The list of losses Israeli teenagers’ visits leave behind is long and costly. It begins with burned carpets in Polish hotels, and ends with Jewish teenagers’ trauma. But more and more often with local residents’ trauma too.
Roberto Lucchesini, originally from Tuscany, for several years now a resident of Krakow, hasn’t been sleeping well recently. Before he will be able to move his arms normally again, he will have to go through long rehab. All this because of how he was treated, in broad daylight in front of passers-by and several teenagers who were hermetically closed in their coach-buses. Israeli bodyguards, equipped with firearms, binded his arms behind his back over his head with handcuffs. In Krakow, in the middle of the street. A moment before, the Italian was trying to make coach drivers parking in front of his house turn their engines off. - ‘Israelis handcuffed me, threw me on the ground, my face landed in dog excrement, and then they were kicking me’. After that the perpetrators were gone. Italian had to be freed by the Polish police.
Lucchesini moved to Kazimierz, a district of Kraków, that used to be a Jewish commune of which the only things left now are synagogues and memories, often painful. He found an apartment with a view on the synagogue. – ‘Back then I had thought this was the most beautiful place on Earth’ – he says – ‘after some time I understood that the place is indeed beautiful, but not for its today’s residents’.
Kicking instead of answers
Another resident of Kazimierz, Beata W., office worker, is of similar opinion. Israeli security searched her handbag on one of the streets, without telling her why.
– ‘When I asked what was this all about, they told me to shut up. I listened, I stopped talking, I was afraid they’d tell me to get undressed next’ – she says annoyed.
A young polish Jew, who as usual in Sabbath, went to pray in his synagogue couple months ago, also didn’t get his answer. He only asked, why can’t he enter the temple. Instead of an answer, he got kicked.
– ‘I saw this with my own eyes’ - says Mike Urbaniak, the editor of Forum Of Polish Jews and correspondent of European Jewish Press in Poland. – ‘I saw how my friend is being brutally attacked by security agents from Israel, without any reason.’
All this apparently in sake of Israeli childrens’ safety.
- ‘For Poles it may be difficult to understand, but security agents accompany Israelis at all times, both in Israel and abroad’ – explains Michał Sobelman, a spokesman for Israeli embassy in Poland. – ‘This is a parents’ demand, otherwise they wouldn’t agree for any kind of trip. Poland is no exception.’
But it was in Poland, as Mike Urbaniak reports, where Jews from Israel brutally kicked a Polish Jew in front of a synagogue, and then threatened him with prison. In plain view of the Israeli teenagers.
- ‘We are very sorry when we hear about such incidents’ – Sobelman admits – ‘Detailed analysis is carried out in each case. We will do everything we can, to prevent such situations in the future. Maybe we will have to change training methods of our security agents, so that they would know Poland is not like Israel, that the scale of threats here is insignificant?
Professor Moshe Zimmermann, head of German History Institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem thinks however, that the problem is not only in the security agents’ behaviour. He thinks Israelis basically think that Poles aren’t equal partners for them. And it’s not only that they think Poles can’t ensure their children’s safety.
- ‘They are not equal partners to any kind of discussion. It applies also to our common history, contemporary history and politics. In result Israeli youth see Poles as second category people, as potential enemies’ – he explains bluntly.
An instruction on conduct with the local inhabitants given away to Israeli teenagers coming to Poland couple years ago may confirm professor’s opinion. It contained such a paragraph: ‘Everywhere we will be surrounded by Poles. We will hate them because of their participation in Holocaust’.
- ‘Agendas of our teenagers’ trips to Poland are set in advance by the Israeli government, and are not flexible’ – says Ilona Dworak-Cousin, the chairwoman of the Polish-Israeli Friendship Association in Israel. - ‘Those trips basically come down to visiting, one by one, the places of extermination of Jews. From that perspective Poland is just a huge Jewish graveyard. And nothing more. Meeting living people, for those who organise these trips, is meaningless.’
A resident of Kraków’s Kazimierz district, who is of Jewish descent, says that there is nothing wrong with that: – ‘Israelis don’t come to Poland for holiday. Their aim is to see the sites of Shoah and listen to the terrifying history of their families, history that often is not told to them by their grandparents, because of its emotional weight. Often young people who are leaving, cry, phone their parents and say “why didn’t you tell me it was that horrible?”. To be frank, I am not surprised they have no interest in talking about Lajkonik‘.
However according to Ilona Dworak-Cousin the lack of contact with Poles, causes Israeli youth to confuse victims with the perpetrators. – ‘They start to think it were the Poles who created concentration camps for Jews, that it is the Polish who were and still are the biggest anti-Semites in the world’ – adds Dworak-Cousin, who is Jewish herself.
The above mentioned Kraków resident has a different opinion. – ‘I don’t believe anyone was telling them that the Poles had been doing this. That’s why there is no need for discussing anything with the Poles’.
Teenagers behaving badly
However, many Israelis say that although the instruction was eventually changed, the attitude to Poles has not changed at all.
– ‘Someone in Israel some day decided, that our children going to Poland have to be hermetically surrounded by security’ – says Lili Haber president of Cracovians Association in Israel. – ‘Someone decided that young Israelis cannot meet young Poles, and cannot walk the streets. Basically these visits aren’t anything else but a several-day-long voluntary prison.’
Voluntary, but also very expensive: 1400 USD per person. Not every Israeli parent can afford such a trip.
- ‘Moreover, as it turns out, the children are too young, to visit sites of mass murders’ - adds dr Ilona Dworak-Cousin. Traumatic experiences that accompany visits in death camps have its consequences. Kids become aggressive. And instead of getting to know the country of their ancestors, in which Jews and Poles lived in symbiosis for over 1000 years, Israeli teenagers cause one scandal after another.
It happens sometimes, that somewhere between Majdanek and Treblinka, young Israelis spend their time on striptease ordered via the hotel telephone. It happens sometimes, that the hotel service has to collect human excrement from hotel beds and washbasins. It happens sometimes, that hotels have to give money back to other tourists, who cannot sleep because Israeli kids decided to play football in hotel corridor. In the middle of the night.
6-year-old Krzys from Kazimierz played football too. On Sunday night on 15th April, after shooting two goals, he wanted to go home, as usual. He lives near a synagogue, in front of which hundreds of young Israelis have gathered on celebrations preceding March of Living. Just before Szeroka street he was stopped by some not-so-nice men. – ‘This is a semi-private area today. There is no entry’ – he was told. It didn’t help, when he told them, his mum will get upset if he won’t be home on time.
Security officers, which is interesting, were Polish this time and accompanied by the Polish police. They also denied access to the area to a Dutch couple, who had reserved a table at one of the restaurants on Szeroka street six months ago. – ‘Is this a free country?’ – One of the tourists tried to make sure.
On a normal day you can access Szeroka street from several sides. That evening from none. I tried to get through myself, without any success. Only eventually, the police helped me to pass the security line.
- ‘There are no official restrictions here’ – they were convincing me a moment later, although the “unofficial practice” was different.
- ‘We have only set certain restrictions in movement’ – Sylvia Bober-Jasnoch, a spokeswoman for Malopolska Region Police press service, explained to me later.
The police cannot say anything else. Polish law does not allow residents to be denied access to the streets they live at. Even during the so called mass events (however the celebrations on Szeroka did not have that status) residents have the right to go back to their homes and tourists have the right to dine in a restaurant. Also Israeli security agents have no right to stop or search passers-by.
I tried to find out more on the rights of Israeli security agents in Poland. First at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from where my question was sent to…. the Ministry of Education. I have also sent questions to the Home Office. Although I was promised, I received no answer. Only person eager to talk on that matter was Maciej Kozłowski, former ambassador in Israel, currently the Plenipotentiary of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Polish-Israeli relations.
- ‘Regulations are imprecise’ – admits Kozłowski. ‘Basically bodyguards from a foreign country should not move around Poland armed. However for the government of Israel security matters are a priority. Any convincing that their citizens should use the services of Polish security turned unsuccessful’.
Airplane like battle field
The Polish-Italian couple, Robert Lucchesini, his wife Anna, and their two-year-old daughter, cannot understand Polish government’s attitude. Which contrary to the Israeli government, is not able to ensure the safety of its citizens. Safety is not the only thing among the pair’s priorities, but also peace and quietness. They are however being woken up every morning by the loud noises of engines, of the Polish coach-buses with groups of Israeli youth. Their Polish drivers brake driving regulations all the time. They’re allowed to park at the square near the synagogue (in front of Robert’s house) only for up to 10 minutes. They stay there much longer, even hours. With their engines turned on. Reason? Youth’s safety – they would be able to leave quicker in case of a threat. And because Israeli kids need to be served coffee. Because even though Kazimierz is full of cafes, Israeli teenagers don’t go there. They are being told: no contacts with environment, no talking to passers-by, no smiles nor gestures.
This has been going for years. Israeli groups contact with Poles only there where they have to. First in airplanes.
- ‘A plane after such group has landed, looks like a battle field’ – admits a worker of LOT Polish Airlines asking for his name not to be published. – ‘The worst thing is these kids’ attitude to Polish staff. Recently a stewardess was slapped by a teenager in her face. Because he had been waiting for his coca-cola too long’.
Leszek Chorzewski, LOT spokesman, admits that Israeli youth is a difficult customer. – ‘They demand not only more attention then other passengers, but also more security precautions’ – he adds. These precautions are long aircraft and airport controls conducted by Israeli services. These are also the high demands of the teenagers’ security agents.
Katarzyna Łazuga, student from Poznań, could see that first hand. She participated in a tourist guides’ training on one of Polish airports. ‘Young people from Israel entered the room we were in’, she recalls. – ‘Our group was then made to stop classes and rushed out of the room. Israeli security officers told us to go out, right now and without any talking. Because… we were “staring” at their clients. Yes, we were looking at them. They were catching attention, they were good looking.’
Young Israelis see Poles also there, where they board – in Polish hotels. If any of them still wants to have them. Most of those in Kraków don’t want to any more.
- ‘We have resigned from admitting Israeli youth once and for all’ – admits Agnieszka Tomczyk, assistant manageress in a chain of hotels called System. ‘We could not afford to refund the loses after their stays any more’.
These loses being: demolished rooms, broken chairs and tables, human excrements in washbasins or trash bins, or like in Astoria, other hotel in Kraków, burned carpet. Astoria also backs out from having Israeli groups. One of the reasons is that the teenagers’ security agents were ordering other guests, whom they didn’t like, to leave.
- ‘I understand that Israeli security agents are over-sensitive to any disturbing signals. They are coming from a country where bombs explode almost daily, and young people die in terrorist attacks’ – ensures Mike Urbaniak. – ‘But Poland is one of the safest countries in Europe. Here, excluding tiny number of incidents, Jews are not being attacked, and Jewish institutions don’t need security, which is very unusual on a world scale’.
Chasidim, travelling in great numbers from Israel, also (surprisingly) don’t need security agents. Including for example many Orthodox Jews, who came to visit our country recently, as they wanted to pray at Tzadik of Lelów’s grave. They came to the market square in Kazimierz without any security assistance and without any fear.
- ‘They chatted eagerly with tourists interested in their outfits, with passers-by who don’t see Jews with side curls every day’ – adds Urbaniak.
In Kazimierz chasidim are nothing unusual. Like groups of Israeli teenagers. This year 30,000 Israeli teenagers are coming to Poland, and they will have 800 security agents to protect them.
Roberto Lucchesini reported to the Polish police that he got beaten by Israeli security. Krakow Prosecution Office is investigating the case, and so is its counterpart in Israel.
- ‘Results of this investigation are of medium importance’ – thinks Ilona Dworak-Cousin. – ‘What matters is if the youth that visits Poland, will still treat it as hostile and completely alien country’.
Polish-Israeli Friendship Association in Israel and Cracovians Association in Israel both try to convince the government of their country, not to send any more teenagers to see only the death camps in Poland. Chances are slim.
- ‘These trips are mostly a huge business for people who organise them’ – says Lili Haber – ‘including Israeli bodyguards’.
C O M M E N T S
Szewach Weiss, former speaker of Knesseth, former Israel’s ambassador in Poland:
I have a dream: I would like Israeli youth to come to Poland not only to see death camps, but also to see the life of Polish cities and towns. That they would even stay under one roof with Polish young people, so that after some time Poles would visit them back in Israel, that Poles would be invited and welcomed there. Is that one of those dreams that will never come true? I don’t think so, I believe that it will come true in 5 years at worst. In the meanwhile the most important thing is to change the current form of Israeli teenagers’ trips. A perfect solution would be direct contact between Israeli and Polish schools. That would have given a real chance to talk, exchange ideas, or even have an argument. I would however like the Poles to understand our difficult position, how deep is in us that idea that our children could lose their lives, even in a country as peaceful as yours. Of course that does not give anyone right to brutal behaviour towards Poles. Aggression is aggression, regardless of circumstances.
Yuli Amir, Israel’s Education Minister:
I think that Israeli youth doesn’t think good or bad about Poland or Poles. These trips are more about them, their Jewish identity. This is such Jewish feeling, that the whole world was against us, and Poland was on the wrong side too. You have to remember, that for many years Israeli youth has been rejecting Holocaust. For them it was a specimen, of how not to act. “Why did we go like sheep for death?”Holocaust was that weakness, they didn’t want to identify with. By coming to Auschwitz they have started to treat the victims of Shoah differently. This is a moral rehabilitation of Jewish past. of course we are aware of imperfections of the visits programme, we are considering changes. We discuss a lot, we think what influence these trips have on youth, on education. But all changes need time.
Mike Urbaniak, editor of Forum Of Polish Jews and correspondent of European Jewish Press in Poland:
I have met many Israelis in my life. Most of them are great, cheerful and exceptionally open people. They don’t have superiority complex. Everyone, who has at least once been in Israel has to admit that. In Poland however their image is getting worse and worse. And this will continue, if those trips will still look like a visit in countryside museum. This is a problem that needs to be solved in Israel as soon as possible.
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See also » Young Israelis in Poland – continued
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