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Die Welt, Germany

American Muslims Visit Auschwitz

By Thomas Schmid

Translated By David Vickrey

14 August 2010

Edited by Gheanna Emelia

Germany - Die Welt - Original Article (German )

Marshall J. Breger carries quite a bit of weight — and not just physically. In the ‘80s, he advised President Reagan on Islam and Muslim affairs. As a Republican and scholar, he is not a fan of utopian ramblings. The face of this good-natured skeptic, who always wears a yarmulke, is etched by years of confronting the world with realism. The law professor, who teaches at the Columbus School of Law of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has a special hobby as a researcher: At a number of Middle Eastern religious sites, the three great religions in the region have been fighting each other over right of access. The legal issues here have a long history, and Breger has immersed himself in these with great relish.

Shifting abruptly to the present, Breger, the hardened Republican realist, hit upon the idea of inviting important representatives of the American Muslim community to visit the concentration camps Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau. And, somewhat against expectation, the invitation was accepted. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation took on the task of organizing the visit.

Of course, there was a realistic motive behind this idealistic undertaking: Breger wanted to achieve something here. Long before the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his cynical remarks casting doubt on the Holocaust, there was a fundamental tendency in Islamic propaganda to qualify, or even to deny, the genocide against the Jews in Europe. This propaganda infiltrated deep into the circles of even moderate Muslims. If this visit could convince them that the Holocaust really happened, then it would be easy to make them understand and experience first hand what a terrible crime against humanity it was to murder masses of people because of their origin. This could, perhaps, breach the Muslim wall of simmering anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel that stems from an underdog complex.

A number of high officials from U.S. Muslim organizations accepted the invitation; about ten imams, chaplains, association representatives and academics took part in the trip this week. It demonstrated that it is possible to spark an awareness of the European experience of the Holocaust among Muslims. But it also showed that the mission is difficult, that it is subject to setbacks, and that the mass tourism that characterizes places like Auschwitz-Birkenau today doesn’t make the mission any easier.

On the evening before the bus trip to Auschwitz, there was a dinner at the elegant and traditional Hotel Pod Roza in Krakow, which is recognized as one of the finest. Maciej Szpunar, the deputy Polish foreign minister, made a special trip from Warsaw to greet the illustrious group. The guests were seated at a long table, with large white candles, decorated with beautiful flowers. The dinner speeches are friendly and somewhat forced, for everyone knows that one needs to tread lightly, the words must be eloquent and certain issues should be avoided at all cost. This adds a certain stiffness to an otherwise relaxed atmosphere. The local rabbi offers his greetings. Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, a former president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) emphasizes what we have heard often in the past couple of days: That Islam, like all religions, is peaceful and respects all people — even those of different faiths. A mild academic tone spreads through the dining hall. There is a feeling of good will.

Siddiqi, accompanied by his fashionably veiled wife and wearing a black jacket and elegant button-down white shirt with a stand-up collar, is a man who projects calm and self-assurance. He sticks to the same script that is often heard at such interfaith meetings. “We understand,” he says, “how much the Holocaust has damaged our Jewish brothers and sisters.” Therefore we must look ahead and seek to converse with one another and enter into dialogue. And he paints a positive picture of Muslims in the U.S.; they have remained Muslims, but have adopted the values of their country. Several studies, such as a large survey conducted by the PEW Institute, have produced some positive findings: In contrast to Europe, the majority of Muslims in the U.S. do not feel marginalized but rather integrated and accepted — which is due in part to the fact that for the most part, they do not (except, to be sure, for the a large segment of the African-American Muslims) belong to the lower rungs of society but rather to the upper middle class. After 9/11, images of high Muslim officials standing with President Bush at the edge of Ground Zero were flashed around the world. But even here, in the U.S., things are on shaky ground, some — especially young people — are attracted to the more radical forms of Islam. All the more reason to emphasize this great Western consensus and display this by participating in what for Muslims is a precarious trip.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is not like any other travel destination. But one doesn’t sense this the next morning on the bus that is transporting the group the 60 kilometers to Auschwitz. The group overcomes a certain awkwardness by continuing the same conversations from the previous evening. Pleasantries are exchanged and talk is limited to mundane topics. No one is paying attention when the bus suddenly stops at the visitor gate at Auschwitz, where a number of buses and campers are parked and masses of tourists are busy coming and going — hardly an atmosphere for gathering one’s thoughts. Before the group gets off the bus, a woman from the U.S. organization who has come along on the trip reminds them to stop conversing with each other and instead focus completely on the place.

Is there anything left of the terror that at one time marked this place? The mood turns somber as Krysztina Oleksy, the deputy director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, speaks about the museum and its concept (but not about the Holocaust). The museum has 350 exhibits and 1.3 million visitors each year. The purpose of the memorial is to change minds. Her high-spirited speech comes across like this in English translation: Everyone leaves Auschwitz “a better person.” The Muslim group listens intently, but no one is taking notes. Perhaps because of the fear of appearing too emotional in public, most of the questions are of a technical nature: Is the museum standing on the spot where the murders took place? How much is still in the original condition? Where are the gas chambers?

But this is not like a tour of mine, as evidenced by the question posed by Imam Mohamad Magid, who comes from Sudan and is vice-president of the ISNA: “Why did you make this place a museum? With all the ashes that are scattered here it is in truth a giant cemetery. Why didn’t you make this into a cemetery to honor the dead?” He has brought up a sensitive issue that gets to the core. Mrs. Oleksy has difficulty coming up with a halfway plausible answer. It’s true: The carnival atmosphere that pervades the mass attraction of Auschwitz-Birkenau today has little to do with reflection and grieving. It comes therefore as a relief from the recitation of facts when one of the Muslims presses forward and announces with authority: “Let us now have a moment of silence.”

After this quiet moment the tour resumes, first through the smaller camp of Auschwitz, then through the bigger camp of Birkenau with the Crematorium II and III, which were destroyed in 1945 and now lay in ruins. There are things to see here that cannot fail to touch everyone: A giant glass case in front of a mountain of prosthetics, which those who were condemned to die were forced to discard, or display cases containing nothing but brushes, or combs, or shoes, or bowls and chamber pots, or only children’s clothes and shoes. These are silent witnesses of an absolute abandonment. Here, where one comes close to the cruel fates and the past is tangibly visible, many of the American Muslims are overcome by the complete misery of this anus mundi, this godforsaken skull of a place. Some began to weep — there is nothing theatrical about it.

This museum inhibits reflection, or at least makes it considerably difficult. On this sunny August day there is almost something — there is no other way to put it — idyllic about the camp in every corner. Deep green trees line the roads. Groups of visitors appear around the corner and then vanish again. At many places between the barracks and the houses the grass has just been mowed, there is the smell of hay; the traces of the mower are visible on the neat lawn. Nearby is one of the huge stonerollers that the emaciated prisoners were forced to pull for building the roads — here, it almost seems like one of those relics of ancient handicraft that adorn the front yards of vacation homes in Germany today.

Young people are strolling on the tracks that lead to the ramp at Birkenau and a mother quiets her crying child. There are simply too many people here for the emotions to sink in. Auschwitz, unfortunately, has also become a big amusement park, and so the laws and customs of the tourist attraction apply here. Every conceivable nook and cranny has to be explored. There is a business-like interest in the gas chambers. And as the group makes its way along the same path that, 65 years ago, saw people sorted on the ramp and sent to the gas chambers, it’s almost as if information overload has made everyone forget, and they continue on their way as they would on any path.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, 77 and from New Jersey, is accompanying the Muslim group. He likes to talk, but here in the camp he lets the impressions have their own impact and so stays in the background. At the side he is interviewed by Krakow television. He explains that these are moderate Muslims. “I don’t want to teach them anything,” he says, “they should see for themselves and bear witness.” With a look of melancholy, but not of resignation, he talks about the riddle that Auschwitz will forever be. Even now he can’t avoid his tendency towards ironic understatement, which he values but goes over the heads of his new Muslim friends. “I hope,” he says to the cameras, “that we are learning here what there is to learn.” No certainty, just an opportunity. And then he adds emphatically, “You can’t come here without having your mind changed.”

Have these good-intentioned Muslims had their minds changed, after they decided to undertake a journey that was scandalous in the eyes of their community?

At the reconstructed “shooting wall,” they lay a wreath and Imam Siddiqi gives a short speech that quickly traverses the path from great sorrow to great hope. The group, which previously had been introduced to the material, is shocked and stunned at the scale of the barbarism that raged here. At several points members of the group unroll their prayer rugs and pay tribute to those who were murdered: A ritualized gesture, but also a visible display of condolence not seen so often in Europe.

What remains from all of this? Difficult to say. When Muslim, Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters come together like this, there is always a strong spirit of reconciliation. It looks so nice as they all sit together. But there is also a sense of unreality. For the everyday routine is far away, reconciliation meetings are Sunday meetings — poetry, not prose. That becomes apparent at the end. After the trip back through the rolling Polish landscape, the group is received by Krakow’s Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, formerly a close advisor to Pope John Paul II.

What was billed as a dialogue between religions is given rather short shrift. Dziwisz gives a short speech in English on the necessity of interreligious dialogue — just at this place, where a place of terror is so close by. He speaks in generalities, and Imam Siddiqi and Rabbi Bemporad reply in well-practiced generalities. Everyone is in agreement, and the dialogue is over before it could even begin. Then there are snacks and strawberries. And one of the Muslims asks his European counterpart: “As bad as the Holocaust is — isn’t the predicament of the Palestinians today somehow similar to that of the Jews then?” There is a long road ahead.



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