Israeli Life: Israeli Life: The Holocaust as Education
The horrors of the Nazi era are taught both inside and outside the classroom, but the climax of the learning process is a pilgrimage to the towns and former camps in Poland.
In December 2006, during the week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was hosting a delegation of Holocaust deniers, a group of Israelis from the Ohr Torah religious high school for girls in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem was putting the lie to the Iranian’s madness. a The seniors presented a program to their parents and other relatives about their recent pilgrimage to Poland. “Every Jew in every generation must see himself as if he survived Treblinka,” they declared. A film was screened that presented photos of the trip—students walking on railway tracks, reading diaries and poems and lighting memorial candles at the children’s grave in the forest near Tarnov. The students’ vitality broke the bounds of death as they danced around the synagogue of Rabbi Elimelech of Lyzhansk in the spirit of the Hasidic Jews who once thrived there.
“We learned a lot of history on the trip, but the most important thing I came to realize was that these were people just like me,” explained Efrat Furst, a vivacious blonde student. “Our group leader repeatedly told stories and testimonies about people who showed spiritual strength and retained their dignity…. In Treblinka, I carried with me a Yad Vashem testimony about a 19-year-old boy who was killed there. He has no grave, and I felt that I went there for him.”
The trip to poland taken by many israeli teenagers, equivalent to March of the Living for American youth, heightens identification with victims of the Holocaust. But it is only the climax of a long educational process. In schools, youth movements and community centers, Israeli youth are taught, both formally and informally, what happened to Jews during World War II.
Holocaust awareness is part of Israeli society. On Yom Hashoah, the media presents stories of fear and courage. There are plays, memoirs and, increasingly, scholarship. A recent best- selling novel, Our Holocaust (Toby Press) by Amir Gutfreund, describes Israeli children’s morbid curiosity about the survivors living among them. Most of all, each new threat to the State of Israel raises the specter of the Holocaust, and parallels to the Nazi horror, implicit and explicit, are constantly being made.
“Paradoxically, this awareness of the Holocaust among youth is greater today than it was in the 50’s, immediately after the Holocaust,” said Shulamit Imber, pedagogical director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem: The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
In the 1950’s, many survivors felt no one wanted to hear their stories. Author Aharon Appelfeld, himself a survivor, describes in his books how his countrymen were trying to create a new Israeli, a tough sabra. They were threatened by what they perceived as the passivity of European Jews, whom they viewed as “sheep being led to the slaughter,” he writes in his memoir, The Story of a Life (Schocken).
“Holocaust victims and survivors were not ignored,” said Dan Michman of Bar-Ilan University and chief historian of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. “There were conferences. Officially, Israel created the Law for Victims of the Nazis in 1954”—which established rehabilitation, welfare services and monthly allowances for disabled Nazi victims who made aliya. “But somehow it didn’t enter the country’s consciousness,” he continued. “The emphasis was on the heroic. Research on survivors in kibbutzim revealed that the kibbutz newsletters were full of survivors’ accounts of the horror, but somehow it didn’t get through. There wasn’t that epistemological click.”
Michman feels that the turning point came with the Adolf Eichmann Trial in 1961, when 110 survivors took the stand to tell their stories. “The emphasis moved to the individual narrative,” he explained, “and this has only increased with time.”
“Today’s youth want to know,” said Imber. “The former generation of Israelis was busy building their Israeliness. Today, they are more open to their Jewishness.”
Grandparents have also become more willing to tell their grandchildren what they wouldn’t tell their children,” said Lonnie Ofri, who lives in Tzur Hadassah, a suburb of Jerusalem, and is a grandchild of survivors. “Recently, my grandfather began relating his Holocaust experiences. Until now, he felt he couldn’t look backward. The past would swallow him up. He wouldn’t be able to proceed with life.”
Nofar Perlman, also of Tzur Hadassah, found that her grandfather opened up when she interviewed him for a school-assigned family-roots project.
In 11th grade, studying World War II and the Holocaust are part of the history matriculation requirements. There are also programs throughout grade school and high school using materials developed at Yad Vashem.
“We also try to provide materials about the Jewish communities before the Holocaust, how the Jews in the ghettos and camps managed to…retain their identity and human image,” Imber said.
“Systematic educational materials started to appear in the mid-1970’s,” Michman explained. “When Zevulun Hammer became minister of education, survivors and historians lobbied for the introduction of an obligatory teaching unit of 30 hours in history in the upper classes of high school. This was adopted in 1979, and two years later the most [widely used] schoolbook—Ha-shoa U-mashma’uta [The Holocaust and Its Effects]—was first published.”
Yad Vashem runs special courses on Holocaust education for schoolteachers as well as for group leaders who run seminars for students at Yad Vashem and accompany them to Poland.
“Our emphasis is not on dead bodies,” said Imber, “but how people endured, retaining their humanity during a period of chaos. We want to break up the 6 million…to make the youth realize that people, not bodies, were lost. When you speak about numbers, you dehumanize them, which is what the Nazis wanted. If you rescue the individual, then you can mourn him.”
At the center of consciousness-raising programs for youth is the 7- to 10-day trip to Poland, made during junior or senior year. “The program began in 1988 with 200 students,” said Yossi Levi, head of the Youth and Society Department of the Ministry of Education, which is responsible for the trips. “In the last three years, 100,000 students have gone.”
About 40 percent of teenagers in the country participate. They visit concentration camps, such as Auschwitz and Majdanek, as well as towns that once had strong Jewish communities, such as Krakow or Warsaw. Students must pay for the trip, which is expensive. There are scholarships, and many teens get jobs to pay for it, but some simply cannot afford the experience. As an alternative, a new program takes students to Holocaust memorials in Israel.
Students who do go to Poland are accompanied by parents and teachers. In the past, some survivors went along to testify to what happened to them, but as that generation ages there are fewer able to go.
The students who make the trip attest to its emotional impact.
“Studying the history of the Holocaust is not enough,” said Tom Rabinowitz, a student at the May Boyar High School in Jerusalem. “I felt I had to see it once for myself…. The mass grave in the woods of Tikotin was most meaningful to me. I felt the fact that we Israelis were there was a sign that the Jewish people had ultimately triumphed.”
Embarking on this pilgrimage in adolescence is especially significant. “It is formative [for] Jewish identity, historical memory,” claimed Michal Lev, a psychologist for the Ministry of Education who is working on a doctorate comparing American and Israeli youth pilgrimages. “That these youth undergo this difficult experience away from family with a peer group intensifies the sense of it being their own unique experience. The young people learn of the dilemmas Jews confronted during the Holocaust and come to realize how difficult—and ultimately compromising— human decisions can be.”
“Our teacher described how parents were sent to one line for the labor camp while 2- and 3-year-olds would be sent alone to the gas chambers,” said Lonnie Ofri. “I would like to think that I would go with my child, but I don’t really know what I would have decided in that split second.”
“The most difficult place to visit,” said Thom Fromovich from May Boyar, “was Majdanek. Everything is still standing. The crematorium, the stretchers on which they put people into the ovens. I held onto a handle of the stretcher and a violent nausea overcame me.”
“At times I was on a religious high, praying intensely, dancing,” recalled Shalom Keid, from the religious P. Himmelfarb Torani School for Boys in Jerusalem. “Other times, I could not open the siddur.”
“We learned a lot about each other, but there were tremendous surprises,” said Daniel Harman, also from P. Himmelfarb. “There were people who reacted with a sensitivity I wouldn’t have expected. We returned more connected to each other, with greater willingness to do something for the society as a whole.”
Noting the trips’ effect, Imber said, “many who have gone on the pilgrimage retain a deep connection. Israelis who are today in high-tech groups or…officers in the Army [ask me to give] lectures on the Holocaust.”
Rabbi Jeremy Stavisky, principal of P. Himmelfarb, summed up the pilgrimage: “Young people want to touch something real, and this intense experience makes them think about their own life, feel they must live a meaningful life. For seniors soon to go to the Army, it raises moral issues, how they will behave as soldiers.
“There’s no doubt that it strengthens Jewish identity,” Stavisky concluded. “The feeling that they have a mission, that they are part of a very significant process in Jewish history—it bestows upon them a great deal of responsibility.”