Muslims and Jews test new bonds at Auschwitz amid season of intolerance in Europe

 He saw the gas chambers and the incinerators, the mounds of matted hair and the massed shoes of the departed.

After two days touring Auschwitz, the world’s most notorious death camp, Amro was absolutely sure of one thing: “It happened. It’s reality.” 

But something else still baffled the 24-year-old Syrian refu­gee. “I live in Germany. Germans gave me the opportunity to start my life over. They’re my friends,” said Amro, who asked that his last name not be used because his family is still in Damascus, a city he fled to escape the country’s all-consuming war. “I can’t understand how people like this could do something like that.”

It is a version of the question every German is expected to reckon with, elemental to the country’s determination not to repeat the sins of the past. 

Now it was Amro’s turn.

In a season of rising intolerance across Germany and throughout Europe, the aspiring architect with light brown eyes and painful memories had been brought to Auschwitz as part of an experiment. At its heart is the belief that facing history’s horrors can be a balm for the hatreds of today.

With Amro were two dozen other young people, half of them Muslim refugees and half of them Jewish Germans.

Young Jews and Muslim refugees commemorate the victims of the Holocaust together last week in Poland at Auschwitz, Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camp. (Monika Skolimowska/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

It was a novel formulation for a timeworn ritual. Europe has for decades used its Nazi concentration camps turned museums as a primary weapon in the fight to educate its citizens about the Holocaust and inoculate itself against the threat of future traumas, in the name of “never again.”

But never in Europe’s postwar history has that credo faced such a constellation of challenges — more than 3 million refugees in the past three years, many from predominantly Muslim nations where anti-Semitic slurs are woven into state propaganda.

Add the far-right movements on the march continent-wide, exploiting fears about the new arrivals, preaching prejudice and winning votes. And extremists on all sides are seizing the moment to perpetrate violence.

Even history itself has not been safe from assault: The staff of Auschwitz was targeted for abuse this spring by Polish nationalists after the government sought to criminalize any attempt to cast Poles as Holocaust aggressors, rather than victims.

Against that backdrop, the band of Muslims and Jews brought to Auschwitz last week seemed unlikely to do much to alter a continent’s trajectory.

And yet, they represented a small but important test.

The idea of taking young refugees for visits to concentration camps has gained currency in Germany as a way to blunt a troubling rise in anti-Semitism and to integrate the new arrivals into a country where the culture of remembrance is sacrosanct.

All possessions were confiscated from the prisoners of Auschwitz by the Nazis. These objects remain in the exhibit rooms. (Luisa Beck/The Washington Post)

But how would it work to bring Jews and Muslims to Auschwitz together?

Leaders of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims and the Union of Progressive Jews — who organized the first-of-its-kind trip — knew they were taking a risk.

Would the scene of so much suffering inspire reflection or recrimination? Would the past feel relevant to the present? And would the refugees, most of whom had arrived in their new country within the past three years, even speak German well enough for a meaningful conversation?

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Rabbi Walter Homolka, chair of the Jewish group. 

Nor did Amro. Growing up in Syria, he learned little about the Holocaust in school and certainly did not know many Jews. 

After a week of visiting the death camps and learning about history’s largest-scale genocide, Amro found himself connecting with the victims of atrocities seven decades ago that reminded him of the mass killings and torture that forced him to flee his native land.

“That was the 20th century. This is the 21st. But there are a lot of similarities,” he said somberly as he walked from the collection of modest brick barracks where 1.1 million prisoners were systematically shot, beaten, gassed and starved to death between 1940 and 1945.

He also quickly bonded with the others on the tour.

After a day of solemn remembrance amid the ruins of the camp’s gas chambers, Amro invited one of his fellow participants, 18-year-old Jewish student Amanda Pidgornij, to watch a comedy. A very particular comedy: “Look Who’s Back,” a 2015 film that imagines Adolf Hitler returning from the dead.

“He walks around Berlin and sees how many foreigners are there,” Pidgornij said. “It’s a nice sign that he didn’t win.”

As the revived Hitler becomes a television star and vows to “make Germany great again,” some jeer. Others salute.

A Jewish man and a Muslim man take part in an interreligious memorial service for Holocaust victims at Auschwitz. (Monika Skolimowska/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

The movie’s unsettling subtext — that extreme prejudice may be making a comeback — was a frequent topic of conversation when the group shared meals or talked after hours at the interfaith dialogue center where they stayed, and where the images of the Nazis’ victims gaze out from photos on the walls. 

Many wondered about the far right, which returned last year to the German Parliament for the first time in more than half a century. The Alternative for Germany party campaigned on anti-Muslim rhetoric, and its leaders frequently minimize the significance of the Holocaust.

“Should we be worried?” wondered Abdu, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee who, like others on the tour, spoke fluent German.

Inna Shames, a Jewish community leader whose family fled to Uzbekistan to escape the Nazis and then returned to Germany decades later to escape militant Islam, described over lunch her fears about rising anti-Semitism. She said her synagogue has had to implement strict security measures in recent years amid growing threats from the far right and from extremist Muslims.

“I can feel it. I’m scared,” she said. 

But the visit to Auschwitz alongside refugees had, she said, given her at least some hope that her country is not destined to turn back toward intolerance. She had watched as Muslims and Jews respectfully listened and learned from one another, and she came away optimistic.

Others, including a handful of regional politicians who accompanied the group on its visit, said they were similarly encouraged. 

Learning about the Holocaust — often including a visit to a concentration camp — is a rite of passage for German children. Officials said that refugees should take part as well and that last week’s interfaith visit to Auschwitz should become a model.

“We have refugees in Germany who have to get accustomed to our culture of remembrance,” said Karin Prien, education minister in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. “We have to explain to them why this is part of our identity.”

Griff Witte


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