Marshall Breger | “What Happened at Auschwitz?”

By | Jul 02, 2013
2013 July-August, World

A delegation of leading Muslim clerics finds answers and responds with compassion.

In May, for the second time in three years, I traveled with a dozen imams and other Muslim religious leaders to the concentration camps at Dachau and Auschwitz. The imams met with survivors and “righteous among the nations”; they confronted the face of evil and found themselves overwhelmed with human compassion. Both trips were a joint project with Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding. The first time, we took American imams; this year, the participants came from countries as diverse as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bosnia, India, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority.

The trip was a voyage of discovery in which the Muslim delegation grappled with the Shoah’s universal significance and began to understand the roots of Jewish pain and trauma. I, too, learned many things on the trip—about myself, about my Muslim colleagues, about Islam and about human nature. Some of these lessons have important implications.

First, we have to recognize that the Muslim world—certainly the community outside Western Europe and the United States—is largely uninformed about the Holocaust. One imam asked me in all honesty, “What happened at Auschwitz?” At worst, our participants had been taught conspiratorial theories as to how the Shoah narrative was used to promote Western or Israeli political agendas. And if they do have some knowledge, it is as relevant to them as a medieval massacre in Central Asia would be to us. So we must start not by condemning their unawareness but by providing opportunities to learn the truth.

Second, to confront the mechanized horror that is the Holocaust will impact any human being. As religious people, the imams instinctively responded with prayer: They prostrated themselves in the salat prayer before the Auschwitz “Wall of Death” to pray for the souls of those murdered there. One Muslim leader told me, “After leaving Auschwitz, I feel that I shall no longer be silent when witnessing injustice.”

Third, those skeptical about the “agenda” of what they read in history books had no such skepticism about the contemporaneous movies taken by German troops of Einsatzgruppen Aktionen or the film footage shot by the Red Army on liberating Auschwitz. Meeting with living survivors, they collectively leaned forward in their chairs upon seeing the tattoos and spontaneously stood to honor the speakers as they concluded their personal accounts. And of course, there were the camps themselves. Lectures and books are of value, but the real impact came in seeing the crematoria, the showers, the piled-high housewares and suitcases and prostheses and the thousands of children’s shoes.

Fourth, one cannot overstate the importance of telling the stories of Muslim “Righteous Among Nations” who saved Jews (there are more than 70, according to Yad Vashem) and of Muslims murdered by the Nazis. These include Russian prisoners of war from the Caucasus, French prisoners of war from North Africa and Muslim anti-fascists in Europe. We pointed out a plaque in the Dachau crematorium in memory of Noor Inayat Khan, daughter of a prominent Sufi sheikh, who was murdered there in 1944. These references give Muslims a “stake” in the narrative of the Shoah, helping them relate to what otherwise might be seen as Jewish pain only.

Fifth, as a community we have to get away from the foolish logic that we can talk only with those people who meet our minimum standards of political correctness. As Nelson Mandela, surely no starry-eyed idealist,  taught, “If you want to make peace with your enemy you have to work with your enemy.”

Even if you doubt the possibilities of Muslim-Jewish cooperation, it is foolish to reject Muslims who seek to meet with Jews and learn about Judaism and the Shoah. In Warsaw, when I asked the Chief Rabbi to host a dinner, he told me he would do it if he could co-host with Muslim imams. And the visiting imams were surprised and pleased that Jews and Muslims could both support each other on religious freedom issues and break bread together in a festive meal. In contrast, we were not able to take the imams to visit the magnificent Ohel Jakob synagogue in Munich’s St.-Jakobs-Platz on the lame excuse that the Jewish community in Munich could not arrange a tour on six weeks’ notice. It was an opportunity missed.

The imams do not intend to stop grappling with the Shoah when they return home. They signed a dramatic public statement condemning Holocaust denial “as against the Islamic code of ethics.”  Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, chief imam of the All India Imam Organization, which oversees some 500,000 imams, told us, “This is just the beginning of something which we have started. We will take it forward from here, on personal and professional levels.” A Turkish imam promised to bring his family to see the camps and to organize Turkish imams and muftis to go to Holocaust sites, adding, “My people must know what happened here. It’s not an agenda. It’s a reality. This is not Jewish heritage, it’s world heritage…the lessons are global.”

Most of all, I learned the folly of approaching Islam through stereotypic caricatures. There is no “essential” Muslim, just as there is no “essential” Jew.

Some of the off-the-wall comments in the blogosphere—for instance, condemning the delegation for not apologizing for the Mufti of Jerusalem’s World War II enthusiasm for Hitler—show how easy it is to treat Islam as an undifferentiated community. Other so-called experts make unwarranted assumptions that all Muslims will ineluctably embrace Holocaust denial. This is not only bigoted but counterproductive. Imams like those who accompanied us to Auschwitz represent millions of followers, and an authentic Islam, one that Islamophobes (yes, I know they don’t like that term) such as Pam Geller and Frank Gaffney do not want to know. Fortunately, these Muslim leaders are more open-minded than their critics. Together with other Abrahamic religionists, they seek to repair a broken world.


Marshall Breger is a law professor at the Catholic University of America.

2 thoughts on “Marshall Breger | “What Happened at Auschwitz?”

  1. Jonathan L. says:

    It might be more useful to send Moslem clerics on visits to Aushwitz then Israeli teenagers who have already chewed the matter over masses of times.

  2. Thank you for letting me be a part of this study tour! It was moving to talk from my own experiences being a 47-year-old German, and to see the muslim leaders being touched in their hearts. I have been blessed by this study tour.

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