Muslim-Jewish pilgrimage to Auschwitz

Few Muslims have to date visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp memorial site. Now high-ranking representatives of Muslims and Jews are travelling together to the place of horror. It is a story of personal encounter. By Christoph Strack

By Christoph Strack

In 2013, the leader of Berlin's Social Democratic parliamentary group, Raed Saleh, visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site with a group of pupils.

The fact that Saleh, who was born in the West Bank and came to Germany as a 5-year-old, made his way to the site of a former Nazi concentration and extermination camp garnered national attention. At the time, he was Germany's most prominent Muslim to ever visit the site where Nazis murdered more than 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, during the Holocaust. 

"There was this pupil called Mustafa, a really big guy, standing in front of a vast pile of children's shoes," said Saleh, recalling the visit to bloc 5 of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. "Each pair had once belonged to a child obviously, and suddenly I noticed how this realisation did something to Mustafa." The lawmaker says the pupils in his group had "diverse, multi-religious backgrounds" in Berlin and that "anti-Semitism among young Muslims is not uncommon."

Few visitors from Arab world

According to the director of the Auschwitz memorial site, Piotr Cywinski, more than 2.3 million people visited in 2019. Yet he said among these "were only a handful of people from Arab world." Last year, the museum's ticket reservation system registered some 3,200 guests from Arab-majority countries.

German SPD politician Raed Saleh (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Vorbildcharakter: Dass sich der SPD-Politiker Raed Saleh auf den Weg nach Auschwitz machte, erregte bundesweit Aufsehen. Er machte es später in seiner Autobiographie zum Thema. Er war der bis dahin prominenteste Muslim aus Deutschland, der jenen Ort besuchte, der zum Symbol für das Leid der Juden im Holocaust wurde.

The religious affiliation of visitors is not, however, recorded. Cywinski said the site also receives Muslims among groups of French, Norwegian, German and other visitors. He is "certain that for all of them, coming to an authentically preserved site of a former camp is an important personal and universal experience."

On Thursday 23 January, the memorial site will be visited by the most senior Muslim figure to date: Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, the secretary general of the Muslim World League, who represents over a billion Muslims worldwide. Al-Issa, who previously served as Saudi justice minister, will make his way to the former camp with David Harris, the director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). This joint visit by a high-ranking 54-year-old Islamic scholar and a 70-year-old descendant of Holocaust survivors is nothing short of remarkable.

 "Shook humanity to the core"

The joint visit to Auschwitz has a two-year history, which began long before the barbaric murder of the Saudi journalist Khashoggi in Istanbul and subsequent efforts by the Saudis to restore their reputation. It began with a letter that does not fit at all with the widespread Muslim hatred of Jews and the omission of the Shoah from the school curricula of many Arab countries.

Some two years ago, al-Issa sent a letter to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, in which he expressed "great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core." He underlined that "true Islam is against these crimes" and that "we consider any denial of the Holocaust or minimising of its effect a crime to distort history and an insult to the dignity of those innocent souls who have perished." 

General Secretary of the Muslim World League Sheikh Mohammad al-Issa (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Der Generalsekretär der Islamischen Weltliga, Sheikh Mohammad Al-Issa, wird am 23. Januar gemeinsam mit Vertretern des American Jewish Committee (AJC) das ehemalige NS-Vernichtungslager Auschwitz besuchen. Damit stattet erstmals ein hochrangiger Vertreter einer internationalen Organisation des Islams der Gedenkstätte einen Besuch ab. Zur Delegation der Islamischen Weltliga gehört auch ZMD-Generalsekretär Abdel-Samad El-Yazidi.

In May 2018 he visited the museum, "I saw for myself the mountains of evidence – the videos, the photos, the placards, the interviews, the memorabilia – that testify to the historic truth of the Holocaust. One doesn't have to go to the museum to recognise the enormity of the Holocaust – but no one who does come to the museum can deny it." He went on to "urge all Muslims to learn the history of the Holocaust, to visit memorials and museums to this horrific event." And he quoted Elie Wiesel's appeal that "For the dead and the living, we must bear witness," as well as the Koran, which states: "O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah."

Initiative widely welcomed

Al-Issa described all this in an op-ed in The Washington Post on 25 January 2019, just prior to the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He himself recounted how, after sending his letter to Holocaust museum director Sara Bloomfield, he received a "flood" of messages from Muslim religious scholars endorsing the views that he expressed.

"Not a single distinguished scholar opposed my view." Nevertheless, he has faced plenty of online criticism from individuals based throughout the Middle East.

AJC director Harris and al-Issa subsequently got in touch and in May 2019 announced they would jointly visit the Auschwitz memorial site on 27 January 2020 – the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by Red Army forces. It is now clear, however, that they will actually make their way there a few days earlier together with their delegations.

 A false narrative

In response to al-Issa's initiative, the president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Marc Schneier, penned an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post, supporting him and arguing that there exists "a false narrative out there that Muslims are inveterately hostile to Jews." Schneier, who has long worked to foster Judeo-Muslim dialogue and understanding, continued to say that "Muslims are speaking out – and acting out – every day in defence of Jews who are under attack." 

Former concentration camp Auschwitz (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Ort des Grauens und der Erinnerung: Am 27. Januar 1945 befreiten sowjetische Truppen das NS-Konzentrations- und Vernichtungslager Auschwitz. Allein dort wurden mehr als eine Million Menschen, vor allem Juden, ermordet. Der Schreckensort ist bis heute ein zentrales Symbol für den Rassenwahn der Nationalsozialisten.

And now they will visit Auschwitz, the exhibition room with the children's shoes, the mountains of glasses and beards, the ramp from which Jews were hustled directly into the gas chambers.

Thinking back to his Auschwitz visit, Berlin lawmaker Raed Saleh said that going there was not about feeling "guilty". Saleh said it is important to him to see his generation, and the one after it, keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. This, he is convinced, "is the best antidote against right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia." Saleh believes the young Muslim pupils who accompanied him on his Auschwitz visit were profoundly touched by the experience. 

"It was moving. I heard them ask questions that had never come up before." His wish is that every young person in Germany go to Auschwitz "and feel the whole thing". It is "a good symbol, a good sign" that such a high-ranking representative of the Muslim community as the MWL Secretary General is visiting Auschwitz.

Never again

Aiman Mazyek, the chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, has made numerous trips to the Auschwitz memorial site with groups of young Muslims and Jews. He has also welcomed al-Issa's move, saying his visit carries both political as well as religious significance.

Mazyek thinks it could also have a lasting impact on the societies of many Muslim countries. And that "going to Auschwitz is, not only for Jews and Christians, always also a search for God." He is adamant that the lesson of Auschwitz is that something like this "must never again" be allowed to happen – a lesson that "we Muslims" must internalise as well.

Auschwitz site director Cywinski notes the Koran contains a passage saying that everything that humans do to each other, whether good or bad, they effectively do to themselves. He says the same logic applies to keeping the memory of the past alive. In Cywinski's mind, "remembrance can help us mature, if we approach it wisely and with a willingness to engage in self-criticism."

Christoph Strack

© Deutsche Welle 2020