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Visit the concentration camps in Germany, too

Haaretz, By Shlomo Avineri, October 11, 2013

Angela Merkel paying a visit to the Dachau concentration camp. Why don’t Israeli high school students go there, too? Photo by AP

By focusing on the extermination camps in Poland, a distortion has developed in the presentation and understanding of the Holocaust. 

Now that school has resumed, so have the trips that many Israeli high school students take to Poland. Since the Education Ministry under Minister Shay Piron has been working on reforms in many areas, it should also revisit the structure of these trips.

There is no doubt about the importance of instilling the historical significance of the Holocaust in the consciousness of Israeli students; the question is how to present this theme to students whose general historical knowledge is neither comprehensive nor thorough.

One can understand the decision of the Israeli educational authorities to have the students directly confront the extermination camps, particularly Auschwitz-Birkenau, which has become a symbol of the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

The problem is that by focusing on the German extermination camps in Poland, a distortion has developed over the years in the presentation and understanding of the Holocaust. Once the Holocaust is so closely identified with Poland, one loses track of a central fact, that exterminating the Jews was part of the ideology of Nazi Germany, and Poland was merely the physical ground on which this ideology played out. It is no coincidence that in Poland, for all the sympathy it has with these Israeli missions, there is significant discomfort with how the Holocaust has become so closely identified with these trips.

In addition, many in Israel don’t understand why concentration camps were established in Poland specifically. There are actually two reasons. First, because half of the Jews that the Germans planned to murder, and indeed did murder, lived in Poland.

The second reason relates to the nature of the German occupation of Poland. While Nazi control was exerted in most of Europe through alliances with local fascist regimes, only in Poland did Germany completely dissolve the national government and its institutions. Some of western Poland was directly annexed to the German Reich, while in the rest the “General Government,” led by a German governor, was established. The background taught to Israeli students sometimes ignores the fact that under the direct German occupation some three million Polish non-Jews were imprisoned and killed, mostly from among the intelligentsia and the elite of society.

But the main flaw of these trips is that during the journey to Poland the German extermination camps are presented in a way that disconnects them from the general character of the Nazi regime as a totalitarian regime. It’s about time that the trips to Poland include the places where the Nazi oppression, which eventually led to the extermination policy, began – the concentration camps located in Germany itself.

There is something perverse about the fact that a study tour aimed at presenting the Nazi policy in a direct and powerful way does not bring the students to Germany itself. There, in the camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Sachsenhausen, is where the Nazis’ repressive policies began to take shape. Their objective was not just to imprison those the Nazis considered enemies – Jewish, socialists, communists, clergymen and homosexuals – but to gradually eliminate them physically through slave labor and living conditions that would hasten their deaths.

It was only after the war began and Poland was occupied that the suppression framework was extended beyond the borders of the Reich, with the establishment of Auschwitz on the grounds of a former Polish military camp. Before it became a death camp in 1942, Auschwitz was a detention camp for non-Jewish Poles that the Germans saw as enemies (at that point the Jews were being “merely” imprisoned in ghettos). One must keep in mind that after the Jews, the Poles suffered more from Nazi racism than any other people.

So what the Education Ministry ought to do is turn the trip to Poland into a trip to Germany and Poland. First the students should visit the concentration camps in Germany, where they can get an explanation of the overall Nazi policies of oppression, which focused more sharply on the Jews after Kristallnacht in November 1938. There the students can be shown the horrible pictures that were taken by the Allied forces that liberated the camps and discovered survivors who looked like walking skeletons and the bodies of those who had been murdered. There they can also be shown the film that the U.S. Army made when residents of the city of Weimar were taken to nearby Buchenwald to remove the bodies at the camp and bury them.
Weimar, it will be recalled, was the city of Goethe and Schiller, and the looks on the faces of the Germans as they realize the horrors perpetuated by the government that most of them had voted for is the most shocking testimony of what happened when the “land of thinkers and poets,” became “the land of murderers and executioners” (in German this chilling phrase rhymes).

Germany itself teaches its younger generation about this terrible legacy. How is it that this aspect of history is not taught in Israel?

Only then should the students go to Poland and its extermination camps, to show how the policies of Nazi aggression and the attempt to impose the German racist ideology on all of Europe led to its expanding its system of oppression.

There is no small absurdity in the fact that young Israelis travel to Poland as part of their Holocaust studies, while at the same time thousands of young Israelis stream to Berlin because of what it represents today culturally and economically. I absolutely do not believe that one should boycott Germany; it is one of Israel’s best friends today, and the Germans know very well why good relations with Israel must be part of their nation’s mental hygiene. But Israeli young people must see the Holocaust in its correct context and internalize its German roots – and seeing it with their own eyes is far better than just reading about it in a history textbook.

We in Israel are obligated to present our historical memory in all its complexity, and by traveling to Poland without also going to Germany we are deceiving ourselves and misrepresenting history.

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