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Jewish teens' access to Holocaust sites in jeopardy amid worsening rift between Israel, Poland

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Diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel are at an all-time low. Both countries have downgraded their respective embassies. 

A new Polish restitution law enacted on Aug. 14 precipitated the crisis, drawing a furious response from Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid. The law closes the door on applications for the return of property seized by the Communist regime that was in power after World War II. Decrying the law as immoral and antisemitic, Lapid recalled Israel’s top diplomat in Warsaw. 

“This is a direct and painful attack on the rights of Holocaust survivors and their descendants,” said Lapid. “Gone are the days when Poles harmed Jews without consequences.”

Viewing the unspeakable and remembering the victims by lighting a memorial candle at the very startling site of their demise.

Viewing the unspeakable and remembering the victims by lighting a memorial candle at the very startling site of their demise.
(International March of the Living)

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The Polish foreign minister, calling the Israeli charges unjustified, has kept the Polish ambassador from returning to Israel.

The situation worsened when Polish deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski criticized the behavior of Israeli teenagers during their International March of the Living visits to Holocaust memorial sites. These annual visits normally take place in April, but were suspended in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. They commemorate the 6 million Jews that the Germans murdered in the Holocaust.   

Jablonski claims the Israeli teenagers are taught to hate Poles and that this hate surfaces when they visit Poland. Jablonski said his government is investigating the behavior of the teenagers and, without giving details, promised swift action. 

Repeated attempts to interview Jabloski failed. According to newspaper reports, Poland is considering suspending the Israeli visits.

The solemnity and meaning elicited by lighting memorial candles in honor those who perished.

The solemnity and meaning elicited by lighting memorial candles in honor those who perished.
(International March of the Living)

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The Israeli foreign ministry denied that Israeli teenagers expressed anti-Polish sentiment. Foreign ministry spokesman Haiat Lior emphasized that visits to German death camps give the teenagers an opportunity to remember Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. 

“It’s in the DNA of the Jewish people to remember our past, the Exodus from Egypt, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust,” said Lior. “This makes us people with a common memory.” 

Roughly 3 million Polish Jews were murdered by the Nazis, many of them at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka in Poland. More Jews lived in Poland than in any other country in pre-war Europe.

Ami Mehl, who was Israel’s deputy ambassador to Poland from 1989 to 1993, labeled Jablonski’s criticism of the Israeli teenagers as Polish punishment for Israeli condemnation of the new restitution law. Mehl, an expert on contemporary Poland, is the son of Holocaust survivors. Warning about rising antisemitism in Poland, Mehl describes Poland as having become a very nationalistic country. Studies by the Anti-Defamation League and the European Union validate Mehl’s perception of rising antisemitism.

A young participant reaching to touch remnants of the past and contemplate its meaning for the future.

A young participant reaching to touch remnants of the past and contemplate its meaning for the future.
(International March of the Living)

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“When I was in Poland 30 years ago, it was not appropriate to say ‘I’m an antisemite,’” Mehl said in a telephone interview. “Today it’s OK to admit your hatred for the Jew.”

Mehl noted Poland’s antisemitic history, in particular the pogroms after World War II when Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors returned to their homes to find that they were not wanted. Poles, for example, reportedly murdered 42 Jews in the southeastern town of Kielce one year after the war’s end. 

According to Mehl, the International March of the Living trips should begin in Berlin where the Germans made the decision to liquidate Europe’s Jews. Visiting Berlin before going to the death camps in Poland puts the Holocaust in a context that is more historically correct.

Konstanty Gebert, a prolific author and columnist for Poland’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, said the Israeli teenagers become more xenophobic during their trips to Poland. Some of the youngsters see the world as out to get them, he said.

The tracks leading to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

The tracks leading to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
(Krzysztof Galicia)

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Retired Israeli ambassador Barukh Binah said the trips are good in principle, but are expensive and have become a boon to Israeli travel companies. “It has become a status symbol, which not everyone can afford,” he said.

Since the International March of the Living trips began in 1988, approximately 300,000 American teenagers have visited the death camps in Poland.

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Danielle Goldblatt, who lives in Los Angeles, went on one of these trips when she was 17. 

“My first impression was devastation, seeing what humans can do to other humans and what my ancestors went through,” she said. “It has made me a very proud Jew because we have survived so much.” 

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