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Despite tensions over the Holocaust, Israeli tourism in Poland is booming

Yossi Blak, left, and fellow travelers from Israel visit Lublin's Hotel Ilan, Sept. 5, 2018. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — Shopping was the last thing on Sarah Hirsch’s mind this summer when she boarded a flight from Tel Aviv to this capital city.

It started out as a Holocaust pilgrimage. Hirsch, 67, flew to Warsaw in August with her husband, Naftali, and a friend to see where her older brother was murdered at the age of 3, along with three of her grandparents and all of her uncles and cousins.

“I told myself I would do nothing but study and mourn,” Hirsch, who was born shortly after World War II in what today is Romania, told JTA after touring the Auschwitz death camp. “It would be an in-and-out,” she said of her and her husband’s first visit to Poland.

Hirsch, a retired lawyer, also was antagonized after Poland passed a law early this year outlawing rhetoric that blames the nation for any Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust. She fears it will whitewash some Poles’ crimes amid the genocide — as do many other critics of that legislation, which triggered a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland.

Sarah Hirsch, right, with her husband, Naftali, and friend Gabby Schwartz arriving at a Warsaw hotel, Sept. 6, 2018. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

But like a growing number of Israeli tourists who have discovered Poland’s charms, Hirsch said her experiences on the ground softened her attitude.

“It developed into giving myself the opportunity to enjoy also the good things,” including shopping, she said. “I saw a young generation here that had no part in the Holocaust trying to build a normal, democratic country with many, many beautiful things despite its singularly tragic history.”

Despite tensions over how to speak about and approach the Holocaust, tourism from Israel to Poland and vice versa is dramatically increasing, official figures show.

Traffic from Israel to Poland last year skyrocketed to a record 250,000 arrivals, a 79 percent increase from the previous year’s 139,000, according to Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari. That followed a 40 percent rise in 2016 over 2015, according to the Polish Tourism Ministry.

Israel has also gained popularity among Polish tourists, with almost 100,000 arrivals in 2017 — a 64 percent increase over the previous year. And in the first 10 months of 2018, that figure jumped to 123,000 tourists from Poland, Israel’s Tourism Ministry told JTA.

LOT, Poland’s national airline, added 12 weekly flights last year to the seven it already had from Warsaw to Tel Aviv. The expansion created direct flights from Israel to Gdansk, Poznan, Lublin and Wroclaw, with a Krakow direct flight on track for next year, LOT spokesman Adrian Kubicki told JTA. He said the company is registering no change in traffic following the diplomatic crisis over the Holocaust law.

“Israel is perceived as one of the safest and friendliest destinations in the Middle East right now,” Kubicki said. “There’s also centuries of cultural affinity that makes Polish people feel at home there.”

At least 15 percent of the traffic from Israel to Poland in 2017 owed to organized educational tripsabout the Holocaust. Israel’s Education Ministry arranges such trips for about 25,000 high school students annually, with the numbers rising steadily.

The crisis in relations with Israel — at the height of which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu protested when his Polish counterpart appeared to say that some Jews collaborated with their Nazi killers – seems to have had a minimal effect on the traffic.

Shem Olam, a Holocaust museum near Hadera, Israel, said it would no longer include Poland on its small educational trips to Europe. Instead it sent 20 guides this year to Ukraine – a country where collaboration with the Nazis was far greater than in Poland, and which, along with several other Eastern European countries, also has recently passed laws limiting what can be said about such collaboration.

Israel and Poland, which is one of the Jewish state’s staunchest advocates in the European Union, buried the hatchet earlier this year after Poland amended the legislation, effectively decriminalizing the prohibition on accusing Poland for Nazi crimes.

Naftali Hirsch, Sarah’s husband, says he feels more welcome in Poland than in his native Hungary.

“Some Poles betrayed Jews during the Holocaust,” said Naftali Hirsch, 70, who lost two siblings in the Holocaust. “But unlike Hungary, Romania and many other countries, this was not a collaborationist country. This was an occupied country, where the Nazis carried out systemic murder.”

In Poland, the Nazis killed 3 million Polish Jews — half of the Jews killed in the Holocaust — as well as another 3 million non-Jewish Poles.

“I feel a kinship,” said Nafatali Hirsch, a retired aviation professional. “When I say I’m Jewish here, there’s empathy in people’s eyes. When I do it in Hungary, there’s often an icy silence.”

But Sarah Hirsch said it bothered her that their guide at the Auschwitz museum “didn’t say a word about collaboration by some Poles.”

“Not many, perhaps, but we need to have this discussion,” she said. “This country and society is ready for it, despite this law, which many Poles feel uncomfortable with.”

The engine for growth in Israeli tourism in Poland, however, is not in its Holocaust-related sites. Rather it owes to Israelis who are drawn by the country’s low costs, relative safety and rich Jewish heritage, according to Daniela Singler, an Israeli who has visited Poland 11 times last year.

‘It’s the perfect combination,” she said during an interview on Israel’s Channel 2 last year. “The living’s cheap. You can get a luxury meal for $13. You stay at a top five-star hotel for less than you’d spend on a guesthouse in the Galilee.”

Israel’s El Al airlines, in its in-flight magazine earlier this year, crowned Warsaw as a “shopping paradise.” The article does not mention any of the city’s Jewish attractions, like the award-winning new Polin Jewish museum that opened in 2013, or what remains of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Some tourists from Israel skip these sites altogether.

“I’m not into the whole Holocaust thing, bro,” one tourist, Adi Cohen from Petach Tikvah, said while browsing with his girlfriend at a mall.

And the Nożyk Synagogue, the only surviving prewar Jewish house of prayer in Warsaw?

“If I wanted to go to shul, I would’ve stayed in Petach Tikvah,” he said. “I’m here to eat, drink and have fun.”

The increase in tourism from Israel is affecting some Polish Jewish institutions.

Galil, one of Warsaw’s best kosher restaurants, has had to move to a bigger space and triple its manpower over the past eight years, its manager, David Sosnckey, told JTA. It now employs three chefs who struggle to accommodate the ever-growing stream of patrons.

The restaurant, which serves a fusion menu of Middle Eastern and Eastern European foods with kosher certification from the highly strict Edah HaChareidis label, has had to move because “the neighbors at our previous location started complaining about the noise and traffic,” he said.

Several new kosher or Israeli restaurants have opened over the past five years not only in Warsaw, but in cities as far west as Poznan and as far east as Lublin. In Warsaw, that included the Israeli kosher restaurant Bekef and Hummus Bar and the Mezze falafel eatery. In Krakow, in the southern part of the country, there was Hamsa, an Israeli restaurant with Turkish references.

Lublin’s newest Israeli restaurant, Olive, is part of what is perhaps the most remarkable touristic endeavor undertaken in Poland in recent years targeting a Jewish clientele.

Operating since 2013, it opened as part of Hotel Ilan – a four-star establishment with 50 rooms. Its building used to house Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, a Hasidic university of unprecedented proportions that opened in 1930, cementing the city’s status as a hub of Jewish learning and life in Eastern Europe.

Featuring dormitories for hundreds of students – a novelty among yeshivas at the time – it was gutted by the Nazis in 1939. They burned the establishment’s books in 1940 in a fire that lasted 20 hours.

After the building was returned to the Jewish community of Poland, it was turned into a prestigious hotel. Today it serves a varied clientele ranging from Jewish pilgrims visiting graves of prominent rabbis to conference-goers who book Ilan for its spa and exotic in-house restaurant.

The imposing facade, a typical piece of 20th-century architecture with Baroque and Art Deco elements, features a fresh coat of light orange paint and a large sign in Hebrew bearing the former yeshiva’s name and a biblical verse. Only insid, does the illusion of a living, breathing Talmudic institution give way to a boutique hotel design, complete with a bar and a sauna.

Another part of the building features a museum that is free to tour, even for non-guests. And there’s a small functioning synagogue.

“This hotel, I couldn’t care less about it,” said one visitor, Yossi Blak, an Orthodox Jewish tourist from the Israeli city of Bnei Brak. Bound for the Ukrainian city of Uman for a Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage, Blak and his family passed by Lublin because the late Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, the leader of Blak’s stream of haredi Judaism, used to attend Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin.

“In fact,” Blak said, “I try to block out all this touristic noise, close my eyes and imagine the sound of 5,000 yeshiva students reciting and studying Torah. When they return to this hotel, I’ll get a room.”

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