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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.