The briefing follows a trip to Auschwitz and Dachau that Hannah Rosenthal and a group of American imams took in August 2010, organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Center for Interreligious Understanding
As Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I had the special honor of joining the delegation of the imams and Muslim leaders to Dachau and Auschwitz last month. I went for a very simple reason: Holocaust denial is growing in many places, especially in Muslim countries. Holocaust denial doesn’t just feed anti-Semitism; Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism.
Walking through the Arbeit Macht Frei gates at both camps with American Muslim leaders, I knew it would be a personally an important experience for me, and I suspected it would be for them as well. As a Holocaust survivor’s daughter, I would not only be accompanying the imams through the experiences, but they would also be accompanying me to my family’s cemetery, as every single member of my family except my dad perished in Auschwitz, probably within 3 hours of their arrival there.
I felt that being with leaders of the American Muslim communities could help all of us better understand how history’s most horrific crime of genocide, an enlightened country’s building of efficient killing factories, came to take place. I also thought it would allow me to learn from them how it is that Holocaust denial can be growing in so many Muslim circles. I got the chance to talk to these leaders about my life, my Dad’s life, and what I have been seeing as I travel to so many places around the world. I also got the chance to listen to their perspective of why this is happening, to identify key lessons that need to be taught, and to learn more about how misperceptions and misunderstandings impacted their knowledge of the Holocaust and Jews in general.
This was an historic trip. As soon as the imams decided to pray by the Dachau sculpture commemorating the 6 million Jewish lives exterminated, I knew history was being made. When they prostrated to the ground in prayer, every tourist, every passer-by, stopped in their tracks to witness the moment. Their prayer was also near the “Never Again” sign and I believe it became a symbol to all of us travelers that we had special responsibility to ensure ‘never again’ has powerful meaning.
The next historic moment for me was when we walked out of the gas chamber at Auschwitz. I and a guard brought out a table and a large book and pen for these special guests, these dignitaries, to sign. Usually dignitaries sign their name and date. But each of our imams took quite a while to write something meaningful in the book. Most wrote in Arabic so that any national leader in the world that would sign it would know that the imams were here, bearing witness and bearing the burden of that witness.
But the most historic moment of the trip for me was in Munich when leaving a Turkish mosque. The Muslim leaders read aloud a statement that they written collectively. Recognizing their unique responsibilities as leaders in their communities, they condemned without reservation Holocaust denial and all other forms of anti-Semitism.
I grew up in a survivor’s home and had myself studied to become a rabbi, so for me the reality of the Holocaust, of the almost complete extermination of world Jewry is something I’ve always known. However, most people don’t really know much about the Holocaust, what context it thrived in, how everything that was done was cloaked in legality because laws were passed stripping Jews of personhood, and how religious and racial anti-Semitism had its foot in Europe for a very long time before the ‘final solution’ was outlined and implemented by Hitler. It was clear from questions the imams posed to our guides and the survivors we met with, that they had a sincere interest in knowing how this could happen. Horrid violence continues to occur around the world, and hatred seems to grow daily, but it was clear to all of us that this history is unique because never before and not since Auschwitz has there ever been the construction of a place built and designed to exterminate an entire people, efficiently and effectively. We learned that upon arrival at Auschwitz, a German doctor met the people just transported and with a hand gesture sent 90% of the people directly to the gas chambers, and 10% were to be worked to near death and then exterminated.
I knew that no man or woman with a conscience can walk out of the camps the same person he or she was walking in. But how can one really comprehend the enormity of Auschwitz, of the crematorium, of seeing ashes and bone fragments still after 65 years? Most of us had our own catharsis at Auschwitz: in the room full of hair that Auschwitz sold to a company to make cloth, in the room full of children’s shoes, in the room full of suitcases, each with a name in the murdered owner’s handwriting, or in the room full of prayer shawls, showing the cultural and religious resistance people in the camps tried to maintain.
After meeting with survivors, it became clear to all participants that combating Holocaust denial is not just a matter of defending historical truth, but a demand of conscience and an urgent necessity. . Both the survivors and liberators are so old and will not be with us forever. We realized that we had the responsibility to not only bear witness, but we also bear the burden to continue to recount the history of the unspeakable Hell to which hatred leads and to ensure ‘never again’ has meaning for all peoples in our own time, and for the generations that follow us.
So how do we translate this historic trip and profound statement and make sure its lessons continue to be articulated and taught? There are several ‘next steps’ already planned. This briefing is so helpful toward that end, and I want to thank Congressman Ellison for organizing it.
Earlier today we were at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. We viewed the important exhibit there of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the 19th century forgery that claims the Jews are conspiring to take over the world. The Protocols are still being taught in several countries; one of the imams on the trip had been taught it is truth. We have all discussed how devastatingly harmful the Protocols have been and we plan to address that at a national meeting of the Islamic Society of North American (ISNA). We are preparing exchanges, where imams will speak to Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders will speak to Muslim groups. All of us have speeches planned in various locations, here and abroad, and many have also said they want to bring groups of young people to walk the same path the delegation made.
I will continue to focus on Holocaust denial from my position at the State Department, and I will continue to work with groups to condemn the denial of the Holocaust and to condemn anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head. I plan to attend a conference on Holocaust denial in Ireland in November.
Thank you again, Representative Ellison, for holding this briefing, and thank you to Suhail Khan and Marshall Breger for working so hard to make the trip happen. And thank you to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for its funding and leadership in addressing this horrific chapter in history.