Israeli Holocaust memorial criticises school trips deal with Poland

Trips to Poland from Israel had been a key point of contention

A Polish soldier at the Museum of Cursed Soldiers and Political Prisoners of the Polish People's Republic in Warsaw in Poland on Tuesday. AP
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Israel’s national Holocaust memorial has criticised a new agreement renewing Israeli school trips to Poland, saying it recommends a number of “problematic sites” that distort history.

Yad Vashem issued the statement weeks after Israel and Poland announced a breakthrough agreement meant to repair ties that had been badly damaged due to disagreements over how to remember Polish behavior during the Holocaust.

Israeli youth trips to Poland had been one of the key points of contention.

The March 22 agreement, which still needs to be ratified by both countries’ parliaments, stresses the importance of youth education “and the need to tell the full story of the dark times" of the Holocaust and Second World War.

The contents of the agreement were first reported by the liberal daily Haaretz.

It calls for visits to “sites commemorating the Holocaust and other crimes" of the Second World War, including sites of special importance to each country’s history.

Student groups are required to visit at least one site on a long list of museums and memorials recommended by the other government.

Problematic sites 'should not be visited by students'

Yad Vashem said the trips must maintain “complete historical accuracy, including the role of Poles in the persecution, handing in, and murder of Jews during the Holocaust, as well as in acts of rescue.”

It said the list of authorised sites in Poland had been compiled without its input and includes “problematic sites that should not be visited in an educational context.”

The list includes dozens of sites, including art galleries, royal palaces and Jewish history museums that already are popular destinations for Jewish visitors.

Poland's Foreign Ministry said the two nations “have come to an agreement that it is good for young people to learn about all aspects of Jewish, Israeli and Polish history, not limited to the Holocaust”.

Yad Vashem did not say which sites it considers problematic. But the list includes the Ulma Family Museum, a site that tells the story of a Polish family that rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

The museum has been criticised for portraying the family, which was murdered along with the Jews they sheltered, as representative of mainstream Poles at the time, instead of a small minority who risked their lives.

Another museum commemorates Poland's so-called "cursed soldiers", anti-communist resistance fighters, some of whom collaborated with the Nazis and killed Jews towards the end of the war as they tried to prevent the imposition of communist rule.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the list had been approved by Israel’s Education Ministry and included dozens of choices, including the popular POLIN museum, which presents the history of Polish Jewry.

The inclusion of more controversial sites that are unlikely to be visited might be rooted more in Polish politics than international education. Poland's nationalist government can point to the list as it appeals to its political base ahead of parliamentary elections this fall.

Poland has been one of Israel’s closest allies in Europe. But in recent years, relations have deteriorated due to disagreements over how to remember Polish involvement in the killing of Jews by German forces during the Second World War.

Nazi Germany occupied Poland in 1939 and killed millions of Jews and non-Jews. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. While some Poles risked their lives to save Jews, others helped the Germans hunt down and kill them.

Poland’s governing nationalists have sought to depict Polish crimes as a marginal phenomenon and focus almost exclusively on remembering the Polish heroes who helped Jews. Historians, Israeli authorities and Jewish survivors who suffered persecution at Polish hands before, during and after the war have condemned the nationalist position and accuse the government of seeking to whitewash history.

For years, young Israelis made pilgrimages to Auschwitz and other Holocaust and historic Jewish sites.

But Israel cancelled the trips last year, claiming the Polish government was trying to control the Holocaust-studies curriculum taught to Israeli children.

The agreement “comes at a heavy cost to Israel” and accused the government of cheapening the memory of the Holocaust in the name of diplomatic expediency, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Tuesday.

Noting that Israel marks its annual Holocaust memorial day next week, it said.

“We must also not forget who the people are who agreed to sell out Holocaust remembrance," Haaretz reported.

Updated: April 11, 2023, 3:38 PM