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Are Year 10 students too young to visit Auschwitz?

Elana Benjamin and Paula Towers
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IST Auschwitz 2015 ex AJN

Published: 23 January 2024

Last updated: 6 April 2024

A visit to the camps can have a life-long legacy on young minds. ELANA BENJAMIN and PAULA TOWERS investigate the impact of this rite of passage on Australian Jewish youth.

END OF YEAR 10 Israel trips have become a rite of passage for Australian Jewish day school students. Their purpose is to strengthen young people’s Jewish identity and connection to Israel. Since 2011, some Sydney and Melbourne day schools have included visits to former concentration camps in Poland or the Czech Republic as part of their students’ Israel trips.

While most of those side visits have been on hold since 2020 (due to Covid, political strife and most recently, the war in Gaza), Moriah College's Year 10 Israel program includes a trip to Auschwitz, and Mount Scopus's program includes a trip to Theresienstadt. But are 15- and 16-year-olds equipped to deal with the emotional impact of visiting Holocaust sites?

The Jewish Independent is not suggesting that substantial numbers of students have been traumatised by visits to Holocaust sites. However, these visits are a compulsory part of the Israel trips – if a student wants to go to Israel, they must also visit whichever camp is included in their school’s program. Yet academics and health professionals agree there has been little formal research on the impact of visiting the camps.

Australian high school students first began group visits to Holocaust sites through the International March of the Living (MOTL) program, which was founded in Israel. MOTL began in 1988 as a two-week educational program for teens and takes place annually.

Participants from all over the world, including adults, spend a week in Poland – including the march itself, a three-kilometre walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day – and then travel to Israel to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.

However, due to strong opposition from its survivor community, Australia refused to officially participate in MOTL until 2001. Many Polish survivors had only bitter memories and insisted they would boycott any visits to Poland. They were adamant it would be an affront to them for Australian Jewry to be officially represented at MOTL, and Jewish leaders felt obliged to respect their feelings.

Twenty-four Year 11 students from Sydney and Melbourne went on MOTL in 2001, and participant numbers steadily grew until 2010. This changed in 2011, when Mount Scopus began including a stop in Prague to visit Theresienstadt as part of its students’ Year 10 immersive Israel experience.

The impact on MOTL was immediate, with numbers dropping by half: only 54 Australian students went on MOTL in 2011, compared to 110 the previous year. Moriah soon followed Mount Scopus, adding a Poland component to its Israel Study Tour (IST). By 2019, there were only 10 Australian students on MOTL.

Not all day schools have added Auschwitz or Theresienstadt to their Year 10 Israel trips. King David and Bialik in Melbourne, Emanuel in Sydney and Carmel in Perth don’t include Holocaust memorial sites in their end of Year 10 itineraries.

“I think a Poland experience would be rich, meaningful and extremely powerful,” Emanuel School Principal Andrew Watt told The Jewish Independent. “But my preference is for our students to go as part of a family or community trip.” While Watt is confident that most of his students would cope with visiting Auschwitz, he says that some wouldn’t.

“I know there would be parents in the Year 10 community who would be worried about exposing their children to the horrors on the ground at Auschwitz at such an early age.” There are other factors behind Emanuel’s decision not to include Poland in its Chavaya program, including the logistical burden and additional cost.

Moriah's IST trip takes a different approach. “We find that doing Poland brings a huge appreciation for the State of Israel – not to frame it that Israel was created because of the Holocaust, but to see it as, ‘If only we had Israel, this tragedy would have been avoided’,” says Moriah College Head of Jewish Life – High School, Talya Wiseman.

My feeling is that the trip should not be compulsory, as everyone is different.

Kim Slender, consultant psychologist with the Sydney Jewish Museum

Last year, Moriah planned for its Year 10 students to spend five days visiting the camps in Poland and five weeks in Israel. In the past, IST’s first week was spent in Poland (similar to MOTL), but the 2023 cohort was going to first fly to Israel and head to Poland in the second week of the program.

Although Mount Scopus declined to be interviewed for this article, The Jewish Independent understands that Scopus students were also going to spend time in Israel before visiting Prague for a few days and then returning to Israel. Once in Poland, Moriah students would get a sense of Poland’s thriving Jewish community prior to World War II, and then visit and honour those lost in the Holocaust. Of course, the trips didn’t go ahead as planned due to the events of October 7.

Moriah is currently planning IST 2024, which – provided it’s deemed safe to travel – will see Year 10 students spending a week in Israel before flying to Poland for the second week of the program, then returning to Israel for the duration of IST.

IST aims to make the trip personal for participants, with students doing their own research beforehand and speaking about people close to them who lost family in the Shoah. “We want our students to feel more connected with their heritage, with Israel and with each other,” Wiseman says.

Indeed, visiting Holocaust memorial sites has potential benefits. MOTL, for example, has been shown to boost Jewish and Zionist identity: a 2015 study on the long-term effects of participating in MOTL was overwhelmingly positive, with about 95% of the 250 respondents saying the program strengthened their Jewish identity. And individual graduates of MOTL’s teen program have gone on to deeply engage with Holocaust commemoration and education when they return to Australia.

Kim Slender, Consultant Psychologist with the Sydney Jewish Museum, who estimates she has taken 200-300 Year 11s on MOTL, says the power of the program is immeasurable. “When a young person makes the choice to go on MOTL,” she adds, “it can be a life-changing experience.”

Students at Krakow, Poland, on IST 2017 (Israelstudytour.com.au)
Students at Krakow, Poland, on IST 2017 (Israelstudytour.com.au)

Avril Alba, Associate Professor of Holocaust Studies and Jewish Civilisation at the University of Sydney, says: “Learning in the landscape is irreplaceable because it’s such a physical, embodied experience.”

Wiseman agrees. “Yad Vashem is an incredibly powerful museum. But it’s still a museum. It’s very different – and far more powerful – to go to the camps.”

As well as fostering a deeper appreciation of Holocaust history and setting students on a journey of learning, other potential benefits of an on-site experience include the growth of a young person’s identity and sense of self, and an awareness of the need to counter antisemitism, prejudice, racism and human rights abuses.

But not all visits to Holocaust memorial sites are equal. Alba, who has led MOTL on two occasions, stresses that the program design, and how students are supported, is vital to maximising the impact of the experience. Professor Garry Walter, a psychiatrist affiliated with the University of Sydney, agrees.

“The key”, Walter says, “is adequate preparation – about the relevant history of the places visited and overall historical context, together with psychological screening and preparation.” (Walter also co-authored a pilot study in 2013 of Israeli teens’ trips to Poland, which will be addressed in this article.)

We make sure that any student who might be more vulnerable or might struggle more with the Poland component is supported.

Talya Wiseman, Moriah College

Yet Slender, Alba and Walter agree that visiting Auschwitz isn’t for everyone. “It is intense,” Alba says. “No one should underestimate the trips. There’s a potential for distress if they’re not done properly.”

Slender says: “My feeling is that the trip should not be compulsory, as everyone is different.” Walter emphasises that the appropriateness of a visit to Auschwitz should always come down to the suitability of the individual adolescent, rather than adolescents as a group.

To this end, MOTL Australia has put extensive screening and support processes in place for all high school participants and consulted on numerous occasions with high-profile adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg and other school and community psychologists. (In 2019, MOTL Australia shifted focus from its teen program to its young adult program, due to dwindling school student participation.)

Cedric Geffen, Co-President of MOTL Australia, who has been on the program eight times, is confident the organisation did everything in its power to minimise any psychological risk to high school students. As a result, “the number of negative incidents was minimal,” he says.

Slender concurs, saying that 99% of MOTL Australia’s teen participants did not struggle with emotions while they were in Poland, other than what were normal human responses to witnessing such atrocities. But even with all the screening and preparation, Slender admits that MOTL did have kids “who really struggled with emotion while they were there and when they got back”.

Moriah also prepares its students well in advance of IST. The head of Year 10 and the school’s wellbeing team work closely with the cohort going away. Students speak with key staff members, including the school psychologist, and with their families. Parents are encouraged to air any concerns, which the school then works through.

“We make sure that any student who might be more vulnerable or might struggle more with the Poland component is supported,” Wiseman says, “because each student’s situation is unique.” Moriah also planned to use its first week in Israel to further prepare the group before flying to Poland.

Yet students can’t opt out of Poland: either they go to Israel and Poland, or they don’t go on IST. It is understood that Mount Scopus students similarly can’t opt out of Prague. In this way, the schools’ IST programs are different to MOTL: anyone going on MOTL must opt-in to the trip.

There’s been little independent investigation of the emotional impact of visits to Holocaust memorial sites on 15- and 16-year-olds. Globally, over 200,000 high-schoolers have participated in MOTL since its inception, and there have been three long-term impact studies of the program – in 1993, 2004 and 2015.

But the main focus of those studies is on the correlation between participation in MOTL and its impact on Jewish identity, and on participants’ views on the Holocaust and Israel; there’s been no research on MOTL’s emotional or psychological impact on teens.

And there are few studies which more broadly analyse how visiting a Holocaust memorial site could affect high schoolers’ mental wellbeing. (See accompanying article on the research that has been carried out.)

This lack of research takes on added importance in view of the massive rise in teen mental health issues in broader society, largely due to the rise of social media and the impact of COVID. Added to that are intergenerational changes.

Today’s teens, Alba says, are information-rich and sophisticated in many ways. “They literally inhabit a different universe. We assume the emotional literacy is there,” she adds, “but maybe it’s not.” So, could this experiential learning wait until teens are a little older, when they can deliberately choose to visit Holocaust memorial sites, rather than it being tacked on to their Israel experiences?

IST Lehava, Poland, 2017
IST Lehava, Poland, 2017

Slender says that 15, 16 and 17 years old is too young if it’s not a conscious choice. “It’s such a huge decision to take a student to Poland; it should be something they really want to do,” she says. Alba speculates that visits to Poland may have more impact for students when they are at university, “when they know themselves more and understand more about what they’re seeing and doing.”

Geffen is blunt. “If we were looking to design the perfect program [to Poland and Israel], would we choose to send 16-year-olds? I’d say probably not.” Presumably, the same goes for Prague.

Students can’t opt out of Poland: either they go to Israel and Poland, or they don’t go on IST.

That’s not to say MOTL Australia has any concerns about its teen program, which successfully ran for many years. “We certainly believe the program is suitable for high school students,” Geffen tells The Jewish Independent, “and we’d love nothing more than to resurrect a teen program. The only reason we stopped was because it wasn’t sustainable due to the day-school programs.”

This year, 13 young adults formed part of Australia’s delegation to MOTL. “In hindsight,” Geffen says, “a 20-35-year-old is far more capable of absorbing the impact of the program and ready to do something impactful with it afterwards.”

The issue is, if teens don’t visit the camps as part of their school trips, how many of them will go at a later date? Desire isn’t the only factor – cost also plays a part. In 2019, when MOTL shifted focus onto its young adult program for 20-35-year-olds, it knew the trips would have to be highly subsidised to be successful. Due to Covid, MOTL didn’t run from 2020-22.

But in 2023, MOTL Australia capped the out-of-pocket contribution for selected young adult participants at $4500-$5000, and subsidised the balance, of around $10,000-12,000 each for those participants. But even that out-of-pocket expense is substantial, particularly in the current economic climate.

This is especially so given that young adults are likely to be paying their own way, as opposed to school students whose parents foot the bill. Bundling Auschwitz or Theresienstadt into schools’ Israel trips guarantees that more young people experience the camps.

Yet there’s also a bigger question at play here, about how to build Jewish identity in teenagers. The Holocaust must never be forgotten, which is why day-school students get an in-depth education about the Shoah – in their classrooms, by visiting their local Jewish Museum, and by visiting Yad Vashem on their Year 10 trips.

But are there other ways to foster Jewish identity than by further exposing teens to the trauma of Auschwitz or Theresienstadt on mandated school trips in the icy temperatures of a northern hemisphere winter?

A case in point is Melbourne’s Bialik College which this year plans to take – for the first time – around 80 Year 10 students to Morocco as part of their students’ Israel visit. Students will spend time in Marrakech, Essaouira, Casablanca and a small rural village in the Atlas Mountains. In each location they will engage with locals, the city, its history and culture, visiting general tourist attractions and many Jewish sites. The school has also arranged to partner with the Casablanca community to create a l shared Shabbat experience between Bialik students and Moroccan Jewish children of the same age.

No doubt Morocco will add a unique dimension to Bialik students’ Israel experience. As will Poland: Moriah staff members who have previously been on IST – both with and without Poland – unanimously agree the Poland component adds greater depth to IST.

But it’s worth bearing in mind the lasting impact of these trips. Eytan Uliel went on the first MOTL in 1988, when he was a 16-year-old-student at Moriah College. Uliel, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, says that the trip was an amazing experience for him; something he found incredibly important for his learning and understanding. “I can still recall almost every minute of that trip today,” Uliel says, some 35 years later. “As a teenager, you’re not as academic and analytical, so I think you feel it more and it internalises in you in a different way,” he adds. “That’s why there’s such a great responsibility on organisations taking young people to Poland. You’re impressing upon young minds stuff that will live with them forever.”

Delegation, a film about Israeli students visiting Poland, will screen at JIFF supported by The Jewish Independent, which will host a discussion after the screening about adolescent trips to Holocaust sites. Find out more

Photo: IST visit to Auschwitz in 2015

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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