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 survival.
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.
Some call this a form of secular religion. The historian Saul Friedlander was harsher and called it a union of kitsch and death. I felt the pull of kitsch emotion myself on my only visit to Auschwitz, in 1990. By kitsch I don’t mean gaudiness or camp, but rather an expression of emotion which is displaced, focused on the wrong thing, or, to use that ghastly word properly for once, inappropriate. I am not the child of Holocaust survivors. My mother was Jewish, but she lived in England, and no immediate relations were killed by the Nazis. And yet even I couldn’t escape a momentary feeling of vicarious virtue, especially when I came across tourists from Germany. They were the villains, I the potential victim. But for the grace of God, I thought, I would have died here too. Or would I? An even more grotesque calculation passed through my mind: How did I fit …