My nephew beeped me on ICQ last night. He’s in the eleventh grade at a Jerusalem high school, which means he will be going on a school trip to Poland. He wanted to hear family stories from the Holocaust and the names of relatives who had perished, which he will use in a ceremony he is supposed to lead at Auschwitz. My mother showed him the memorial book published in the 1960s by the shtetl “ landsmannschaft”, but there is little there about our family, and the book is mostly in Yiddish – a language neither my nephew nor my mother understand. I told him some stories I had heard from my grandfather, and a little about the town itself – an important railroad junction in Polish Galicia. He told me they will visit some of the sites associated with the history of Hasidism, as well as Auschwitz and Warsaw, where they will take part in a ceremony, together with high-ranking IDF officers.
Much has been said and written about these trips – sharply criticised by prominent figures on the Israeli left, such as Shulamit Aloni and Tom Segev, as little more than chauvinistic indoctrination. While chatting with my nephew, images from Yoav Shamir’s documentary Defamation went through my mind. Shamir accompanied one such trip to Poland, and shows the process by which Israeli teenagers are inculcated with a deep belief in eternal Polish – and by extension, universal – anti-Semitism, with explicit ideological ramifications for the Jewish present and future. I said to my nephew: “You know, Poland is a fascinating country. It’s a shame you won’t be coming into contact with ordinary Poles, but your trip has a specific educational purpose.” Without batting an eyelash, he said: “You mean the Holocaust as justification for the existence of the State of Israel?” I decided to go a little further, and typed “You will be shown a superficial version of Polish history, portraying all Poles either as collaborators or ‘righteous gentiles’.” He replied: “I know, they were under occupation, but didn’t the Germans choose Poland as the location for their death camps because they knew they could count on Polish anti-Semites to collaborate and/or turn a blind eye?”
He’s leaving in a few days for what will undoubtedly be a very difficult trip, emotionally, in which he will need the support of his classmates, teachers and guides. I decided to back off a little, simply remarking that the issue is a lot more complicated than that. We will see each other in a couple of weeks, right after his trip. He said he would like to hear more about it when we meet. He’s a smart and sensitive boy, but he’s also a born diplomat. He may just have been trying to humour his old uncle, but I hope not.