Holocaust sites moves Muslim leaders profoundly

A trip to Auschwitz and Dachau organized by US Center for Interreligious Understanding sparks profound response from leaders.

May 27, 2013 06:06
Train to Auschwitz

Train to Auschwitz 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

KRAKOW – “As soon as possible, I will bring my family here. I will arrange for Turkish imams and muftis to come to Holocaust sites. My people don’t know what happened here.”

These were the words of Dr. Ahmet Muharrem Atlig from Istanbul – one of several imams and Muslim religious leaders from nine countries who took part in a trip to Germany and Poland as a part of a Holocaust awareness program organized by the US Center for Interreligious Understanding.

The leaders visited the Auschwitz and Dachau death camps, where they held prayers for the victims. They also visited the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, met with Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich and Holocaust survivors, and witnessed for themselves the sites of the Holocaust.

The trip concluded with a kosher dinner at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, where each of the attendants spoke of his feelings after this unusual trip.

Atlig is the secretary-general of the Journalists and Writers’ Association in Istanbul and a former imam in London.

He is a father of three children, aged 17, eight and two.

“I came here with quite a lot of information about Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Holocaust,” he said. “This was the kind of information that I read in books and learned from the Jewish community in Turkey, where I’m in charge of relations with Christians and Jews.

“I didn’t expect this to be a turning point for me,” Atlig continued. “I’ve made many decisions here.

“It’s not an agenda, it’s a reality. This is not Jewish heritage, it is world heritage.

The Jewish people were the most severely affected, but the lessons are global.

“We met survivors and heard their stories; we cried here. These things moved me.”

Muhammad Jusic is an Islamic theologian from Bosnia, the father of two daughters aged four and six.

“Coming from Bosnia, I went through the experience of genocide and the 1992–95 war. Seeing what I saw here, it saddens me to see that these things keep happening, that we don’t learn from history,” he said.

“After Auschwitz and Dachau, humanity said, ‘Never again,’ but with the rise of the far Right in the same towns we visited in Europe this week, I wonder how sincere we were in that,” Jusic continued.

“I will do anything to ensure that such things cannot happen to my children or anybody else in the world.

We can’t change history, but we must do whatever we can against such evil.”

Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding added, “The most important part of this trip is the recognition that the horrendous suffering that took place here in Auschwitz can only be overcome if people are willing to take up more than their share of bringing about a common good.

“If people are strictly interested in their immediate needs, security and safety, without being concerned with the tragic suffering in the world and striving to rectify it, there is no reason that these horrible things may not recur,” he said.

“I think that the imams that came here, having very little knowledge in many cases of the Shoah, are now convinced that any kind of Holocaust denial is simply out of the question. Imams from all over the world, including the Middle East, categorically rejected Holocaust denial and all forms of anti- Semitism, and they are committed to making this clear to their vast constituencies.”

Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Krakow JCC, who hosted a dinner for the imams, said: “This is the first time we have hosted a group of Muslim clerics, and we are very excited about it. I think the most important message is the responsibility we all have to fight hate and prejudice.

“The Holocaust is a symbol of what intolerance can lead to, whether it’s against Jews or any other group, and I hope that Muslim leaders will learn the same lesson from it as everyone else: That we all need to work to build a more tolerant, accepting society.

“I also hope,” he continued, “that this visit helps them understand Jewish history and the special role the Holocaust plays in our identity and worldview. By understanding each other’s history, grievances and suffering, Jews and Muslims can seek common ground and not base their actions on fear and ignorance.”

In his address to the Muslim clerics, Ornstein spoke about post-Holocaust Jewish life in Krakow and about the founding of the JCC and its activities.

“I spoke about the two main ideas that the JCC symbolizes: that no matter what happens to a community or a people, there is always hope, and how important it is for people passing through Krakow on their way to Auschwitz to understand that Jewish life goes on and that Krakow is a symbol of hope for reconciliation and community development. If Jewish life can thrive here, just down the road from Auschwitz, anything is possible.

“It is a great honor for our institution to have been asked to participate, and we are pleased to be able to show the imams that the story of the Holocaust, although sad and tragic, has a final message of hope.

“I hope that they will share what they have learned here with their communities and use this experience to help Muslims around the world to understand more about Jews and our history, particularly the difficult chapter of the Holocaust.

Like Bemporad, Ornstein focused on the phenomenon of Holocaust denial and how it might be combated.

“There is far too much Holocaust denial in the Muslim world, but I’m certain that trips like this will help alleviate that,” he said. “I find it tremendously inspiring that the participants took the time to come here and learn about the Holocaust and its repercussions.

“We have prepared a kosher dinner for them, which of course also means it was halal. Perhaps this can be the pilot meeting of a program that regularly brings Muslim clerics and leaders to Krakow.”

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