I just read a news article about a number of Israeli leaders coming out with a new stance toward trips such as March of the Living, which offers Jewish teenagers an opportunity to visit the concentration camps in Poland. The detractors are condemning the trip for a number of reasons. I was shocked. I had heard of this trip and I was hoping that our children would one day participate in such an experience. Now I am wondering if it is the right thing to do.
I have been on the March of the Living program on two occasions as an adult educator, so this issue resonates deeply. This is not the first that the program has been criticized, but today’s round of disapproval comes from religious Zionists in Israel who had, until now, enthusiastically supported the program. From what I have gleaned, there are their four central arguments behind their reasoning and recent displeasure with the program.
They argue that although studying the history of the Holocaust is critical, they feel that the March of the Living is more of an emotional experience and less of an academic one. They view this emotional aspect as unnecessary and maybe even detrimental. Students, they claim, can study the Holocaust intellectually and gain a tremendous amount of knowledge without leaving home.
Furthermore, according to Jewish law, leaving Israel is only permitted for religious reasons and though there is a claim that the mitzvah of honoring the dead is being fulfilled, it is not enough of a justification for leaving the Holy Land. Another argument is that the Polish people and government profit from these trips — why should Jews help to support those who participated in the persecution and murder of the 6 million? Finally, these critics also assert that the trip is expensive and, therefore, not affordable to many students.
As Americans, we need only deal with three of these arguments, especially since the trip to Poland is often followed by a visit to Israel. That the trip is expensive is an important concern but has little to do with whether or not it is worthwhile — if it is deemed worthwhile then funds can be set aside for more equitable participation of students. The contention that the Polish people may be benefiting from the vast tourist monies has been defended by the March of the Living organizers for many years. Of late, they counter that the Polish government of the present is very pro-Israel and that just recently at the Durban II Conference in Geneva, Poland was among those who joined Israel in boycotting the anti-Israel proceedings.
The central issue that must be considered, then, is the question of what is gained by the experience of traveling to Poland. What is learned when visiting the site of the most heinous persecution of our people — entering gas chambers, seeing the crematoria, the camps and all that has been recovered on those sites that tell the tale of the atrocities and organized genocide of 6 million Jews? Is there any precedence in our tradition to prohibit such a visit?
The dreadful reality of our history is that this is not the first time the question has been raised regarding visiting places of persecution. This very matter arises as the Israelites are traveling through the desert following their earliest persecution in Egypt.
The Torah implores us in Devarim, “Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.” Many scholars struggle to understand this command. Does this mean not to visit Egypt ever? To not do business? To not settle? Obviously, since there were quite a few vibrant Jewish communities in Egypt, this cannot be a simple matter.
Some say that Jews who chose to live in Egypt may have indeed been guilty of transgressing this exhortation. Others contend that the prohibition is a measure instituted to prevent Jews from associating with idol worshippers. Most agree that the ban is null and void provided that there is no Jewish homeland. Especially given the reality that no land is completely free of paganism, hence Egypt would be no different than any other land. Nowadays, very few Jews choose to live in Egypt and the issue more concerns short-term visits. Most agree it is permissible to go to Egypt as long as it does not involve permanently settling there.
A similar halachic conversation is found among authorities concerning a return to Spain. According to archives from 1658 found in a Sephardic synagogue in Hamburg, those who return to Spain may not be called to the Torah. The prohibition is found elsewhere in terms of “cherem,” excommunication, for anyone who visits the country. This is a bit of a historical mystery, with one scholar suggesting a logical reason for the ban: The expulsion from Spain came with a clear stipulation that if any Jew would want to return he must convert to Christianity. It therefore follows that rabbinic authorities would ban travel or a return to Spain as long as coerced conversion was still in place. This is clearly not the case now.
The reasons suggested by scholars in the instances of Egypt and Spain have nothing to do with not returning to a place from where we had been persecuted; they were more about preventing Jews from adopting non-Jewish practices. Obviously, neither of these reasons applies to visiting Poland for a week, so back to the drawing board.
Though an element of the trip is emotional, it is preceded by a great deal of rigorous study. The trip itself is an extreme example of experiential learning. Though it is not, by definition, your typical intellectual book learning, it is instead a superb model of reinforcing viscerally what has been studied cerebrally. Nothing can substitute for actually seeing, smelling and touching what one has read about in books.
On a practical level, there is no more compelling response to Holocaust deniers than to testify to having seen the gas chambers, the crematoria and barracks. Moreover, to have traveled to those sites with Holocaust survivors, as is the practice on the March, is like going back in time. One day, those who have journeyed to Poland on these programs will be called upon to bear witness to what they saw and what they heard form survivors.
But there is more. There is deep engraving into each participant’s consciousness key Jewish values and memories that will stay with them for life. On the day of Yom HaShoah, thousands of participants march in silence from Auschwitz to Birkenau. This takes more than an hour, and it is a time to reflect and actively practice the deep Jewish idea of silence in the face of inexplicable tragedy.
Praying outside the crematoria at Majadanek, as an act, is not easily understood. It is at once an indication of faith and defiance. It stays with you. Walking through Auschwitz with Israeli soldiers proudly holding Israeli flags is almost beyond comprehension in the great scheme of history. It is remarkable and painfully ironic.
Our people lived in Poland for hundreds of years before the Holocaust. Admittedly, the following may seem a bit too illusory for some. Life is never merely what meets the eye; we must always factor in the “mysterium tremendum.” Powerful, palpable spirits loom in the forsaken places that still stand: The synagogues, the yeshivot, and the cemeteries. How can we abandon them? Walls which heard the words of Torah for hours on end deserve to hear the gentle lilt of a page of Talmud every so often; synagogue interiors long for the sight of tallit and for the affirmations of Kaddish to again float upward.
Thousands of young people singing “Lecha Dodi” exuberantly in the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw, which had been used by the Nazis as a stable, is nothing short of a wondrous marvel. If all of this does not make for a religious experience, then I do not know what does.