April 21, 2020 — New York
This piece first appeared in Moment magazine.
I am here because “Righteous Among the Nations” overcame the fear and apathy, defying the Third Reich to save Jews. A pious Christian family hid my grandmother, bringing her along to church each day. My grandfather worked with a local priest to save Jews slated for deportation by entering them into the church baptism registry. Later, several non-Jewish families hid him before he was caught and sent to the Sered and Theresienstadt concentration camps.
As Holocaust survivors, they bore witness to the basest human evil. That their grandson accompanied senior Muslim religious leaders to Auschwitz, 75 years after its liberation, would have reassured them of another great lesson of their experience: the human capacity and responsibility for good.
In January, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), in partnership with the Muslim World League (MWL), brought 62 Muslims and 20 Jews from 28 countries together for a two-day interfaith mission in Poland. The Jewish delegation, led by AJC CEO David Harris, President Harriet Schleifer and Director of International Interreligious Affairs Rabbi David Rosen, included the Chief Rabbi of Poland and other dignitaries. The Muslim delegation, led by MWL Secretary General Dr. Muhammad Al-Issa, included the Director of Morocco’s royal league of religious scholars, Secretary General of the Egypt-based League of Islamic Universities, a former president of the Islamic Society of North America and the Mufti of Poland, among others.
Together we saw the remains of the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, taking in material evidence of the Holocaust. Barracks, gas chambers, crematoria, as well as piles of human hair, shoes and glasses, testify to the 1.3 million people forced into that hell on earth. With striking prose, moving prayer and heartfelt tears, Jews and Muslims honored the memory of the 1.1 million people—overwhelmingly Jews—murdered there.
At Auschwitz, we bore witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. The next day in Warsaw we celebrated Jewish life at the Polin Museum, the Nozyk synagogue and a Shabbat dinner. We memorialized the victims, and we stood in solidarity with the living.
The image of Muslims and Jews crossing the notorious gate of Auschwitz under the Nazi deception “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” (“work brings freedom”), will forever mark a watershed moment in the history of interreligious relations. And yet there is an inherent challenge in such a program: The Holocaust holds different meanings for our communities.
For Jews, the Holocaust represents the targeting of our people for destruction, the loss of our relatives and the devastation of our culture. For Jews the Shoah is a formative narrative, and while it does not constitute all of Jewish identity, its impact is profound.
The situation for most Muslims is quite different. According to a recent survey, only 38 percent of people in the Middle East and North Africa (excluding Jews) had heard of the Holocaust, and 63 percent of them believed it to be either a myth or greatly exaggerated. Muslims in Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia were undoubtedly affected by World War II, but the Holocaust is not fundamentally about Islam or Muslims. So, when Jews engage with Muslims about the Holocaust, we must learn to share the narrative.
A few recommendations emerged from our mission to Poland.
First, one should not speak only of a human tragedy and avoid the specific plight of the Jews. Certainly, the Holocaust was a crime against humanity. The Nazis targeted other groups: Scinti and Roma, people with disabilities and those deemed as sexually or politically deviant. Honest discussion of the Holocaust must involve the universal human failing during the Nazi era. However, if one fails to mention Jews or antisemitism, one is simply not talking about the Holocaust.
Dr. Al-Issa modeled the balance between universal messaging and drawing attention to the particular tragedy of the Jews. “The unconscionable crimes to which we bear witness today are truly crimes against humanity…an affront to all of God’s children,” said Al-Issa. But he also emphasized that “Over one million people were killed at Auschwitz simply because they were Jews…and we must condemn these disgusting crimes regardless of who are the perpetrators and who are the victims, without double standards.”
Second, when Jews engage the Holocaust with others, we must relinquish sole ownership over the narrative. Without forgetting that Nazi hatred and murder focused on Jews, we should encourage our partners to find a personal stake in an often-foreign narrative.
For Muslim partners there are several touchpoints:
Nazi reach extended into North Africa through the Vichy regime and the German and Italian campaigns there. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers in the Soviet and British armed forces fought the Axis powers, and a small number of Muslims were sent to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps. Individual Muslim “Righteous Among the Nations” courageously saved Jews across Europe and North Africa. King Muhammad V of Morocco opposed Vichy discriminatory laws, famously writing that he did not have Jewish or Muslim subjects, but only Moroccans. These episodes are useful points of pride and empathy for Muslims. However, negative points of connection must also be considered.
The Third Reich saw Arabs and Muslims as natural allies, and the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS recruited Muslim divisions, taking special efforts to accommodate their religious practices. The Nazi’s Arabic propaganda machine—aided by controversial figures such as Mufti Hajj Amin Al-Husseini—was quite active, and their Jew-hatred resonated in segments of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Sadly, that legacy lives on among some, where Hitler is venerated, and Mein Kampf is still read and praised. Likewise, Holocaust denial is not relegated to the fringes of society in several Muslim-majority countries. These difficult issues must also be a part of the discussion when Muslims and Jews encounter the Holocaust together.
The AJC-MWL delegation embodied this mode of engagement. While the Jewish children and grandchildren of survivors on the trip shared their stories, we also recognized the Muslim righteous who saved Jews. At Auschwitz, Dr. Al-Issa was given a list of 50 names of Muslim prisoners interned there. He condemned Holocaust denial as an act of collaboration with the Nazis and testified, before Arab and Western media, to what he and the delegation witnessed. “With our own eyes we saw the evidence of this crime against humanity; we saw the gas chambers, we saw their hair, and we saw their shoes.”
Third, as Jews we ought to appreciate the risk that some Muslim partners take in publicly recognizing the Holocaust as a Jewish tragedy, and abstain from politicizing it. For most Jews the unrestrained slaughter of six million of our people stresses the importance of having a Jewish state. However, we do a disservice to Israel and the memory of the victims if we relegate one to the role of justification for the other. Moreover, we risk obstructing genuine learning about the Holocaust.
The Muslim delegation traveled with an American Jewish organization to Auschwitz. Israel was appropriately not a part of our program. Still, vocal critics in the Arab and Muslim world quickly labeled the effort as a Zionist ploy and attacked participants as collaborators with the enemy. We cannot surrender the narrative to extremists, but we must recognize the dynamic involved for many Muslims.
Non-Jewish partners should also do their part to depoliticize the Holocaust. It is tempting to apply its lesson immediately to other human tragedies. Our responsibility to prevent contemporary genocide and oppression is an appropriate response to learning about the Nazi atrocities. However, proper respect for the victims demands pausing with the pain, horror and loss on its own terms before reducing the Holocaust to an object lesson about crimes against humanity. Partners can recognize the Holocaust on its own terms and take it as a call to action in the world today without amalgamating tragedies.
Fourth, as Jews engage with Muslims in the context of the Holocaust, we do well to recognize that the world is changing, and we have a growing cadre of allies. Although the MWL group was the most senior Muslim delegation to visit Auschwitz, it was not the first. Organizations such as the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom take joint Muslim-Jewish missions to Europe to learn about the Holocaust together. Leading American Muslim figures embrace the need for Holocaust education and condemn those who lionize Hitler; and Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day and Kristallnacht.
And even in the Arab world, there are encouraging developments. In Morocco, for example, King Muhammad VI has publicly affirmed the realities of the Holocaust and urged all citizens to learn about its horrors. In Egypt a university theater troupe received awards and acclaim for their play Sobibor, portraying the brutal treatment of Jews in that concentration camp. Likewise, the visit of the Saudi-based MWL, together with leading religious figures from Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Tunisia and other places, is a sign of changing times as well.
We are far from the finish line in the work of Muslim-Jewish relations in the context of the Holocaust, but shining examples of what is possible do exist. These should encourage us to continue.
It is an act of intimacy and vulnerability to let others share a stake in a story so formative for our collective identity. We watch how it affects others. If their response is too universal, it threatens to write us out of a history we feel is particular to us. Simultaneously, it is unreasonable and irresponsible to wish for the Holocaust to be a lesson only about the Jews without broader implications for humanity.
The persistent reality of contemporary antisemitism demands that no one detach the Holocaust from the attempt to systematically eradicate Jews and the specific form of hatred that fueled it. Yet, if Jews seek allies in the fight against antisemitism, and if we aspire to actualize “Never Again,” we cannot claim sole ownership over the narrative.
As survivors of the Holocaust, my grandparents embraced this duality and passed it on to their children and grandchildren. My son, named for his great-grandfather, will come of age in a world without firsthand witnesses to share and interpret their experiences. That reality calls us to be increasingly thoughtful about how we construct the memory of the Holocaust and apply its lessons.
Dr. Ari Gordon is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of U.S. Muslim-Jewish Relations.