class act

Israeli high school alums organize independent journey to Poland for onsite Holocaust education

'We felt that we can’t finish our education and go to the next step in our life without the Holocaust,' one alum told eJP

In March 2021, three weeks before their 12th-grade class was scheduled to fly to Poland to learn about the Holocaust, Ilan Averbuch and Avigail Porat received the news that the trip was cancelled because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Their hopes to join a later delegation were dashed when the Israeli government cancelled youth delegations to Poland in June 2022 due to concerns about Polish government interference with what youth would learn on the trips. As they approached the end of their six-month mechina (preparatory) program at the Upper Galilee Leadership Institute earlier this month, Averbuch and Porat, both 18, decided to organize this long-awaited journey themselves. 

“We felt that we can’t finish our education and go to the next step in our life without the Holocaust. It’s a big part of the Jewish nation’s memory, our historical memory, and it shapes so much of modern Israel and Jews all around [the world],” Averbuch told eJewishPhilanthropy. “So, we felt that it’s really important for us to do a trip in Poland and to physically witness what happened. And through standing on the ground, seeing it with our eyes, I think that can really strengthen our identity, both Jewish and Israeli.”

Thanks to Averbuch and Porat’s efforts, 33 students from the Upper Galilee Leadership Institute will have the opportunity to fly to Poland for seven days starting on Saturday, visiting Holocaust memorial sites with both Polish and Israeli guides. Averbuch told eJP that since students in their mechina program come from various countries, and many don’t have a strong connection to Israel, going on this trip could help them decide whether to stay in Israel long term.

The leadership institute provides an immersive experience for high school graduates who have deferred their entry into the military by one year. The program includes classroom studies, excursions exploring the country on foot, volunteering, communal living and leadership training to foster the development of “value-oriented leaders” who will contribute to bettering Israel’s future.

“We are proud of our graduates who have taken the initiative to organize this trip to Poland despite the cancellations by the Ministry of Education,” said Eviatar Baksis, the Upper Galilee Leadership Institute’s vice president. “This shows their commitment to Holocaust education and preservation and their willingness to take the lead in ensuring that this important aspect of our history is passed on to future generations. At the institute, we strive to instill a sense of responsibility and leadership in our students, and this trip is a testament to their dedication to that cause.”

In Porat’s view, undertaking the trip as a small group whose members know each other well, and without the additional adult supervision that is usually present on traditional school trips, will allow them to support each other through the emotional challenges of the experience, making the journey more meaningful.

Through negotiations with a travel agency, Averbuch and Porat significantly reduced the trip’s cost from the average of $1,800 per person it would usually cost through the Ministry of Education-funded delegation to $1,090. Through the generosity of parents in the group, they have also provided scholarships to five students. And although their intensive mechina schedule leaves little free time, participants have put aside a day to do work in the local community to raise funds for another student needing financial support.

“Remembrance of the Holocaust shouldn’t be only for the rich. It should be for everyone,” said Averbuch. “And that’s why we said that we’re ready to sleep in less-good hotels and fly in the middle of the night, just so everyone can go. And as the mechina, we all raised the money to contribute.”

“It was one of the things we talked about in the beginning of our journey to the [physical] journey,” added Porat. “That this is one of the things that we won’t accept. There will not be anyone here that will not go because of the financial stuff. So, we were really proud that we managed to do it.”

The concerns that led the Israeli government to cancel the youth delegations and controversial laws passed by the Polish government, such as making accusations against Poland or its citizens for complicity in the Holocaust illegal, have not deterred Averbuch and Porat.

“[In spite of] the censorship, we felt it’d be so powerful to see, for example, all the shoes, and see the glasses and see the jewelry at Auschwitz. And everything will just enter our hearts a lot more than a museum or a memorial because it’s actually the real thing,” said Averbuch. “To see the places that my ancestors were tortured hits differently. And even though we will have hardships and [restrictions on] what we can say and what we can’t, it doesn’t make us not go somewhere.”

The core purpose of the trip is to help participants become better human beings, Averbuch told eJP. “We feel that seeing how humankind can get into such a low place can make us better people,” he said. “In a couple of months, I’m drafting into the navy and when I’ll be in tough situations in the mud, in the cold, I need motivation. I need something that will tell me that there’s a reason that I’m doing this. “

Averbuch also hopes this trip will create a “leadership chain,” where participants return to their own communities and pass on what they learned and also plan additional trips to Poland. 

“We really feel that it’s our job to organize things that are important to us. And I think that Jewish leadership is something that is really needed,” he said. “And we really, really want other people to also go to their communities and if they have an issue that bothers them, something that they want to change, go change it.” 

Averbuch and Porat told eJP that despite the challenges of planning this trip themselves, it has been well worth it. Their passion stems from their own family history – both of them had family members killed in the Holocaust.

“I can’t see myself hearing those stories every Friday at the family dinners and not going to Poland and being there myself,” said Averbuch. “I just couldn’t forgive myself if I wouldn’t do it.”

For Porat, this trip serves as both a kind of personal closure and an opportunity to fulfill her role in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.

“We really are the last generation that will meet Holocaust survivors, and we have a huge part of remembering the Holocaust and continuing to talk about it,” she said. “So, we shall never forget, and we need to go there to see with our own eyes the places that the people spent [that] awful time so we can have the right to continue to remember the Holocaust.”