not be lost because of this foolish, one-sided agreement.

About the Author
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center's Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.
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