American Orthodoxy

How the Student Poland Experience Has Changed

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David I. Bernstein


“Why am I not crying?”

As Tishah Be-Av approaches, this question evokes our struggle to experience genuine mourning for the destruction of the Temple. For me, though, it also recalls a question that I hear with increasing frequency from young Jews for whom I have served as historian and guide for student Poland journeys. And while I’ve lost count of the number of Jewish heritage trips I’ve taken to the “alte heym” – I’m pretty sure it’s over sixty since I started traveling to Poland in 1992 – I can say with confidence that the lack of tears is relatively new, and tells a larger story about the evolution of the Poland trips over the last thirty years. While these journeys remain a powerful educational tool, there are important ways in which the substance and tone have changed, which in turn reflect changes to both Poland and the Jewish community.

The Poland I visited in 1992 had just been freed from the yoke of a half-century of Communist rule. Holding free elections for the first time in decades, the country would be governed in subsequent years by a liberal democratic party. Poland was in search of a clearer and freer sense of its own history, and was anxious to join the Western world, especially NATO and the EU. And it largely succeeded. In short order, Poland became the most successful post-Communist regime. Skyscraper office towers and malls began to spring up in the large cities, forever changing the skylines of cities like Warsaw. The new government began to encourage public displays of Jewish life and memory, and even very tentatively began a reckoning with the ugly history of Polish-Jewish relations.

These developments have impacted Jewish heritage trips to Poland.  The early years of “March of the Living” and other such journeys were generally characterized by the traditionally negative Jewish view of Poles and Poland, as summed up by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: “The Poles imbibe anti-Semitism in their mothers’ milk.” Certainly the pogroms of post-war Poland, in which more than 1,000 Jews (Holocaust survivors!) were murdered, seemed to justify such sentiments.

However, in the new, post-Communist and liberal Poland, Polish Jews began to “come out of the closet,” and Jewish life began to revive.  Many young Jews learned for the first time the “family secret:” they were Jewish. Their Jewishness was often warmly received in a country striving to restore its multicultural past. One young Polish woman told me that when she told her (non-Jewish Polish) friends in college that she just learned that she was Jewish, they simply said, “That’s cool!”

This curiosity and warmth towards Jews and Jewish memory continues to pervade much of Poland. One excellent illustration is the rise of the Jewish Studies Institute of Jagiellonian University.  I often bring students to meet with these Polish non-Jews who are studying Hebrew, Yiddish, and Jewish history. When asked why – at a time of decline in humanities departments in universities all over the world – they would davka make this seemingly strange choice, they often describe their curiosity about the Jewish cemetery in their home town, or stories of Jews told to them by their grandparents. In fact, in many Polish towns, there are individuals or groups with whom I am in touch who are consumed by a passion to preserve the memory of the Jews of their town. The “Shtetl Sanz,” a group of hipster-type young Poles, are but one example.

The seventy-five non-Jewish Polish volunteers who staff the front desk of the Krakow JCC, and serve its Shabbat meals, are another example of what can only be called philo-Semitism on the part of many Polish Catholics.

And, of course, the Krakow Jewish Festival, begun in 1988, a year before the fall of Communism, is the largest Jewish festival in Europe, drawing about 25,000 people every June. I was once there on a motzei Shabbat amidst the crowds dancing to Klezmer music and hearing Rabbi Michael Schudrich recite havdalah from the stage.  As I made my way toward the front, I kept looking for a hint that there were other Jews in attendance; I did not find one.

These dramatic shifts have had a profound impact on me, and on many other guides and historians who lead student journeys to Poland. Certainly, the pogroms before and after the war have not disappeared from our consciousness or our educational content. The destruction of Jewish communities by their Polish neighbors[1] remains a centerpiece of the trips. But encountering some of hasidei umot ha-olam, and seeing the philo-Semitism of some of Polish society today, has given many of us a more nuanced picture of Polish-Jewish relations, then and now.

Truthfully, starting in 2005 right-wing nationalist parties began to dominate Polish life. Democracy there has become increasingly illiberal, and attempts to whitewash the Polish role in the Shoah have increased. Recent attempts by the current Polish government to restrict free speech about the role of Poles in the Shoah, and to highlight only those brave individuals who defied social norms and helped Jews, has “dialed back” (as one veteran educator put it) some of these more positive feelings. Yet we are also very conscious of those brave Polish historians (such as Professors Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking) and researchers who are determined to continue writing a truer history of that terrible time.  

At the same time that Polish life has undergone seismic shifts, young Modern Orthodox Jews from the U.S. have also changed significantly, further contributing to the evolution of the Poland trips.

For one, the consensus among educators at yeshivot and seminaries in Israel is that the level of knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish culture has declined.  

Personally, I notice this when I have guests in my Jerusalem shul sitting next to me on Shabbat: those who are over fifty understand the rav’s derashah; those who are younger do not.

Fewer and fewer students can read the Hebrew epitaph on a matzeivah in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. Increasingly smaller numbers have read a story by Y.L. Peretz or Sholom Aleichem, or have even heard of them. And many have never seen the Academy Award-winning classic films “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist,” and will see them for the first time on a bus in Poland.  (In fairness, these films were made before they were born!)

Today’s students are also another generation removed from any ancestors who were survivors. Fewer have had strong interactions with grandparents or great-grandparents from Europe.

Furthermore, whereas in the early 90s, few students came to Poland, today it is de rigueur, a rite of passage for Modern Orthodox youth, as is a gap year of study in Israel. This means they are less self-selected;  as these trips become a “bucket list” item to check off, there is less motivation lishmah.  It also means that their camp counselors, older siblings, or cousins have already shared their experiences in Poland, creating less of a sense of wonder and surprise. Participants know they will see cages full of shoes in Majdanek. There is less shock and fewer tears.  (For the record, I do not see any need for students to cry in Poland; they are there to learn. But it bothers many of them when they don’t.)

Perhaps another factor limiting the emotional force of the trips is the gradual renovation and reconstruction of destroyed shuls in Poland. As the Jewish community of Poland has regained much property and is trying to restore much of it, it is harder to find a hurvah. Seeing a reconstructed shul evokes a very different response than witnessing a destroyed shul. The former often evokes singing, dancing, and celebration; the latter evokes mourning. 

Of course, once upon a time, in the 1990s, students did not have cellphones in Poland.  They were almost totally cut off from their families and friends. Today, however, as they board the bus, students check their Instagram and TikTok accounts. Of course, the attention span of a generation that has grown up with smartphones is also shorter. It is harder for them to focus deeply, to “sit with” what they have just seen or heard.

The question of Jewish resistance to the Nazis was once a primary issue.  It is no longer. There is much more understanding of the impossible situation in which the Jews found themselves, and in recent decades heroism has been much more broadly defined. There is greater empathy for the not-so-simple heroism of the nearly-impossible, heroic everyday survival in the ghettos and camps. 

The educators who accompany students to Poland have also changed.  In the early years, we knew much less.  In the decades that have followed, we have become increasingly better-educated. Many of us have WhatsApp groups and share information and new sites and insights. This means that the students have a much richer educational experience.

There is also less manipulation of students.  Some educators used to crowd students into a cattle car, as if to “make them feel” (how impossible!) “what it was like (!).” That is much more rare today. Thankfully, there are fewer attempts to make students “step into the victims’ shoes.”

And of course, decades ago almost every journey included a survivor of the Shoah. Today that is rare, and our students are all the poorer for missing out on that very special experience.

The sum total of these changes for Poles, students, and educators means that the overall focus and student experience of the Poland trips has shifted. In the early years, “March of the Living” trips focused on the camps and destruction. Today, the educational guides that I know try to emphasize not only the Shoah and destruction, but also the 900 years of Polish Jewish history, and the revival of contemporary Jewish life in Poland.

It is hard to measure the impact of these journeys on participants, but it is especially important given the significant changes that we have outlined.  JRoots, one of the leading providers of these trips, has reported that it surveyed over 800 participants, many of whom (but not all) were Modern Orthodox. Interestingly, according to JRoots, a few years after their trip, a very high number of these past participants said they were more involved in community work than before the trip.

This is certainly a desirable outcome, and important for the life of Jewish communities. It also suggests that along with the shifts for the Poland journeys and their participants, the educational outcomes may be changing as well. Students may be crying less, but the journeys are no less impactful, just different.

While Poland heritage trips are seen as educating toward Israel and the Zionist narrative – and they still do, despite the dinimishment in student knowledge about Zionism and Jewish culture – they are increasingly impactful in other ways. Students walk away with an increased sense of communal responsibility, and, no less important, with a richer appreciation of the blessings of family, abundant food and shelter, and freedom. With all the gifts that many of today’s student participants are handed on silver platters from their childhood, perhaps these values are even more important to inculcate in our youth than ever before.

[1] The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw — which sits on land donated by the city of Warsaw and is financed in large part by the Polish government — claims in its permanent exhibit that there were seventy such cases.

David I. Bernstein is the Dean of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Previously he was the Director of Midreshet Lindenbaum. Since 1992, he has been accompanying student and adult groups to Poland and other centers of Jewish life in Europe as a guide and resident historian. He lectures both abroad and online, and can be reached at