I was Ronald Reagan’s liaison between the White House and the Jewish community. I’m an observant Jew. And a lifelong Republican. I'm not the first person you would expect to be here expressing gratitude to a Muslim Democratic congressman.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is hosting a Hill briefing today, January 27, where an international delegation of Muslim Imams and leaders will speak about the use of the Holocaust as a tool to foment anti-Semitism and anti-West sentiment and the work being done to combat it. Monday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The trip was a voyage of discovery, one on which the Muslim delegation confronted the face of evil and found themselves overwhelmed with human compassion. As they dealt with its universal significance, they began to understand the roots of Jewish pain and trauma. And I began to understood there were lessons in this journey for us all.
First, we must recognize that much of the Muslim world is largely uninformed about the Holocaust. One Imam asked me early in the trip, what happened at Auschwitz? The holocaust is as relevant to them as a medieval massacre in Central Asia is to most of us. So we must start, not by condemning unawareness, but by providing opportunities for people to learn the truth.
Second, if some leaders were skeptical about what they’d heard about the Holocaust, contemporaneous movies taken by German troops of Eizengruppen Aktions and film footage shot by the Red Army on liberating Auschwitz quickly dispelled doubt. But most moving of all, they met survivors. I watched the leaders collectively lean forward in their chairs as unspeakable and heroic stories unfolded, unable to not stare at the still-visible tattoos.
And they saw the camps. The crematoria and showers, fabric woven from human hair, and the disturbingly banal spoils of this war: piled-high housewares and suitcases and prostheses and thousands of children’s shoes. As another Muslim leader told me, “After leaving Auschwitz, I feel that I shall no longer be silent when witnessing injustice. For not speaking against injustice is a betrayal to being part of the human race.”
Third, you cannot overstate the importance of telling the story of the Muslim Righteous Among Nations (over 70 according to Yad Vashem.) The little-known bravery of Albanian Muslims; the stories of Tunisian Muslims who safeguarded Jews, told so well by Robert Satloff in Among the Righteous. Nor should one ignore that Muslims murdered by Nazis: Russian POWs from the Caucasus, French POWs from North Africa, and Muslim anti-fascists in Europe. We pointed out a plaque in the Dachau crematorium where Noor Inayat Kahn, a British special agent and daughter of a Sufi sheikh, was murdered in 1944. In response, the imams dropped to floor to recite the jannaza, a prayer for the dead as they believed she was never afforded the honor.
Most of all I learned there is no “essential” Muslim just as there is no “essential” Jew. Imams like those who accompanied us to Auschwitz represent an authentic Islam, one that Islamophobes do not want to know. Fortunately, these Muslim leaders are more open-minded than their critics.
They intend to keep grappling with the Shoah. One Imam told us “This I just the beginning of something which we have started. We will take it forward from here, on personal and professional levels.” Another said “a soon as possible I will take my family here. This is not Jewish heritage, it's world heritage. Jewish people were mostly affected but the lessons are global.”
At the conclusion of our history-making journey, the Muslim delegation crafted an unprecedented statement, saying in part:
“We acknowledge, as witnesses, that it is unacceptable to deny this historical reality and declare such denials or any justification of this tragedy as against the Islamic code of ethics. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish brothers and sisters in condemning anti- Semitism in any form. No creation of Almighty God should face discrimination based on faith or religious conviction.”
If we are to be faithful to our pledge of “Never Again,” we must pass on the lessons of the Holocaust far and wide and reject no one who is open to learning.
Breger, a Reagan White House liaison to the Jewish community, teaches at the Catholic University of America’s School of Law. As senior fellow at the Center for Interreligious Understanding, he conceived and organized the groundbreaking Imam trips to Dachau and Auschwitz.