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Above the Death Pits, Beneath the Flag: Youth Voyages to Poland and the Performance of Israeli National Identity

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Above the Death Pits, Beneath the Flag

Youth Voyages to Poland and the Performance of Israeli National Identity

Jackie Feldman

328 pages, 27 photos, 7 tables, bibliog., index

ISBN  978-1-84545-362-6 $135.00/£99.00 Hb Published (April 2008)

ISBN  978-1-84545-569-9 $34.95/£27.95 Pb Published (October 2010)

eISBN 978-0-85745-007-4 eBook

Hb Pb View cartYour country: United States - Click here to remove geolocation   Buy the eBook from these vendors Request a Review or Examination Copy (in Digital Format) Recommend to your Library Available in GOBI®


Jackie Feldman’s book presents a fascinating and robust ethnographic study of Israeli youth voyages to Poland. Utilizing a most impressive array of methods, including participant observation, group discussion, content analysis of student diaries, and questionnaires, Feldman proposes that youth voyages may be unpacked as state-orchestrated civil religious rites of passage serving to transform Israeli youth, many of whom cannot trace their familial lineage to Shoah survivors, into carriers of ‘authentic’ Holocaust memory.  ·  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Feldman’s book is to be recommended unreservedly: as an encouragement for empirically based research into the practice of memory, but also in regard to the often mentioned ‘future of memory’ of the NS crimes.”  ·  H-Net

“...this at moments brilliant book is always intelligent and in-depth. It is written with scholarly integrity and erudition. The importance of Feldman's contribution to the scholarship of contemporary Israeli identity and the representations and the memory of the Holocaust is undeniable...It opens up fresh questions about the relationship between nation-state bureaucracies, textual and bodily experiences, and the pursuit of nationalism. And it asks where the limits and risks are of this conscious cultivation of nationalism in today's Israel.”  ·  H-Soz-u-Kult

“Jackie Feldman’s study is a mandatory book, not only for teachers of history, but also for every educator and educational administrator. By means of methodical anthropological research, Feldman describes the components and construction, of the visits by young Israelis to the death camps in Poland, organized on behalf of the Ministry of Education since the 1990s, and their consolidation into a ritual construct of pilgrimage which strengthens and integrates mythical, religious, and national features.”  ·  Journal of Israeli History

“The study offers an important contribution to an understanding of dealing with memory in Israeli society and creates a basis for a well-grounded and objective debate on a highly sensitive topic, the significance of which reaches well beyond the Israeli context.”  ·  Newsletter of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Frankfurt/Germany

"Jackie Feldman’s extensive research and absorbing analysis of Israeli youth voyages to Poland result in a compelling and unsettling argument about the meanings of Holocaust memory in Israel. This brilliant contribution will make us rethink the use of Holocaust memory in Israeli culture and society and beyond."  ·  Alon Confino, University of Virginia, author of Germany As a Culture of Remembrance: Promises and Limits of Writing History

"Above the Death Pits, Beneath the Flag offers rich ethnographic data and evocative observations on the transformative power of Israeli youth trips to the death camps in Poland and explores how they shape the youth’s historical consciousness. Jackie Feldman’s study is a must read for anyone interested in collective memory, tourism and pilgrimage, and the intricate meanings of the Holocaust in contemporary Israeli life."  ·  Yael Zerubavel, Author of Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. Professor of Jewish Studies & History and Director, The Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, Rutgers University


Israeli youth voyages to Poland are one of the most popular and influential forms of transmission of Holocaust memory in Israeli society. Through intensive participant observation, group discussions, student diaries, and questionnaires, the author demonstrates how the State shapes Poland into a living deathscape of Diaspora Jewry. In the course of the voyage, students undergo a rite de passage, in which they are transformed into victims, victorious survivors, and finally witnesses of the witnesses. By viewing, touching, and smelling Holocaust-period ruins and remains, by accompanying the survivors on the sites of their suffering and survival, crying together and performing commemorative ceremonies at the death sites, students from a wide variety of family backgrounds become carriers of Shoah memory. They come to see the State and its defense as the romanticized answer to the Shoah. These voyages are a bureaucratic response to uncertainty and fluidity of identity in an increasingly globalized and fragmented society. This study adds a measured and compassionate ethical voice to ideological debates surrounding educational and cultural forms of encountering the past in contemporary Israel, and raises further questions about the representation of the Holocaust after the demise of the last living witnesses.

Jackie Feldman lectures in Social Anthropology at Ben Gurion University, Beersheba, Israel. His areas of interest are anthropology of religion, collective memory, pilgrimage, and tourism. He has published on Holocaust memory and pilgrimages to the Second Temple and worked as a tour guide for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.

Subject: Anthropology (General) Jewish Studies Memory Studies Travel and Tourism
Area: Central/Eastern Europe Middle East & Israel


List of illustrations
List of tables

Preface: Seeking a personal past in the deathscapes of Poland

Chapter 1. Introduction and Methodology
The Shoah, Jewish-Israeli identity and the voyages to Poland Identifying the voyage as a rite of pilgrimage

  • The voyage as model and mirror

Commemoration and collective memory

  • Jewish memory paradigms and their Zionist transformations
  • Territorializing Jewish history in Zionist practice

Israeli social research on Shoah memory

  • From personal trauma to social constructivism
  • Previous research on the Poland voyages

From process to product: The ethnography of the voyage

  • Context, Structure, and Performance in the Voyages to Poland
  • Organization of the Book

Chapter 2. The historical and social context of Iraeli Shoah commemoration
The history of Shoah memory in Israel

  • Early reactions to the Shoah
  • From the Six Day War to the Yom Kippur War
  • Begin's rise to power: The use and abuse of Shoah memory
  • Generational time, the search for roots, and Israeli ethnicity

The Shoah in Israeli education - school textbooks and curricula
Spaces and times of Israeli Shoah Commemoration

  • Yad Vashem: monument and memory
  • Holocaust Memorial Day: calendar and commemoration

Chapter 3. The structure of the Poland voyages
Origins, history, and proclaimed aim of the voyage
The title of the voyage: seeking my brothers - the masa to Poland

  • The voyage group as substitute family
  • The Poland voyage as a masa

Administration and voyage staff

  • Voyage staff
  • The delegation leader
  • The guides
  • The accompanying teachers
  • The doctor and nurse
  • The Polish guide and driver
  • The survivor - witnesses Security personnel

Logistic arrangements: Food, clothing, and flags
The preparatory program

  • Selection of participants
  • The content of the preparatory program

The itinerary and its implicit messages

  • Exterior and interior space
  • Classification of places in "exterior space": death, life, and Polish "ventilation" sites
  • Allotment of time at sites

The rhythms of time in the voyage itinerary
Student expectations, Polish landscape, and guiding narratives

  • Guides' narrative techniques
  • From structure to performance

Chapter 4. Performing the Poland voyages
On the road: Walking through the Poland Voyage
Recruitment and voyage preparations at Sulam High School
The threshold of Poland

  • - day one The road to Treblinka
  • - day two "This is Treblinka Station"
  • Tykocin: Synagogues of the past and the survivor as sheriff
  • "See, there are no birds in this forest"
  • Evening discussion: when do we get to the Shoah?

Bus travel, ventilation and prayer

  • - day three Kabbalat Shabbat: Orthodox Judaism as safe Zionist heritage

Shabbat rest, Shabbat shopping

  • - day four Slouching through Cracow
  • (Non-)encounter with a Polish school
  • Singing for home
  • After Midnight: the staff meeting

The heart of the Shoah: Auschwitz-Birkenau

  • - day five Auschwitz I - Approaching the contested site of memory
  • Manifesting Israel at Auschwitz
  • Visiting the exhibition in Auschwitz I Birkenau — the Heart of the Death Camp "Honoring" the Righteous Gentile and the witnesses

Ventilazia: on the road again

  • - day six Touching the icons of death: Majdanek
  • - day seven The visit to Majdanek
  • Entering the site
  • The gas chambers
  • Shoes as relics: odour and authenticity
  • "We’re the same children who were there at the end"
  • Closing the circle: the final evening discussion

Going home: From Warsaw to Tel Aviv

  • - day eight Confronting the not-yet-dead Diaspora
  • The route of victory
  • Final ceremony: the little guy sends us on our way!

Chapter 5. The ceremonies of the Poland voyages
Introduction: What makes ceremonies different?
Contexts of voyage ceremonies

  • School ceremonies in Poland and Israel
  • Sites, times, and configurations of ceremonies

Representative examples of ceremony types

  • Delegation-wide ceremonies
  • Above the death pits, beneath the flag of Israel: the ceremony at Birkenau
  • Warsaw: a ceremony that failed
  • Bus-group ceremonies: "Every person has a name"
  • Individual ritual acts
  • "Honoring" ceremonies for Righteous Gentiles and witnesses

Religious texts and the commemorative ceremonies
The close of the ceremony: Hatikvah and the flag
Ceremonies as "triggers": group crying and consolation

  • The ceremonies: Conclusions

Chapter 6. Homecoming - the transmission of Holocaust memory and Jewish-Israeli Identity
Becoming a witness - the aftermath of the voyage

  • Transmitting the voyage experience
  • Talking about the voyage: Conversations with classmates, family, and survivors
  • Presentations: Albums, videos, ceremonies, and the future of "witnessing"

Subsequent effects of the voyage on participants

  • Changes in attitudes towards Jewish tradition and the Diaspora
  • The voyage and Polish others
  • The voyage and dedication to the nation
  • Dedication to the flag and students’ political opinions
  • Survival by proxy and service in the Israeli army

The future of the Israeli voyages to Poland

Chapter 7. Holocaust memory, national identity, and transformative ritual
Conclusions: Poland voyages as national pilgrimages
Cosmopolitan and nationalist memories of the Shoah in the ages of representations
The Poland voyages and modern state ritual: An event that models promoted by a bureaucracy

  • Models and mirrors, bodies and texts
  • The risks of transformatory events in bureaucracies


Appendix: The orthodox delegations to Poland


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