Volume 46, Number 6 ·
April 8, 1999
The Joys and Perils of Victimhood
In his book
The Seventh Million
, the Israeli journalist Tom Segev describes a visit to
Auschwitz and other former death camps in Poland by a group of Israeli high school
students. Some students are from secular schools, others from religious ones. All have
been extensively prepared for the visit by the Israeli Ministry of Education. They have
read books, seen films, and met survivors. Nonetheless, after their arrival in Poland,
Segev notes a degree of apprehension among the students: Will they suddenly collapse?
Will they reemerge from the experience as "different people"?
The fears are not
irrational. For the students have been prepared to believe that the trip will have a
profound effect on their "identities," as Jews and as Israelis.
These regular school tours to the death camps are part of Israeli civic education. The
political message is fairly straightforward: Israel was founded on the ashes of the
Holocaust, but if Israel had already existed in 1933 the Holocaust would never have
happened. Only in Israel can Jews be secure and free. The Holocaust was proof of that.
So the victims of Hitler died as martyrs for the Jewish homeland, indeed as potential
Israeli citizens, and the state of Israel is both the symbol and guarantor of Jewish
This message is given further expression, on those wintry spots where the Jewish people
came close to annihilation, by displays of the Israeli flag and singing of the national
anthem. But Segev noticed a peculiarly religious, or pseudoreligious, aspect to the death
camp visits as well. The Israeli students in Poland, in his view, were like Christian
pilgrims in Jerusalem, oblivious to everything except the sacred places. They marched
along the railway tracks in Auschwitz-Birkenau like Christians on the Via Dolorosa.
They brought books of prayers, poems, and psalms, which they recited in front of the
ruined gas chambers. They played cassette tapes of music composed by a Holocaust
survivor named Yehuda Poliker. And at one of the camps, a candle was lit in the
crematorium, where the students knelt in prayer.