An Israeli School Boy Faces the Atrocities
Our son, Aviel, is currently on a visit to Poland with his class. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, leading to a new, easy access for Israelis to Poland, this journey has become a right of passage before the end of high school, especially for the Religious Zionist community. Over the last few years, the educational aim has shifted from just confronting killing fields and the extermination, murder sites, largely situated by the Germans in Poland, to also visiting sites, encountering first hand, the rich Jewish life that existed for centuries in Poland.
This visit was intentionally timed to take place now, during the nine days of national morning. The students will be saying kinoth, lamentations, on the night of Tisha b'Av in Poland, and will complete them the next morning in Yerushalayim, overlooking the Temple Mount from the south at Armon haNatziv.
I have never been overly keen on our youth travelling to Poland, not just because it gives recognition to Polish nationhood without any real remorse on their side to what their nation did and allowed to happen on its sovereign territory to over four million of what they should have considered their own countrymen. They always considered their Jews as outsiders, strangers, no matter how much richness they brought Poland in cultural and economic terms. I don't want the Poles to feel control over our youth, who are dependant on them for their security and other services in this country where even today, after decades of almost complete absence of Jews, openly displays its anti-Semitism. Many groups of our youth have reported anti-Semitic encounters during their visits.
When our older sons, Yisrael and Elisha, considered making the pilgrimage, I made clear my opposition to the concept, while at the same time saying that I would not stand in their way should they decide they really felt it important for them to go there. I told them I believed they would absorb more re the Nazi Holocaust, by visiting Yad vaShem, the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum, with my mother, who spent her time in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Both boys in turn did decline to make the trip, claiming that it was not [only] my opinion which effected their decision.
Michal, when she was in eleventh grade, also toyed with the idea of travelling to Poland with her class. For technical reasons, she never had to make a final decision, as the trip that year did not take place.
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Honi, however, really wanted to go to Poland. I suggested he speak to my mother to see what she thought. In the past she was not keen on her grandchildren visiting there. "I already spent enough time there -- they don't need to go!"
Surprisingly, this time she told Honi that she thought it a good idea for him to make the trip; she even offered to cover half of his expenses. I can only assume that the fact that she herself had made a return trip to Auschwitz a few years earlier may have changed her mind. Or could it have been a realisation that the Holocaust generation was disappearing, and it was important to see the cursed places while they still existed.
I remember that visit well. My mother and husband were on a tour of central Europe. They decided to make a one day, private side trip to Auschwitz. I thought she was crazy. "What! You forgot some detail of what happened to you there?!"
My mother's second husband was from Lodz, Poland. He managed to escape to Russia in the wake of the German blitzkrieg against Poland. As a result, he was the only member of his family who survived. He wanted to see, first hand, the fate of his family who were murdered in Auschwitz. "And I, as a good wife, have to go with him."
I again expressed my objection to her making the trip. But of course she did go. I asked her, when I next spoke to her a couple days later, how the visit effected her. "I cried all the way there and all the way back."
On the other hand, my mother's cousins, who also spent time in Auschwitz before being sent elsewhere as slave labourers, return annually with Montreal high school children, to tell them first hand what happened in that cursed place at the hand of a cursed people. God should give our cousins the strength to continue this practice for many more years.
When Aviel's turn came, there was basically no discussion. Perhaps I have mellowed, perhaps because my mother is no longer with us, unable to relate her narrative . . . I even suggested to him that if there was room for parents, I would accompany him.
In the event I did not go. But unknown to Aviel I sent him a letter to read on Friday night in Poland. Below is the text of that letter. I decorated the exterior of the envelope with grey pictures of the camps -- Arbeit Macht Frei, chimneys, barracks, smoke -- overprinted with Blue and White Israeli flags.
Menachem Kuchar, 7th August, 7th Menachem Av, 2011
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