JERUSALEM — Israel’s national Holocaust memorial has criticized a new agreement renewing Israeli school trips to Poland, saying it recommends a number of “problematic sites” that distort history.
Yad Vashem issued its statement weeks after Israel and Poland announced a breakthrough agreement meant to repair ties that had been badly damaged due to disagreements over how to remember Polish behavior during the Holocaust. Israeli youth trips to Poland had been one of the key points of contention.
The March 22 agreement, which still needs to be ratified by both countries’ parliaments, stresses the importance of youth education “and the need to tell the full story of the dark times of the Holocaust and World War II.” The contents of the agreement were first reported by the liberal daily Haaretz.
It also calls for visits to “sites commemorating the Holocaust and other crimes of World War II,” including sites of special importance to each country’s history. Student groups are required to visit at least one site on a long list of museums and memorials recommended by the other government.
In its statement, Yad Vashem said the trips must maintain “complete historical accuracy, including the role of Poles in the persecution, handing in, and murder of Jews during the Holocaust, as well as in acts of rescue.”
It said the list of authorized sites in Poland had been compiled without its input and includes “problematic sites that should not be visited in an educational context.”
The list includes dozens of sites, including art galleries, royal palaces and Jewish history museums that already are popular destinations for Jewish visitors.
Poland’s Foreign Ministry said the two nations “have come to an agreement that it is good for young people to learn about all aspects of Jewish, Israeli and Polish history, not limited to the Holocaust.”
Yad Vashem did not say which sites it considers problematic. But the list includes the Ulma Family Museum, a site that tells the story of a Polish family that rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
The museum has been criticized for portraying the family, which was murdered along with the Jews they sheltered, as representative of mainstream Poles at the time, instead of a small minority who risked their lives.
Another museum commemorates Poland’s so-called “cursed soldiers,” anti-communist resistance fighters, some of whom collaborated with the Nazis and killed Jews toward the end of the war and after the war as they tried to prevent the imposition of communist rule.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry played down the controversy. It said the list had been approved by Israel’s Education Ministry and included dozens of choices, including the popular POLIN museum, which presents the history of Polish Jewry.
The inclusion of more controversial sites that are unlikely to be visited might be rooted more in Polish politics than international education. Poland’s nationalist government can point to the list as it appeals to its political base ahead of parliamentary elections this fall.
Poland has been one of Israel’s closest allies in Europe. But in recent years, relations have deteriorated due to disagreements over how to remember Polish involvement in the killing of Jews by German forces during World War II.
Nazi Germany occupied Poland in 1939 and killed millions of Jews and non-Jews. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. While some Poles risked their lives to save Jews, others helped the Germans hunt down and kill them.
Poland’s governing nationalists have sought to depict Polish crimes as a marginal phenomenon and focus almost exclusively on remembering the Polish heroes who helped Jews. Historians, Israeli authorities and Jewish survivors who suffered persecution at Polish hands before, during and after the war have condemned the nationalist position and accuse the government of seeking to whitewash history.
For years, young Israelis made pilgrimages to Auschwitz and other Holocaust and historic Jewish sites. But Israel canceled the trips last year, claiming the Polish government was trying to control the Holocaust-studies curriculum taught to Israeli children.
In its lead editorial on Tuesday, Haaretz said the agreement “comes at a heavy cost to Israel” and accused the government of cheapening the memory of the Holocaust in the name of diplomatic expediency.
Noting that Israel marks its annual Holocaust memorial day next week, it said: “We must also not forget who the people are who agreed to sell out Holocaust remembrance.”