Poland was once home to a thriving Jewish community who had been there for hundreds of years. During the Holocaust, these communities were decimated. The Polish government have recently made moves to pass legislation that abdicates the Poles of any responsibility in their role in carrying out the Final Solution which brought about the murder of over 6 million Jews across Europe. While there were many righteous Poles who saved the lives of Jews and Poles were victims, many, far too many were complicit in aiding the NAZI killing machine. The question we are asking is – should Israeli youth visit Poland and in particular Auschwitz?
Roro’s Rantings is proud to welcome guest blogger, Dr Tessa Chelouche MD, Co-Chair, Department of Bioethics and the Holocaust, UNESCO Chair of Bioethics (Haifa) Co-Director Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust who responds to the following opinion editorial in the New York Times:
Dr Chelouche’s response:
By Dr. Tessa Chelouche
I take issue with Shmuel Rosner’s article in the New York Times of February 14, 2018 questioning the issue – embedded in his title – “Do Israeli Students Need to Visit Auschwitz?”
The trigger to raising this issue is the current conduct of the Polish government in passing a law that would whitewash any frank and open introspection of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. In other words, it’s an all-German issue – Poles were victims like the Jews!
With this new disturbing state position, do we Jews still promote and facilitate our younger generations to visit the Polish sites of our extermination in the Holocaust?
I think so – more than ever.
Firstly, I preface my response by offering some personal background. I am an Israeli mother of three adult sons, all of whom have served in the army and continue to do so. I am married to a sixth generation Israeli, whose family history is woven closely with the history of the country that precedes the Holocaust and the Second World War by generations. I am a family physician who has developed over the past twenty years a second academic career in studies of Medicine and the Holocaust. I am the co-Chair of the UNESCO Chair of Bioethics’ Department of Bioethics and the Holocaust and am co-director of the Maimonides Institute of Medicine and the Holocaust. I have taught this subject at medical schools and academic institutions in Israel and worldwide for the last twenty years and have published on this subject in academic journals.
I would object to some of Rosner’s statements.
The new Polish law has nothing to do with the Israel-Holocaust relationship. The debate over the Polish law has no impact on the way that the Holocaust is remembered in Israel today. We certainly do not need a law, Polish or other, to remember the Holocaust. Israel is a living testimony to the Holocaust. The Holocaust survivors are a living testimony and those who did not survive, a testimony to their remembrance.
Each year thousands of Israelis, young and not so young, visit Poland. These are not “TRIPS”. These are educational excursions that are journeys in the real sense of the word. I object to Rosner’s use of the terminology because it is factually wrong and trivializes the visits.
These annual excursions are not the pinnacle of Holocaust education in Israel nor do they resemble any form of” pilgrimage”. It is incorrect that young Israelis process the Holocaust as a crucial part of their religious and/or national identity. These educational excursions to Poland do not contribute to the misconception that the Holocaust is the main manifestation of Judaism. Israelis do not need the Holocaust to remind them of their Jewish roots; they live their Jewish roots daily. Most Israelis today have no roots in the Holocaust. Are they any less Jewish? Of course not.
Jews do not need to visit Poland to remind them they are Jewish!
It is clear from those who participate on these well-organized visits that they return understanding that their journey was beneficially educational and contributed to their awareness of their responsibility to the country and to their fellow citizens.
They would not describe the experience as defining their persona as Jewish or Israeli.
Life in Israel is sufficient to make them connect with the country or as Rosner writes with “Jerusalem”. Our children in Israel grow up with a sense of identity that no other children in the world have and which they form long before they make the excursion to Poland. However, participants will often confide that the program made them acutely more aware of the importance of serving their country and community. It makes them ask more questions and reflect more critically.
Contrasting with Israeli youth, I can understand how their diaspora peers may perceive the Holocaust and the “March of the Living” as the basis for their Jewish identity. The Israeli excursions are far less about flag-waving ceremonies and far more about education and entail a great deal of self-reflection and critical discussion. However, this is all more of a reason to encourage the youth from the diaspora to visit Poland because in many ways it provides the only connection that they have to their Jewishness – unfortunately!
What the diaspora does not achieve due to lack of proper Jewish education, the excursions can make up for.
Regarding Rosner’s contention that the excursions perpetuate the myth that Israel was born in the ashes of the Holocaust, I regret that there is not enough space here for detailed refutation. There is some clear validity to the argument that the modern State of Israel came into being – at least in part – due to the events of the Holocaust. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, announced the formation of the state of Israel, declaring, “The Nazi Holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, proved anew the urgency of the reestablishment of the Jewish State, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations.”
Whatever the dimensions of the dispute, the excursions to Poland as an educational instrument, serve to enlighten the participants and not brainwash them about historical “myths.”
I find Rosner’s assertions on memory troubling. A healthy society is always defined by memory however we may try to deny it. Memory does not diminish the significance of our current values and sense of identity. In fact, the exact opposite is true. We are all products of our past and our collective memory. Israeli children are brought up with memory – memory of the Holocaust, memory of wars, and memory of terror attacks. This is our reality, not only our memory. George Santanyana is well known for his statement: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” In my opinion, and why I take issue with Rosner’s position on memory is that in today’s world there are many parallels with the origins of the Holocaust and we would be better people, and a better world, if we learnt some of these lessons. One of the ways to learn these lessons (and of course not the only one) is to take people to Poland. “Auschwitz” is not “sacred” as Rosner cynically postulates but is the symbolic icon of the evil of humanity. Educational visits to Auschwitz, and other related places to the Holocaust, allow for informing and relating past events to people in the present and serve to remind us all of our own moral vulnerability.
About Dr Tessa Chelouche:
Dr Chelouche was born in South Africa and made Aliyah to Israel in 1977.
She graduated from the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University Medical School in 1984. She subsequently specialized in Family Medicine at Tel Aviv University and has been practicing as the director of Primary Care Medical Practices since 1987. She has teaches Family Medicine residents for the Family Medicine Program at Tel Aviv University.
For the past 17 years Dr Chelouche has been teaching and lecturing on the subject of “Medicine and the Holocaust.” She has published numerous articles on the subject in international medical and law peer-reviewed journals, and has presented many presentations and lectures at national and international medical ( and other) conferences on various aspects of the involvement of medicine and the Third Reich. Dr Chelouche has participated in conferences involving the three major Holocaust memorial institutions in Israel: Yad Vashem, The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, and Beit Terezin.
Since 2004 Dr Chelouche has been a lecturer and co-director for an annual undergraduate semestrial course on “Medicine and the Holocaust” for second to third year medical students at the Technion Institute Medical School in Haifa.
In 2013 Dr Chelouche co-edited the publication of “Casebook on Bioethics and the Holocaust” which was published under the auspices of UNESCO Chair of Bioethics in Israel.
Dr Chelouche firmly believes in the promotion of medicine and the Holocaust as an academic discipline in medical centers throughout the world. She is affiliated to The International Center for Medicine, Law and Ethics at Haifa University. She is a champion of the Center for Medicine After the Holocaust, Houston, founded by Dr Sheldon Rubenfeld and participated at the First International Scholars Workshop on Medicine After the Holocaust organized by the center in 2015. Since 2015 Dr Chelouche has been the Co-director of the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust, founded by Dr Stacy Galin. Dr Chelouche serves on the scientific committee of the Second International Scholars Workshop on Medicine After the Holocaust which will be held in Israel in 2017.