For Marjorie Leffler’s oldest son, now 20, walking through the concrete space that was a gas chamber and seeing the crematorium of Auschwitz was a life-altering experience.
“Auschwitz forever changed who he is,” she said, remarking on his strengthened identity after witnessing Jewish resiliency and survival in the face of the Nazis’ efforts at extermination.
But Leffler’s younger son, 16, will not have the benefit of that experience. He’s part of the 2018 confirmation class of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, and Poland has been removed from the itinerary of the class’s Jewish heritage trip, planned for April, in response to a new law in Poland that prohibits mention of “Polish death camps” and “Polish complicity” in the Holocaust.
“How can you visit Holocaust sites when you can’t allow guides to state it was anything other than Germans who committed atrocities?” Marjorie Leffler said. “It’s not that I blame all Poles. There were many, many good Poles — and some not so good. But you can’t just deny any past involvement.”
She added, “The government is taking a stand now that I can’t support.”
Temple Sholom was the only group to outright cancel a Poland visit. Some local contingents continuing their schedules as planned include seniors at Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange, who flew to Warsaw on Feb. 18 ahead of their spring semester in Israel. Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) in Livingston will send a delegation of seniors at the end of May.
Temple Sholom’s religious leader, Rabbi Joel Abraham, based his decision on a recommendation from his tour consolidator who relies exclusively on Polish tour guides and who said, according to the rabbi, that the guides “would not be able to speak freely.”
GOA, RKYHS, and most national groups from March of the Living (MOTL) to denominational teen summer tours use Polish tour companies for logistics but employ American or Israeli guides for the on-the-ground educational component.
“I’m infuriated,” said Abraham. “Poland was a very meaningful part of the trip.”
Abraham described families of his students as “very disappointed” after he made the announcement last week, shortly after the Polish president signed the legislation Feb. 6. The class’s itinerary includes Berlin, Prague, and Budapest.
The new law stipulates that anyone who “publicly and against the facts attributes responsibility or co-responsibility for crimes perpetrated by the Third German Reich to the Polish nation or the Polish state” will be prosecuted. (The law still faces review by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, which can enact changes.)
Students on the March of the Living in 2016. Photo courtesy March of the Living
MOTL, which organizes educational trips for high schoolers that culminate in a march from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom HaShoah, followed by a trip to Israel for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, said its trips are unaffected.
Registration for a local delegation is robust, according to MOTL regional director Joel Katz, who is still receiving applications and has already filled two busses. He credits Israel’s 70th birthday and the 30th anniversary of MOTL with the added interest.
MOTL issued a statement opposing the legislation and called for “open discussion and dialogue on all aspects related to the history of the Holocaust in Poland and Europe.”
Youth groups, including the Orthodox NCSY, Union for Reform Judaism’s NFTY, and Conservative USY are also reporting no impact on their summer teen tours to Poland.
“We will not allow the proposed Polish legislation to interfere with our critical mission to transmit the rich history of Polish Jewry, the impact of systemic anti-Semitism, and the truth about what occurred in Poland during the Holocaust,” said Marc Fein, director of NCSY TJJ Ambassadors Poland, in a phone interview.
While three parents at GOA raised questions about whether the legislation might affect security, according to GOA director of Israel programming Meirav Kallush, the law did not elicit a single response from any parent or student at RKYHS, according to assistant principal Gary Berger.
All the groups said they will be discussing the law with their participants. In the GOA orientation session, “we raised the question about where the law is coming from, how it will affect us,” said Kallush. “Is it anti-Semitic or just something Poles want clarified?”
Kallush pointed out that having the whole story is critical. “You can’t ignore the fact that there were Righteous Gentiles and that Poland was an occupied land,” she said. “But you also can’t ignore that some of the towns we visit were once half Jewish and half Christian, and most of the Jews were killed by Poles.”
URJ leaders will be reexamining the curriculum used for their trips, which offer participants the option of preceding a four-week stay to Israel with a program in Poland.
“We’re still figuring it out,” said Dan Lange, URJ director of youth programs, in a phone interview with NJJN. He predicts the group will “weave the story of what’s happening today into the communal story and have a discussion about what the future of Jewish life looks like for them in the U.S. and anywhere else.” He added that this spring, when trip leaders head to Eastern Europe to explore the itinerary, “certainly this is the topic we’ll be discussing.”
Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains is “infuriated” that the annual confirmation trip had to drop Poland from the itinerary.
Fein of NCSY said, “We will absolutely discuss the legislation and historical accuracy. This political development highlights the critical importance of not only knowing our history, but also challenging and resisting revisionism.”
In another local response to the new law, the Community Relations Committee (CRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ paid a visit on Feb. 7 to the Polish consulate in New York. Details of the meeting were not immediately available. CRC director Linda Scherzer has invited Poland’s consul general to speak with local leaders and Holocaust survivors, although there’s been no response to the invitation at press time.
When it comes to memorializing the Holocaust, “there’s not [only] one thing to do to encapsulate the horrors,” Abraham said, “but it is a loss” not to be able to go to Auschwitz and Birkenau. The Temple Sholom trip is scheduled for April 7-15.
Temple Sholom’s revised itinerary will include Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany, and Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic — “different sites with different lessons” from those to be learned at Auschwitz and Birkenau, as Abraham described it.
With a bit of irony, he pointed out that during the trip the group usually spends Shabbat with a synagogue in Budapest. Because of increasing anti-Semitism in Hungary, he had considered whether to keep that country on the itinerary. Until recent events, Abraham said, “I never even thought about [not going to] Poland.”