On March of the Living and Holocaust Education

By Kobi Weiner

I have just returned from March of the Living 2018, spending a week in Poland learning about the Holocaust, before participating in the March from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. We spent time learning about the incredible Jewish life that existed in Poland for 1000 years, and saw how it came to a tragic and murderous end, by visiting the sites where it happened and hearing testimony from survivors. We were also privileged to meet members of the revived and energetic Jewish community that exists in Krakow and Warsaw today.

As a grandson of survivors, learning about the Shoah is not new for me. I have been educated about it from my family, on machanot and in school. What shocked me on this trip was how little this education amounted to in such a vast, complex period as the Holocaust and in particular regarding the Jewish life that existed beforehand. The following are some thoughts on Holocaust education that I had whilst contemplating my week in Poland. They’re not particularly structured or ordered but I hope they might provoke some discussion on this important topic.

1) All Shoah education is important and beneficial, but I found going on an educational trip to Poland is particularly necessary for understanding the magnitude and context of the Holocaust. March of the Living UK’s aspiration to make a trip to Poland a ‘rite of passage’ for university students should be something we support and encourage. In the future we should make sure to send bigger delegations of Bogrim with the March, and could also have a member of the Mazkirut join that delegation, as other movements do.

2) At the March of the Living itself, there seemed to be an assumed connection between commemoration of the Holocaust and celebration of the State of Israel. Israeli flags were almost ubiquitous, Hatikvah was sung, and evangelical Christians waved banners declaring their support for Israel. This all provoked mixed feelings in me. As a Zionist, the connection between persecution of Jews and having a state of our own is obvious. Where the Shoah was the lowest point of the Galut, the ‘ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו’ of Medinat Yisrael is the next step in our history, and I get the instinct to want to merge the two events into a single narrative. That said, I was constantly aware of the irony of celebrating Israel at a Holocaust commemoration when so many of its victims – Bundists, Chareidim and others – were committed anti-Zionists. Are we fully appreciating them as part of our history and honouring their memory? Also, by making such a direct link between the Holocaust and Israel, it almost suggests that the latter was simply a reaction to the former. Zionism in my eyes is not a reactionary movement, it is a positive and empowering fight for Jewish self determination that existed long before the Shoah. I’m personally torn on these questions and would appreciate other people’s thoughts.

3) While the primary motivation for the Nazi genocide was pure anti semitism, this was also part of a wider hatred of ‘the others’ in society. In drawing lessons from the period we need to fight anti semitism and general intolerance in society. Our own community is far from immune from racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes, and we shouldn’t be passive about that. Creating space and acceptance for others is not just a good thing to do, but a Torah commandment.

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃. 

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Shemot, 23:9)

It is in the very essence of our religion that minorities must be accepted and protected, because that is such a relatable state for us as Jews. We should take this injunction as seriously as we do shabbat or kashrut. Bnei Akiva has made incredible progress in making our movement an inclusive and welcoming environment, and we need to take this further by making themes of tolerance and diversity a core part of our chinuch. A proper education about the Shoah and the rest of Jewish history would demonstrate the devastating effects of hatred and prejudice against parts of society. We should also make an effort to campaign for these values – for example by reaching out to help modern day refugees in Britain, just as Britain accepted and looked after Jewish refugees on the Kindertransport.

4) One thing the recent revelations over Labour Antisemitism have shown is that Holocaust denial is very much alive and dangerous on both sides of the political spectrum. The only way we can combat this is with a rigorous and determined effort to make sure we as Jews have a deep understanding of the facts of the Holocaust. (For example, how many of us knew what the ‘Ha’avara agreement’ was before Ken Livingstone brought it up?) Bnei Akiva can make a significant contribution to this. One way is certainly by giving a more prominent role to Holocaust education in our chomer on machanot (particularly on Bet Base). What else can we do?

I’d really appreciate other people’s thoughts on these points, either privately, on Facebook or by commenting on this article. I owe a debt of gratitude to March of the Living for taking me on this trip, and I hope others will take up that opportunity in future years.

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