Do Teens’ Trips to Poland Address the Crisis of Holocaust Education?

Do Teen Trips to Poland Address the Crisis of Holocaust Education?

By Miriam Perl
August 12, 2019

Teaching the Holocaust to young people is a challenging mission, but one that must be done. A recent poll conducted by Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, reveals that approximately 35 per cent of respondents across Canada said they did not learn about the Holocaust in school, while more than 53 per cent of Quebecers said so. Large numbers of Canadians also reported that they have never read a book about the Holocaust and, depending on the region, have never had contact with a Jewish person.

While developing new Holocaust curricular materials and resources and passing laws mandating Holocaust education are steps in the right direction, there is nothing that can compare with travelling to the camps of Poland and seeing the echoes of the atrocity first hand. 

Visiting the camps in Poland allows teens to see that anti-Semitism is a longstanding and deep-seated scourge. Many teens, educated in the politics of our day, absorb messages that Jews are a privileged class that do not require social advocacy. Because Jews have achieved success in many fields, they are not included in a list of oppressed classes in need of protection. This explains why many of the recent marches for human rights stand up for a myriad of marginalized groups, but do not include anyone holding placards to save Jews from the vice of anti-Semitism.

The most violent form of anti-Semitism that snuffed out the lives of 6 million is one that has now metastasized to other forms. According to B’nai Brith Canada’s annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents, for the first time since 1982, the number of hate acts against Jews rose above 2000. In Europe, Jews cannot wear their kippah for fear of attacks, and Jews are the only ethnic group whose schools, community centres, and synagogues need to be protected by security guards and other security apparatus, not just on holy days but, in many cases, throughout the year.

Going to Poland helps teens realize that they must take up the cause for Jewish rights and stand on the vanguard of ensuring that Jews live a safe and peaceful existence.

I realized that anti-Semitism is an ongoing issue for the Jewish people, and that this is something that I, as a Jew, can do something about.

Universal Lessons

While the target of the Nazis’ final solution were the Jews, to be eliminated in their entirety, the lessons of the Holocaust are universal. And not only because the Holocaust was a genocide that also killed other groups, including the Roma, disabled, some of the Slavic peoples, Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.

The Holocaust reminds our teens that they are charged to make the world a better place (the mandate of tikkun olam) for all peoples. It is their mission as Jews, whose sacred texts call for compassion, and as human beings living in a global world. Learning about the Holocaust empowers teens to fight discrimination and strengthens their sense of tolerance for all people.

"Poland helped me understand my place within the Jewish community as a whole as well as the legacy I want to leave for all humanity."


While learning about the Holocaust in the classroom has its place, there is nothing that can impart the magnitude of the death of 6 million souls, including 1.5 million children, as do artifacts that include mounds of shoes, clumps of hair, and pots and pans.  Or a pile of human ashes preserved in a dome.

Learning about the Holocaust from books cannot compare to  experiences such as sitting in the dark and musky barracks of Majdanek and singing songs that celebrate survival and unity; walking into gas chambers and witnessing the crude ovens; or a hundred teens cramming themselves into a cattle car and reading The Book of Names. 

These monuments to evil will most certainly become imprinted in our teens’ minds as they continue their journey into adulthood. As they become parents, leaders, and educators, they can impart what they saw and their impressions and lessons in vivid, disturbing detail.

I think it is necessary for all Jews to go see Poland and understand what our brothers and sisters had to suffer through. Learning about the holocaust in a classroom is nothing compared to physically going to Poland.

jewish life in poland

On TJJ AP (The Jerusalem Journey Ambassadors Poland), NCSY Canada’s summer trip to Poland and Israel, teens do more than visit camps of destruction and witness the remnants of death. They also visit former centers of Jewish life. They visit Tykocin, a small town with a Jewish presence since the early 16th century; a synagogue in Krasnik; and the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz. 

They light Shabbat candles in Kraków and have Shabbat dinner in an old synagogue. They pray and say the Kiddush in what was once the great centres of Jewish life in Europe. Teens glimpse how Jewish life was infused with daily acts of devotion in consonance with tradition. 

These echoes help teens establish an intimate connection across time, as they imagine millions of Jews doing the same thing on that very spot. They may glimpse themselves as a link in a chain, as holders of a legacy that belongs to them.

Throughout the course of this trip I connected with the roots of being Jewish. I learned from various Jewish books with people that I looked up to as Jewish role models, I kept Shabbat for the few that we had together, I experienced tremendous waves of joy and sadness, and I questioned. Because of all of these, I grew.

The state of israel

From Poland, the teens arrive in Israel and go straight to the Kotel. Then they decompress by hiking, boat riding, touring, and volunteering. On the heels of an intensive week in Poland, teens come to appreciate that Israel was revived after the Holocaust to provide a haven to the small remnant of Jews who survived and to ensure that going forward Jewish lives would not be dependent on the goodwill of others. 

“Transitioning from a place where the cruelest and most horrible things happened to the Jewish people into a place where the most liberating and empowering things happened is unparalleled to anything I’ve felt before,” said one participant.

Teens realize that Israel’s rebirth is equated with life: not only for survivors but for many others who have journeyed to Israel to find refuge— Jews living in Arab countries, Black South Africans feeling Apartheid, expelled Yemenites, Ethiopian Jews escaping famine, Russian Jews fleeing Communism, Iraqis and Iranians of all faiths feeling war and revolution, Yazidis and Kurds fleeing persecution, and, most recently, Syrian refugees seeking shelter from the civil war. Israel is a refuge for those who seek it.

I plan on researching more about Israel’s history and am already subscribed to various Israeli news outlets. The first moment that we went to the Kotel, something clicked and I knew that Israel was going to become an integral part of my identity.

Jewish identity

Teens learn about the importance of their Jewish identity and feel a yearning to preserve their heritage. They feel compelled to identify with their ancestors and to embrace the beauty and uniqueness of their traditions. Whether this new-found love for their Jewish heritage was given birth to in Israel or through being a witness in Poland, teens feel the need to identify with their Judaism more deeply and to move beyond a superficial understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Before being Jewish was a mere fact of my life. I have brown eyes, I was born in Canada, I’m Jewish. But now I realize it’s not just an ordinary fact about myself, it’s actually something special and worth preserving and growing and transforming.


Teens who witness the most horrendous examples of evil perpetrated on their own people develop a new-found appreciation for the gift of their lives in North America. They are able to see their lives against a historical context of Jewish suffering that goes back in history as a tragic fact of life. This new lens, through which they view their lives and families, bring new found meaning and understanding to their lives as free citizens who enjoy the rights and protections of a democracy.

Poland was the hardest week of my life, but it was also the most important. Over the summer I learned a lot about myself and the people around me, and it helped build a greater appreciation for what I have and the people around me.

The value for teens travelling to Poland and Israel is layered and profound. It is the best Holocaust education possible for young people who are forming and solidifying their opinions about what kind of Jews and human beings they want to be.