A group of young Muslim refugees and Jewish youths have visited the former Auschwitz concentration camp. The trip is aimed a fostering solidarity between the two communities and understanding Germany's past crimes.
"I need a shower for my soul and my body right now," says Khaled Naeem. He has just come out of the dim building that houses the incinerators at Auschwitz and into the heat and blinding sun.
He is deeply moved and close to tears, exhausted by the experience: The ovens, the mountains of shoes and human hair, the cramped barracks and the knowledge that more than 1 million people were systematically murdered here. "Like a factory," says Khaled, "it just makes me sad." He saw much suffering himself as he fled from Syria and traveled through Jordan before arriving in Germany: Dead bodies on the side of the road, entire families drowned in the Mediterranean.
Masa Alimam, a 17-year-old Syrian girl, is overpowered as well: "The worst for me was to learn what the Nazis did to the children. They were just murdered, too." Many of the young visitors do not want to talk at all: All that one sees are blank faces, tears, silence and the desire to be alone.
Pilot project for tolerance and against anti-Semitism
Some 25 young people, Muslims and Jews, have made their way here in an attempt to understand the darkest chapter of German history. They are a mix of refugees from Syria and Iraq and young Jews from Germany, all between the ages of 17 and 30. They say they have rid themselves of many preconceptions about one another over the course of their three days together. One such preconception: The idea that all Muslims are anti-Semites. "We just see each other as people. Religion doesn't play much of a role," says Judith Barneck, a Jewish student from Bielefeld. "We laughed together and we cried together," says Masa Alimam.
Read more: Jews in Poland fight to keep the past alive
The idea to take this trip into German history and confront the country's responsibility in recognizing its past crimes came from the Central Council of Muslims in Germany and the Union of Progressive Jews. "I think it's a pilot project that should be emulated," says Aiman Mazyek, who heads the Central Council of Muslims. Mazyek has accompanied several groups of young Muslims to the former concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. "All the effort paid off," says Rabbi Walter Homolka. "Muslims and Jews have to find a way to live together."
Learning to better understand Germany
Neither of the men, however, would argue that anti-Semitism does not exist among some Muslims in Germany, nor in the heart of German society itself. But that is exactly what they seek to counter with their project. "I never really understood the Nazis, it isn't something we had in school in Syria. A lot has become much clearer to me now," says Masa Alimam.
The visitors also received support from politicians. The state premiers of Schleswig-Holstein and Thuringia, Daniel Günther of the conservative Christian Democratic Union and Bodo Ramelow of the Left party, joined the group. The two say they want to support the project and help draw attention to it. "But I wouldn't say people should be obliged to visit a concentration camp. Making it mandatory won't help," says Ramelow. A number of German politicians have called for mandatory concentration camp visits for refugees and migrants.
Khaled Naeem is also opposed to the idea: "Everyone that can visit a concentration camp should. But please don't make it mandatory!" The group is pleased that the politicians have joined them. "I wouldn't say they used our visit to stage an event," says Judith Barneck.
In fact, both state premiers spent a lot of time with the group. They viewed exhibitions, held a small memorial service with them and had lunch together. The politicians say they want the young people to understand what the Holocaust is and Germany's responsibility in remembering it.
Speaking with an Auschwitz survivor
And that was exactly the point of an encounter the day before: 138817 — everyone present can see the prisoner number tattooed on Vaclav Dlugoborski's left forearm. It is hot, and the lean 92-year-old is wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Dlugoborski is an Auschwitz survivor and he speaks to the group about how he experienced and survived the abuse and mass murder of the camp.
He tells them of the selection that took place upon arrival at "the ramp," where prisoners were either sent directly to the gas chambers or into the labor camp. He was sent to Auschwitz because he was in the Polish resistance that fought against the Nazis. Near the end of the war he was able to flee. Before he began his talk at the International Youth Meeting Center in Oswiecim — the Polish name for the place known as Auschwitz under the Germans — Dlugoborski told DW that he had never seen a Jewish-Muslim group at the center.
"What he recounts really hits you," says Judith Barneck. "Of course it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear someone like him speak about what they experienced. It won't be possible for long." At the end of Dlugoborski's talk, Aiman Mazyek says he has a question. He wants to know what people can learn from the Holocaust. "That it should never be repeated," the survivor answers. "We should all be brothers!"