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Educational youth trips to Poland to resume after three-year hiatus, says Israeli PMO

The Polish Foreign Ministry has denied a final agreement was reached, but said “a convergence of opinions” may lead to one being signed “in the near future.”

The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland on May 10, 2017. Photo by Isaac Harari/Flash90.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland on May 10, 2017. Photo by Isaac Harari/Flash90.

Israel and Poland have reached an agreement on the resumption of Israeli youth trips to Poland for Holocaust education, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office announced on Tuesday.

However, a statement by the Polish Ministry for Foreign Affairs released on Wednesday was more circumspect, stating that while no agreement had been reached yet, one could be signed “in the near future.”

“There are many ways to study the lessons of the Holocaust, but the best is with one’s own eyes,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the written statement. “I welcome our success in the resumption of our pupils’ trips to Poland in order to study the horrors of the Holocaust from up close.”

He expressed his thanks to Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch for their contributions to resolving the standoff “after a wasted year,” a jibe at the previous Israeli government, which had a bitterly contentious relationship with the Polish government over the divisive issue of Poland’s role in the Holocaust.

The statement from the Polish Foreign Ministry said that, “Although a final agreement has not been reached yet, during talks held in recent days through diplomatic channels we have been observing a convergence of positions, giving hope that a comprehensive agreement on the visits of organized groups of Israeli youth to Poland can be signed between Poland and Israel in the near future.”

The Polish government, it continued, is “in favor of promoting people-to-people contact between Poles and Israelis, especially regarding the younger generation, as it is crucial to increase the understanding between our peoples.”

Neither statement addressed the issues that initially caused the breach between the governments, namely security for and the educational content of the visits, or explained how the matter was resolved.

The educational trips have been halted for three years following a diplomatic dispute between the two countries which sent relations between the erstwhile allies plummeting to all-time lows. The debate initially centered around Polish laws that were seen as whitewashing the deeds of some Poles during the Holocaust, and that prevented Holocaust survivors or the families of those who died in the Shoah from claiming restitution of seized property.

At the time, Israel said that Poland’s nationalistic government was also trying to control the curriculum of the trips. The controversy over Poland’s mixed past and present was then followed by the Covid pandemic, during which travel was heavily restricted in any case.

Polish officials had objected to the presence of armed Israeli guards on such visits, saying that it created an unnecessary impression of danger, and wanted to provide their own security. In addition, they had repeatedly called for broadening the content of the trips to include the centuries of Jewish life in the country before the Holocaust, and more interaction between Israeli and Polish youth to quash stereotypes and misconceptions on both sides.

A spokesperson at the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv had no further comment on Wednesday.

The Ynet news site reported that an agreement had been reached that Polish security would oversee the trips, while Israeli guards would be allowed to join in cases of a specific threat.

Until the dispute broke out, Israeli teens routinely traveled to Poland on such educational trips between 11th and 12th grade, touring former Nazi concentration and death camps to learn about the Holocaust and memorialize those murdered. The trip has long been considered a rite of passage in Israeli education.

Prior to the pandemic, some 40,000 Israeli students participated in these trips each year.

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