Jewish Journal

Elmau & Dachau: A Muslim’s Testimony

by Mehnaz M. Afridi

Posted on Oct. 4, 2007 at 8:00 pm

The author with her daughter, Ruya, on the train to Dachau. Photo by Scott A. Dennis

The author with her daughter, Ruya, on the train to Dachau. Photo by Scott A. Dennis

Barbed wire, loaded with death
is drawn around our world.
Above a sky without mercy
sends frost and sunburn.
Far from us are all joys,
far away our home, far away our wives,
when we march to work in silence
thousands of us at the break of day.
But we have learned the motto of Dachau
and it made us as hard as steel:
Be a man, mate,
stay a man, mate,
do a good job, get to it, mate,
for work, work makes you free!
-- Jura Soyfer (Dachau survivor)
I am a Muslim intellectual woman who teaches Judaism and Islam, a Muslim who seeks dialogue with Jews, a Muslim who sympathizes with Jews and understands the need for the state of Israel.

The past year has been an intense one for me and my family. On March 30, I gave birth to a beautiful girl, Ruya, who happens to share her birth date with Moses Maimonides, the great 12th century Jewish philosopher and physician. At the end of June, I was invited to present a paper at a conference in Elmau, a small resort town 50 miles south of Munich. The conference was organized by the University of Munich's department of history and Jewish studies and co-sponsored by University of California. It was titled, "Judaism Through Muslim Eyes and Islam Through Jewish Eyes." I teach at a variety of Southern California universities, and I was honored by the invitation to be part of such a unique international conference, which included esteemed scholars and intellectuals whose work has had a deep resonance for me, in terms of both my political and religious thinking.

But my trip became much more than the academic experience, because while I was in Germany I took the time to travel with my husband and daughter to Dachau. My intention at the conference was to try to make some connections with Jews and Muslims from Europe, Asia, South America, Israel, America and the Middle East who were also in some manner involved with Jewish-Muslim relations. In post-Holocaust Germany, Muslims (mainly Turks) are treated with disdain, and the memory of Jews has become a distant past. Yet the uncanny coincidence of Muslim and Jew in Europe has fascinated me for some time.

As I watch post-Sept. 11 American and European images of Muslims, I am reminded of how Jews were depicted in 18th century British caricature: the Maltese Jew in his oriental turban. By the 19th century, the classic picture of the Jew was Lord Rothschild in formal wear receiving the Prince of Wales at his daughter's wedding in a London synagogue.

This image of a people turned over in a blink of a century. Religious identity (as a Jew or a Muslim) replaced national identity -- although very few people, I imagine, except perhaps the anti-Semites, remembered that the Rothschilds were once a Frankfurt family who escaped the Yiddish-speaking ghetto. For a time, Jews were imagined as all alike. Today, Muslims also are beginning to all look alike in the popular eye. My role at the conference -- to help differentiate these images and to connect with colleagues -- was clear.

But why did I want to visit Dachau? For whose memory? Perhaps I wanted to be a witness, a Muslim witness, who could testify against the outrage of Holocaust denial in the Islamic world and point out the deep danger in ignoring history and the memory of narrative.

It was the pairing of these two journeys that made this trip so pivotal for me.

The conference organizers hosted about 25 scholars at Schloss in Elmau, a luxurious castle surrounded by mountains, hiking trails, lakes and breathtaking beauty. My husband and Ruya roamed through the exquisite settings and enjoyed the hospitality of the University of Munich as I attended the sessions. It was my first conference with a baby along and I was filled with trepidation, but she was such an inspiration when I would catch her smile during coffee breaks.

The conference lasted two days and was filled with intense papers on Jewish and Muslim history, religion, politics, literature, poetry and art. Many of the scholars present were seasoned teachers, writers and intellectuals who brought with them an earnest desire to see Jew and Muslim as equals. They sought to describe the co-existence in many different realms of life, love, art, literature and religion. Muslim scholars openly critiqued their own cultural biases and the prevalent anti-Semitism in Islamic countries, and Jewish scholars were generous in their understanding of the contribution of Islam upon Judaism.

The most intriguing night was the last roundtable dialogue, when a local journalist put several personal and political questions to both the Muslim and Jewish scholars. Interestingly, the five scholars did not answer the questions, but each expressed deep and provocative sentiments of what it meant to have a Jewish or Islamic history, respectively. In response to their responses, the following questions were asked: How can there be real reconciliation? Memory and the effect of narrative are raw, so perhaps we need to deconstruct the images of one another, especially in the media? The conclusion of the conference remained open-ended, like most academic meetings tend to be, but there was a chill in the air that last night as some of the participants sounded pessimistic and some cynical.

A deep anxiety surfaced within me as I saw a sudden personal testimony rear amid the scholarly masturbation we had engaged in over the last two days -- in other words, how can a group of scholars end the mistrust between Jews and Muslims? Well, we can't. We have no power to resolve the problems of the Knesset or the Fatah or Hamas parties, but we can at least create dialogue and influence from these types of meetings.

But what is dialogue? It is a conversation between two willing parties. However, the willingness of many Jews and Muslims has become buried beneath the memory and effect of narrative and images, as well as death and fear. As the only Muslim woman at this conference, I witnessed some sincere thoughts from Jewish and Muslim men, as well as two Jewish women, who created a dialogue and understanding of how simply human both Jews and Muslims are. As the conference ended, I was asked what I intended to do in Munich for the next three days, and our plan was to visit Dachau and meet with an old German friend. My feelings about the visit to the concentration camp had not been sorted out; I just knew that I wanted to visualize something I had read about in many post-Holocaust testimonies. But my eagerness to go to Dachau was deeper than I thought.

I wanted to go to Dachau because I wanted to pay my respects to the many Jews, Christians, and Gypsies who had perished and been abused there; I went as an act of simple respect for the dead.

Dachau was a Nazi German concentration camp built on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory near the medieval town of Dachau, which is located about 10 miles northwest of Munich, in southern Germany. As one walks toward the camp, there is an iron gate nested in between bushes and tall oak trees with the slogan: "Arbeit Mach Frei" (work will set you free).

When the Nazis opened Dachau in March, 1933, Heinrich Himmler, the police president of Munich, described it as the Nazi's first camp for political prisoners. One can still visit the barracks where the many prisoners and SS guards were housed: the long, gray buildings with low ceilings today contain exhibitions of old propaganda, art and SS paraphernalia. It is not hard to envision the harsh reality the prisoners had to face or the lives of the SS guards.

When we stepped off the train, we saw the sign for Dachau; I began to see the sadness in the words and wondered how anyone living there today could bear to give out their address. How would the effect of memory and narrative intersect here? As I carried my daughter in my arms toward the front gate, she began to howl in a chilling manner, and I am still amazed at myself for bringing my newborn to one of the most atrocious places on earth.

I am not sure whether this was something I could have predicted, but as we approached, Ruya was exceptionally unhappy -- my child who rarely cries -- and her shrieks made it all seem even more difficult. The camp was bare, with white pebbles in the square and an empty space that spoke of the horror that lay in the lives of the prisoners, and the terrifying howls of my baby echoed throughout time.

Dachau became a prototype for the Nazi camps that followed, and it retains a bareness and coldness that evokes its history. The exact number of how many passed through the camp is unknown, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, which also reports that 160,000 prisoners were registered on the files and about 90,000 in the camp's branches. But many more transported there in the last days of the camp were not registered. Some inmates stayed in the camp, some were transported further in "death transports" and others were murdered or died there: as many as 32,000 prisoners died at Dachau of starvation and disease. In early 1945, a typhus epidemic spread through the camp, which led to an evacuation and the death of a large number of already weakened prisoners. Dachau was also the site of the first medical experiments on prisoners.

As Ruya cried, I asked my husband to keep walking so I could stop to feed her, and as I did so at the bottom of the steps of the barracks, I felt the haunting cries of so many children there before us. My daughter sucked on her milk with tears streaming down her cheeks.

As I approached the camp, I found myself saying an Islamic prayer for the dead in the courtyard, and I felt a sense of responsibility to the victims. At that moment, I felt as if I were a witness giving testimony to all Muslims. As someone who has witnessed numerous Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, I found myself standing alone in the courtyard of Dachau, watching my daughter's eyes become blinded by the white stones of the camp and thinking to her out loud, telling her that this very act of remembering and sharing the atrocities with others is the only assurance that this will never happen again to anyone. My baby daughter squinted at me with her wet lashes as I held her in silence.

We were led toward the crematorium and she calmed a bit, and I pushed her in her stroller into the gas chamber, a dark room with showerheads looking down upon us. It was as if she and I alone were witnessing the moment before the horror. This was the moment when I saw her scrutinize the ceiling, and I knew there was something uncanny about her newness, freshness and innocence witnessing the closeness of death. I walked out vowing that she too must in some way become a witness for all future generations of Muslims.

Dachau is one of the most famous of the Nazi concentration camps and was liberated by Allied forces on April 29, 1945 -- less than 10 days before the end of the war. Soon after the British and Americans arrived, images and reports of the camp gave the world the first shocking visions of what had happened there. And now here I was, experiencing it firsthand -- not a journalist, not a Jew, not a Christian, not a liberator, but a Muslim sharing this public memory.

Witnessing is, as so many post-Holocaust writers have spoken of it, a form of speaking. And Dachau is a place where silence can be broken and where the atrocities can now be declared openly. I became a witness of the ghosts and survivors of Dachau. But more notably, I felt that even by witnessing just one camp -- or one death -- it is as if I have witnessed a million camps and a million deaths.I began writing this piece a few days ago and realized that I was stuck. I could not express why I wanted to write something for the Jewish and Muslim community about my personal experience in Munich. Nor am I sure that this fourth attempt at writing can clearly convey my understanding of the similarities between Jews and Muslims. But I end my story with a simple lesson: As a witness with a newborn child in my arms, I learned that memory and narrative intersect in various ways, but the only way to respect one another's memory and narrative is to witness and to speak against silence, so that indeed the new life in my arms, in millions of arms like mine, can carry more lives in the future.

Professor Mehnaz M. Afridi teaches Judaism and Islam at various Southern California universities. She also offers public lectures and seminars. For more information, visit http://www.mehnazafridi.com.

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