Feb 2009 Journal

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Letter from Israel

When my granddaughter told me she intended to participate in her school trip to Eastern Europe, I was aghast. Why would any normal Israeli teenager wish to inflict upon herself the sights and associations aroused by concentration camps? Wouldn’t this scar her tender soul for ever? Even possibly traumatise her? After attempting to delicately indicate my reservations, I was informed that the young lady was determined to go, that most of her fellow-pupils would be going, and that she felt it would be an important educational and social experience for her.

School trips to concentration camps have become more and more the norm in Israel in recent years. Shir is a mature and intelligent 17-year-old. She has a responsible position in the local Scouts movement, she is doing well at school, and from a very early age has been an individual with a will and mind of her own. Although her parents were initially opposed to the idea, as has often been the case in the past they could not withstand the onslaught of her forceful personality and had no option but to cough up the dough involved. And all her grandparents could do was lend her a suitcase and some warm clothing and remain on the sidelines (and slip her some spending money).

We were told that the 300 or so participants in the school trip were being given adequate historical and psychological preparation for the trip, that they would be accompanied by their teachers and a psychologist, and that this would serve to strengthen their ties with one another and their allegiance to the State of Israel.

Almost as soon as Shir returned from her trip she came to our house to tell us about it. My hair stood on end when she told me that the group had visited Maidanek, Birkenau, Treblinka and Auschwitz. She described the beauty of the Polish countryside in autumn and noted that at some of the camps, such as Maidanek and Treblinka, nothing was left to indicate the evil that had once transpired there, that everything was green and pleasant. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, there were grisly reminders: rooms full of human hair, toothbrushes, suitcases and other personal effects of the kind that a person takes when he or she goes away on a trip, expecting to be able to use them.

But without being prompted Shir said: ‘It was an experience everyone ought to undergo. I feel it has changed me. I have come back a different person to the one I was when I went away.’ Naturally, her identification with the State of Israel has been reinforced and the conviction that nothing like the Holocaust must be allowed to happen again strengthened.

The youngsters travelled across Poland, staying mainly in Cracow and Warsaw. They found that the local population was warm and welcoming. It goes without saying that this is a booming tourist industry for the countries of Eastern Europe, whose forebears were in many cases the henchmen of the Nazis. I doubt whether this aspect was pointed out to the members of Shir’s group. However, after telling us about her experiences, Shir added: ‘But I just can’t understand how people could do this to one another. How could anyone kill children, women, men, indiscriminately, day after day, as if it was just the most natural thing in the world?’

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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