Friday, June 26, 2009

Shoah Tourism

All my kids went to Israel as teenagers, Max (my oldest) and Lucy on the Ramah Seminar program, and Emil on the USY Pilgrimage trip. It fell out that way because Max and Lucy were big Ramah California kids before we moved east, while Emil was much more tied into USY and spent his summers at a different camp, Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. So, because Emil was a USY boy, and because he stuck with it, all sorts of other things have come his way. He spent the year between high school and college on the Nativ program, studying for a semester in Jerusalem, and then doing community service for six months in Beersheva and living in an absorption center for new immigrants. It was a fabulous year for him—a real year of growth and learning, and a very profound Jewish experience for him too—and, because he is a former Nativnik, he was offered the chance to a counselor on one of the USY Pilgrimage groups to Israel this summer. So far, so good.

In his day, everybody went to Israel (of course) and some few signed up for add-on weeks elsewhere. As things have evolved, the add-on weeks were so popular that, as of this year, the original trip itself no longer exists and everybody who goes to Israel spends a week first in Poland, Spain or Eastern Europe. And so Emil left the other night on a LOT Airlines plane for Warsaw. He'll be in Poland (with the kids in his charge, six other staff members and a group leader) for a week, then they'll fly to Israel next Wednesday. In the course of their week in Poland, they'll be in Warsaw and Cracow, and they'll also visit three extermination camps: Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. Obviously, I understand the concept: to bring home the horrors of the Shoah to the participants, then to allow them to focus what they'll have learned in the camps, and in Warsaw and Cracow, through the experience of landing in Tel Aviv and seeing Israel, some of them for the first time, in all its vibrancy and energy. Who could not find such a journey overwhelming? That's the concept, of course—and, as I hear, it works very effectively. No one is quite the same after the first two weeks of this Poland/Israel trip...and I doubt I would be either. Really, who could be?

So that's the good part. The part I can't quite make my peace with has to do with the concept of going to the camps as tourists. Part of me—a big part—doesn't want my children anywhere near those places. I believe in the palpable reality of evil in this world—as must anyone who knows what all of us know about the Shoah—and I don't want my children to be anywhere close. I'm not the kind of person who admires people who deal with bad things by turning away or by sticking their heads in the sand, but there is something I just can't quite accept about the notion of sending our children to these places—to places of the greatest, most unspeakable evils, to places so suffused with suffering, with misery and with death that, even after all these years, their names alone retain the ability to terrify—just so they can take a good look and learn something. I know, I know...but, still, I can't be relaxed about the thought of a child of mine—or any of our children—willingly going to such a place, even despite the enormous educative potential inherent in such a visit. Joan thinks I'm overreacting. Truth be told, even I think I'm overreacting...and I didn't stand in Emil's way or attempt to dissuade him from going. But I'm a father far more profoundly and importantly than I'm a Jewish educator. I am a Jewish educator, and I do value, enormously, the experiential component in education.

And I certainly also understand that, in addition to everything else, Auschwitz is the world's biggest Jewish cemetery (and, that, by millions) and the mitzvah of visiting the graves of our forebears applies to the martyrs just as profoundly as to any others of our people, and probably a thousand times more profoundly. I know, I know...but I just don't want my children in that place. I know all the reasons I shouldn't feel this way. I actually agree with them all. I just do feel as I do...and I'm not really going to be a happy camper again until I hear that Emil is in Tel Aviv.

Over the years, I've had chances myself to go to the camps. I went to Dachau many years ago. (While there, I had the indelible experience of being asked by a group of Italian teenagers on a school trip if I could hold their ice cream cones so they could take turns photographing each other inside the gas chambers.) Bergen-Belsen is just a park now, the buildings all long gone...although a park with mass graves everywhere, most of them marked with tombstone-like monuments that say, simply, "Here Lie Uncounted Thousands." That was plenty for me—I had the same experience in both places of taking a good look, then getting away as quickly as possible possessed of the certainty that I would never, ever, go back. I haven't. I suppose many of you have, and I actually admire you for being able to. But I myself just can't. And I don't think that will change. I didn't stand in Emil's way because he's twenty years old now and I consider him capable of making a decision like this on his own. Besides, I only understood how I feel once I did maybe he'll come home agreeing with me. Maybe not. In the end, I want these places to be revered as the cemeteries in which our martyrs lie buried. I want people to visit...and I also don't want any of us, including especially our children, to be in such places. I understand that my feelings don't really fit together and that, as such, they cannot both be embraced fully by anyone trying to live life at all consistently. So what can you do? Like everybody, I have my inconsistencies...and Emil's trip to Poland is at the top of this week's list. If any of you would like to discuss this with me, I'd be pleased...after Wednesday, when Emil is safely landed in Tel Aviv and the world—my world—returns to normal. (June 29, 2007)

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