May 18-24 felt like a lifetime: emotional, exhausting, and exhilarating, as amid the horror of the Holocaust, we escorted a global delegation of influential Muslim leaders from nine countries on an historic journey to concentration camps in Germany and Poland.
In 2010 we had embarked on a similar journey with eight of America’s leading imams, because falsehoods about the Holocaust remain a leading propaganda tool to foment deadly anti-Semitism and anti-Western sentiment. We sought to undercut that legacy with a journey that bore witness to the truth of the Holocaust.
Not everyone agreed with us. Some Jewish groups urged us not to undertake this trip, arguing that some of the invited American imams had not been allies of the Jewish community in the past. We believe, however, that human beings grow and are transformed by their experiences and that it is our duty to engage with all those willing to openly engage with us. Further, we know the Holocaust is not taught in Islamic countries and so most have little to no knowledge base of the Holocaust. Therefore setting litmus tests for dialogue does little to increase knowledge or change hearts and minds.
Our 2010 journey met with great success. Following the trip, imams with massive congregations of 5000 families reached out to their Jewish neighbors, condemned Holocaust Denial and any form of anti-Semitism as being against Islam; they spoke publicly about their experience visiting the camps and some even began sharing community meals and rituals with their Abrahamic cousins.
We wondered; what would imams, sheikhs, Islamic educators and leaders from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bosnia, Palestine, Indonesia, India, Nigeria and Turkey have to say to a similar journey?
We embarked, once again, on an unprecedented mission of learning and compassion.
We were also joined by three State Department Ambassadors: In his first official act was Secretary of State John Kerry’s newly appointed Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Ira Forman; Ambassador Michael Kozak, the State Department’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and Rashid Hussain, U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
We began in Germany. We prayed at a mosque outside Munich where the imam spoke to the importance of our journey. At the Jewish Museum, a young woman working at the bookstore expressed curiosity about our group. One of our Muslim participants explained that the group included a rabbi and Muslim imams from around the world, on the way to Dachau and Auschwitz to pray for the victims and to learn about the Holocaust. Tears of hope filled her eyes as she told us she never imagined such a thing possible. Then the delegation toured the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. We walked through the infamous “showers” where victims were gassed and the ovens where the murdered were disposed of. We met our first survivor, 93-year-old survivor Max Mannheimer, who spoke of his time at Dachau and other camps. We issued a collective gasp when he showed us the tattooed number he still bears on his arm from Auschwitz.
In Poland we entered the notorious arbeit macht frei gate at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Our group was visibly shocked at the displays of Nazi loot: the entire length of one barrack contains mounds of hair shorn from the heads of Jewish women as they entered the camp; it was used to fabricate textiles. We saw tens of thousands of pots and pans and hairbrushes and eyeglasses. The things of everyday life; but here they were the things of everyday death.
Then there were the children’s shoes. Thousands piled high behind a glass display. We were no longer Jewish and Muslim leaders, but parents mourning for our children. We walked the train tracks, past the selection stand (right you die, left you are worked to death) to the bombed-out crematoria, the Nazis trying to hide the evidence as they retreated, but still the smell of burning soot seems to linger in the air.
The next day we met an Auschwitz survivor who recalled fearing white coats, because as a little girl she’d been among the children experimented on by Dr. Mengele. She remembered injections that made her sick; and blood being taken for the soldiers on the front. She was one of the very rare few who survived his sick medical experiments.
At Dachau, beneath a bronze sculpture of gnarled human forms caught for eternity in barbed wire, and at Auschwitz’s execution wall, the sight of Muslims prostrate in praying stopped tourists in their tracks.
If there was any lingering skepticism on anyone’s part, it melted. We were no longer Jewish and Muslim leaders but people sharing a heartfelt desire to learn, and the impossible task of trying to comprehend. It was a life-altering trip and deeply personal for all.
We understood that few in the global Muslim community had extensive knowledge of Nazi ideology, or of 20th century German or Jewish history. This may be why Holocaust Denial among many in the Middle East and beyond is increasingly becoming a political tool to foment hate. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is distributed as a book of history, not rancid fiction. We felt it urgent to address these developments by simply allowing leaders to experience the truth of the camps. Our belief in the value of this process proved justified once again.
Islam is a religion that champions compassion. That was amply demonstrated to us by the profound compassion and care that these imams demonstrated throughout the journey, speaking with survivors, and honoring the places where few survived. These influential Muslim leaders have released an unprecedented public statement, which says in part:
“We acknowledge, as witnesses, that it is unacceptable to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics.
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish brothers and sisters in condemning anti-Semitism in any form. No creation of Almighty God should face discrimination based on faith or religious conviction.
“We stand united as Muslim intellectuals, community leaders and imams and recognize that we have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to resist the dehumanization, displacement and genocide of all peoples based on their religion, race, gender or ethnicity. With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred, rhetoric, and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth, peace and justice.”
We ended our trip amidst a flurry of heartfelt goodbyes at the Krakow airport. But we haven’t ended the journey. We planted an unprecedented seed of understanding in some unlikely places. We surely have not resolved all the differences between Muslims and Jews. But the visit to these camps not only unequivocally testifies to the fruits of hate, it affirms that the lessons of the Holocaust can lead us to affirm our common humanity.
Rabbi Jack Bemporad is Director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding (New Jersey), and Director of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical Angelicum University (Rome).
Professor Marshall Breger is Professor of Law, Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America; former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and liaison to the Jewish community.
Suhail A Khan is Senior Fellow, Institute for Global Engagement in Washington, DC and former liaison to the Muslim community for President George W. Bush.