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Poland and Israel agree deal on resuming Holocaust education trips

The Polish and Israeli governments have reached an agreement on resuming Holocaust education trips for Israeli youths to Poland, following months of talks aimed at ending a dispute that saw the visits suspended. Before the pandemic, tens of thousands of Israeli youths visited Poland every year on organised tours. But in June last year, Israel announced that it was cancelling them because the Polish government was trying to “dictate what was and wasn’t allowed to be taught”.

They are now finally set to resume again, following an agreement announced in Warsaw today by the two countries’ foreign ministers, Zbigniew Rau of Poland and Israel’s Eli Cohen. 

The deal will see Israeli trips expanded to “include not only visits to sites related to the history of the Holocaust” but also “teaching about the history of Poland, the almost-thousand-year heritage of Polish Jews, and equally long Polish-Jewish relations, which were most often of a harmonious nature”, said Rau.

“Poland is interested in ensuring that Israeli youths…receive reliable knowledge about German responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust,” said Rau, announcing the deal.

Poland’s government has long argued that, by focusing on only the tragedy of the Second World War, the Israeli trips distort the far longer and often fruitful history of Jews in Polish lands. It has also expressed concern that they portray Poles, rather than Germans, as responsible for the Holocaust.

Last summer, Polish deputy foreign minister Paweł Jabłoński said that, in their previous form, the trips “strengthened false stereotypes”, resulting in “Israeli youths often returning with negative feelings towards Poland and Poles”.

Czarnek, a controversial ultraconservative figure appointed as education minister in 2020, was speaking to news website Onet, which asked him, in the context of the dispute with Israel, why he supports the idea that German death camps located in Poland should only be visited with Polish guides.

“Since we use our state money to run museums that show the bestiality of German concentration camps, [which is] so easily distorted in the West and in Israel, we are responsible for the content that is passed on there,” responded the minister. “I am an absolute supporter of our guides leading these tours.”

“If you were to ask young people from Israel today who is responsible for the Holocaust, I assure you that you will receive an answer that, as a Pole, will not be pleasant for you, but above all it will be an answer inconsistent with the reality of the Holocaust,” he added.

Many in Poland feel that Poles are unfairly held responsible for atrocities against Jews that were carried out by the German Nazis in occupied Poland – for example through used of the false and misleading term “Polish camps” to describe facilities such as Auschwitz (where ethnic Poles were the second largest group of victims after Jews).

During Holocaust education trips to Poland, “young [Israelis] are kept away from Poles because they were told that [Jews] are not liked here, that it was dangerous here,” Czarnek told Onet. “Many of them think that, since the camps are [now] in Poland, that the camps are Polish. [That is] a lie.”

This is why it is “so important” that such groups “have Polish guides who know the history and context very well”, continued the minister. “I cordially invite everyone from Israel, the US, Sweden and other countries…We want them to keep coming here…And they can use our guides.”

Under current regulations, groups visiting Auschwitz are required to engage a “guide-educator” licenced by the museum, though they can be of any nationality.

During the interview, Czarnek also said that he “would suggest making a copy of the museums of Auschwitz and Lublin [Majdanek] concentration camp near Berlin, because they are German concentration camps”.

Figures from Poland’s national-conservative ruling camp have often accused Germany of seeking to distort history in an effort to blur responsibility for the Holocaust, including by placing the blame on Poles.

In 2020, the spokesman for Poland’s security services said that Germany was carrying out “coherent and systematic information activities” in order to “denationalise the crimes from the time of the war”. Last year a Polish court ordered German public broadcaster ZDF to apologise for presenting Polish resistance fighters as antisemites.

Many historians, domestic opposition figures and Israeli politicians, however, in turn accuse the Polish authorities of themselves trying to whitewash history by avoiding references to crimes by Poles against Jews during the war and instead focusing exclusively on the heroic actions of those who helped Jews.

Daniel Tilles