Holocaust education program to be moved out of Poland

Question arises whether such a decision could upset relations with Warsaw when it is taking in thousands of Jews from war-torn Ukraine.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The IDF will recommend that Witnesses in Uniform, a decades-long program that sends Israeli soldiers and members of security services to Poland to learn about the Holocaust move the educational trip to Lithuania instead, Israel Hayom reported Saturday.

The proposal, which the army said would be put to the chief of staff “as soon as possible,” was based on the recent crisis in relations between Warsaw and Jerusalem, the report said.

The Polish parliament passed a law last August that limits the ability of Holocaust survivors and their descendants from claiming private property seized by either the Nazis during World War II or the post-War Communist government.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid labeled the measure antisemitic, and he recalled Israel’s charge d’affaires for three months while instructing the incoming ambassador not to take up his position. But with thousands of Jews and Israelis pouring over the border into Poland from war-torn Ukraine since the Russian invasion began February 20, Ambassador Yacov Livne was reinstated nine days ago.

Poland has been helpful since the war began, allowing the embassy staff to sleep on its side of the border while crossing back and forth every day to help Ukrainian Jews and Israeli citizens flee to safety.

According to the Israel Hayom, several officials criticized the suggestion to move the educational program to Lithuania, with one saying that it could exacerbate tensions with Poland specifically at a time when Israel needs Polish goodwill over the Ukrainian crisis.

“Someone [in the IDF] was confused,” another official said. “It is true that relations with Poland have been faltering politically and diplomatically for a long time but … it is not a military decision. It should be a political decision, made by the government, or at least the Ministry of Defense.”

Another source said he didn’t see the logic of the move on a historical basis.

“The Holocaust was planned in Germany and carried out in Poland,” the senior official said. “It’s true that Jews were murdered in Lithuania, but that’s true regarding almost every country in Europe. How is Lithuania any different from Hungary, Holland or Austria? And if we’re not going to Poland, why not go to Germany?”

“Soldiers in Uniform” has been bringing IDF draftees, reservists and civilian employees to Poland since the 1990s to deepen their knowledge of the Holocaust. The delegations always include a survivor, who tells his or her own story, and guides from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

The groups visit synagogues, cemeteries, memorials and concentration camps, learning about the rich cultural and religious lives Jews had enjoyed before the war, as well as the historical background to the Nazis’ singular determination to wipe out the entire Jewish people.

The thousands of IDF soldiers who participated in these trips wore their uniforms throughout. Many said that what they saw and heard in Poland was their most meaningful experience during their years of service.

The program’s success was so great that it was expanded to include the Prison Services, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), Israel Police and other public employees.