Auschwitz Revisited Brings a Ray of Hope

A duty to peace: A group of 250 Jews and Arab Israelis visited the death camps to remember the Holocaust. It was a symbolic opportunity for Arab Israelis to come to understand the pain that Jewish people carry from memories of the Holocaust. A report by Igal Avidan

A scene of reconciliation between Jews and Arabs may only be possible in Europe´s largest death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Standing under birch trees – in German ‘Birken’ – in the vicinity of the gas chambers, Avi Giesser, the rabbi of the West Bank settlement Ofra, speaks out the Kaddish prayer as he tries to hold back his tears. As a gesture of good-will, the rabbi ends the traditional Jewish prayer with a personal touch. Instead of calling upon God to bring peace upon the people of Israel, he expands the prayer to all peoples of the world.

This unique congregation of Israeli Jews, Christians and Moslems gazes for a long moment at the pond, in which the Nazis once poured the ashes of gassed Jews. An Arab man puts his arm around Giesser’s shoulder, a Palestinian woman gently caresses the back of a Jewish woman who cries out her heart into a handkerchief. Compassion needs no words. Rabbi Giesser explains his unusual prayer:"The last sentences of the Kaddish, which expresses the hope that the Heavens would bring peace on Earth, this very Jewish wish in regard to the Jewish congregation is very important for us. But because I was at such a place with people of other nations and religions who wanted to have a part in the pain, the mourning and the consolation, I found it right to expand this wish of peace to all people", he says and adds: "This diversion is allowed according to Jewish rules. It came from the bottom of my heart and requires no further discussion."

Can such a silent memory of the Holocaust on polish ground soaked with Jewish blood promote peace between two nations after 32 months of killing and despair? Can such moving human gestures in the largest Nazi concentration camp help to overcome hatred and mistrust in the Holy Land? "It can," says Emile Shoufani, the highest Greek-Orthodox priest in Nazareth and founder of this Arab-Israeli initiative "Memory for Peace", which brought these 250 Jewish and Palestinian Israelis to Auschwitz. The clergyman and headmaster has been involved in Jewish-Arab dialogue for 15 years. Yet only through the Intifada-al-Aqsa did he realize how much the Palestinian terror has evoked existential fears among Jewish Israelis. A real dialogue – he concluded – could only be possible if Arabs would accept the uniqueness of the Holocaust and understand its ongoing traumatic impact on Jews. "With our initiative we wanted to break this vicious circle, in which we compete over the question of who is the greater victim. We recognize the Jewish suffering although the suffering of the Jewish and the Palestinian mothers is equal because suffering cannot be measured by the number of victims. And compassion gives expression to humanity", Shoufani says.

Yossi Klein Halevi whose father had survived Auschwitz, was deeply moved by this Arab gesture because he has waited for it for three years. The journalist and writer who in his youth was a far-right activist in New York, has recently undertaken a personal journey to the world of the Palestinians. She says:"Just before the outbreak of this terrorist war three years ago I took a journey just on my own to Islam and Christianity in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. I took this journey as a religious Jew to Islam and Christianity and my goal was to try to pray together with Moslems and Christians in mosques and monasteries and churches. I lived according to the Moslem and Christian year cycle for about a year. Then I published a book about it, about these experiences."

Yet not all Israeli Arabs were supportive of dealing with the Holocaust, as Fatina Hazzan has discovered. The articulate Arab teacher is a row model of Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel. She is the only Arab teacher in a Jewish gymnasium and her two children are almost the only Arabs in their Jewish school. After years of teaching Jews, Hazzan wanted to gain a better feeling of her pupils. That’s why she went to Auschwitz: "The whole complex of the Holocaust was non-transparent for me and I couldn’t approach this sensitive issue although I have been teaching in a Jewish school for 14 years. This part was simply missing in my chain. In order to understand my students better, I must learn about their pain", she says. Arabs criticized her, saying she should not go to Auschwitz but rather to Jenin to see the refugee camps there. But her husband and close friends supported her, while her children were afraid. "My 12-year-old son said our group could be the target of an attack because we are a Jewish-Arab delegation. Nevertheless, I am here because I owe it to myself", she says.

Could such an emotional Katharsis of well-meaning Israelis promote peace in a region ruled by mistrust and hatred? Should they have to leave this to politicians whom they nonetheless mistrust? Rabbi Giesser thinks the Israeli Jews are suspicious of all Israeli Arabs because Arabs and Jews have been killing each other for 100 years. This journey has deepened his respect for Israeli Arabs, but he is hardly optimistic it could create peace.

Igal Avidan, © 2003

Related Topics