On Auschwitz visit, Jews and Arabs seek reconciliation

KRAKOW, Poland — A Hollywood director could not have staged a more dramatic scene: In the middle of a forest, on the ruins of a former gas chamber at the heart of the Birkenau death camp, an Israeli rabbi from a West Bank settlement stood and said Kaddish, surrounded by a group of Arabs and Jews.

Birds sang along with the mourning prayer but the group listened in total silence, noting that Rabbi Avi Gisser had changed the Kaddish's traditional ending.

Instead of the usual "He will make peace upon us and upon all of Israel," Gisser said, "and upon all the peoples of the world."

It was a gesture of gratitude to the 120 Israeli Arabs who initiated this unusual visit to the death camps, an unprecedented act of Arab solidarity with the greatest tragedy of the Jewish people.

When Gisser concluded the prayer, no one said a word. People stood in silence for two or three minutes, Jews and Arabs, some weeping, some lost in thought.

One woman could not fight her emotions and moved away from the group, hugging the trunk of a tree for support and bursting into tears.

Gisser is the rabbi of Ofra, a Jewish settlement in the eye of the Palestinian intifada. When he goes to Jerusalem, a 20-minute drive away, he must reckon with the possibility of a terrorist attack.

The Palestinians are his enemy, and he is theirs. Yet he decided to go on this visit to Auschwitz precisely because Arabs — Israeli Palestinians, as many now call themselves — initiated it.

More than anything else, the visit of some 450 Arabs and Jews to Auschwitz and Birkenau was an act of courage: It takes courage for an Israeli Arab or a French Muslim to identify with the Jews' plight when it is so much easier these days simply to hate.

And yet they came — 120 Arabs and 130 Jews from Israel, as well as a delegation of 200 Jews and Muslims from France.

The visit was the initiative of a group of Israeli Arabs headed by Archimandrite Emile Shoufani, pastor of the Greek Catholic community in Nazareth, one of the foremost leaders of the Christian community in Israel.

Shoufani was aware of the fire his initiative had drawn from the Arab community in Israel. In recent weeks, key Arab figures had charged that the initiative was serving Zionist propaganda.

"The Zionist enterprise uses" the Holocaust "to justify Israel's crimes today," journalist Amir Makhoul wrote.

In his address, however, Shoufani took precisely the opposite tack: He used the Holocaust to point out that pain is pain is pain, whether suffered by Palestinians, Jews or people of any nationality.

"We come out of the pain of our own people," Shoufani said, "but it is out of this pain that we unite with you in your pain."

On Tuesday they all visited Birkenau and Auschwitz, the twin death camps where much of European Jewry was killed in the Holocaust.

The first stop was the Judenramp, the place where the trains came until May 1944, unloading thousands of Jews to face the fatal selection. Some 15 percent of them would gain additional time working in Auschwitz, but the majority would take the long walk to the nearby death camp of Birkenau.

Ida Grinspan from Paris is one of the survivors. She stood at the very ramp where she arrived 60 years ago as a 14-year-old girl on a transport from France, separated by force from her parents. She stood, remembering quietly.

Next to her stood Majid Zerouali, 23, a Muslim of Moroccan origin now living in Toulouse. Zerouali was one of a number of Muslim boy scouts who decided to join the visit.

"It is not just a Jewish tragedy, it is a human tragedy," he said.

The group then moved to the death camps, walking from one gas barrack to another and visiting the crematoriums and the Auschwitz Museum. There they saw the hair shaven off women, the collection of suitcases still carrying the names of their owners, the glasses, the ashes.

All that time they were saying that they could not believe what they saw. Some Arabs could not proceed. They stopped during the visit and stayed behind.

"We leave here not the same people that came here," said Jallal abu-Tuameh, former mayor of Baka al-Gharbiya.