Diary of a journey: An Arab-Israeli delegation to Auschwitz - opinion

The delegation went there to learn about the Holocaust up close and to make history by being the first group to hold the memorial ceremony there in Arabic.

 Yoseph Haddad in Auschwitz  (photo credit:  Yoseph Haddad)
Yoseph Haddad in Auschwitz
(photo credit: Yoseph Haddad)

Last week, I had the privilege of leading a delegation to Poland composed of Israeli Arabs – Muslims, Christians and Druze. The delegation, organized by the Together Vouch for Each Other NGO, went there to learn about the Holocaust up close, to see the horrors, and to make the issue of Holocaust remembrance accessible to Arab society in Israel and the Arab world.

This was especially important to us because in Arab society, we do not learn enough about the Holocaust, certainly not compared to what Jews learn. There are no visits to Yad Vashem, no lesson plans on the subject and no memorial ceremonies on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The vast majority of us have never met a Holocaust survivor and certainly haven’t been on a trip to Poland.

The day after we arrived in Kraków, we visited the factory of Oskar Schindler, the greatest of the Righteous Among the Nations.

It was a powerful and special visit for us. A delegation of non-Jews, we came to honor a non-Jewish man who saved the lives of Jews by losing his fortune and risking his life. We were all moved by the gravity of the occasion. We began to grasp the significance of our journey.

We arrived at Auschwitz on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. For all of us, it was our first visit there.

 'Together Vouch for Each Other' NGO in Auschwitz (Credit: Yoseph Haddad) 'Together Vouch for Each Other' NGO in Auschwitz (Credit: Yoseph Haddad)

We made history by being the first group to hold the ceremony there in Arabic. It is difficult to describe how moved we all were, to hear eulogies in Arabic among the barbed wire and the pavilions, to light candles in memory of the victims and to hear the personal testimony of our American Jewish friend Eric Rubin, who joined the delegation and told the story of his family who perished there. As I translated from English to Arabic, I broke down along with him. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day itself, we returned to Auschwitz and participated in the March of the Living. Our group received a lot of love and support from other participants who were excited to hear Arabic there and even more excited to learn that we were a delegation of Arab citizens of Israel.

Eighty years ago, Jews marched hopeless to their deaths; we marched together, Jews and Arabs, all of us full of hope and singing “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” (“We come to greet you in peace”).

I met Edward Mossberg, a 96-year-old survivor who came dressed in the same striped clothing he wore during the Holocaust. He stressed that no one could understand what went on there, and of course, we all agreed with him, but I promised him that our mission would be to convey his story to our communities back home and throughout the Arab world as well.

We returned to Israel shaken after a profoundly moving and disturbing experience. We realized that although we thought we had already known a lot about the Holocaust, we hadn’t known even 20% of what we learned during our journey to Poland.

A side note: A small incident clouded our trip, but we also managed to use it to grow. This happened when one of those present in the March of the Living came up to our group and said we were not welcome because we were Arabs and we have no place in Israel.

Delegation member Amir Abu Raiya, an Arab Muslim from Sakhnin, spoke to him about himself as someone who served in the security services, and after a brief conversation, managed to get him to retract his words and apologize.

Today, while the last of the survivors are still with us and despicable phenomena such as Holocaust denial continue to spread, our job, of all of us, is to learn and teach, to make sure to spread the memory of the Shoah throughout the world, and to vow “Never again,” not to the Jewish people and not to any people. In this way, we will fight against Holocaust denial and antisemitism and against racism at large.

And I vow here, too: My friends and I will continue to work toward this goal, and next year we will send a larger delegation to Poland, because every person in the world should go there and see with their own eyes the worst place in the world.

Yoseph Haddad is an Israeli rights activist. He is the CEO of the NGO Together - Vouch for Each Other, which aims to create a better understanding and cooperation between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.

This op-ed is published in partnership with a coalition of organizations that fight antisemitism across the world. Read the previous article by Adam Milstein.