Members of a group of Israeli Jews and Arabs light candles on the railway ramp at Brzezinka, a part of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, during the second day of their unprecedented joint visit last week. (Photo: AP)In a dramatic scene, more than 100 Israeli Arabs stood silently alongside Israeli Jews as the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – was recited last week during an unprecedented visit to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
“It’s such a powerful experience to be here that I cannot speak,” Nujeidat Shafi, a 46-year-old Arab from Israel’s Galilee region, told the Associated Press.
From 1940-45, more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed in gas chambers or died of disease, starvation and torture at Auschwitz. Four members of the delegation laid a wreath at the Death Wall, where thousands of prisoners were shot to death.
Seated by the ruins of the main Auschwitz crematorium, the group of 120 Arabs and 130 Jews from Israel listened to the testimony of survivor Shlomo Venezia, 79, now living in Rome, Italy, whose mother, sister, uncles and aunts perished at the Nazis’ largest death camp.
Aimed at deepening Arab understanding for Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, the visit was the idea of Rev. Emil Shoufani, 47, an Arab-born Catholic priest from Nazareth, in northern Israel. The group brought together intellectuals, professionals and businessmen, most in their 40s – including leading Arabs such as Ahmed Masalha, a well known lawyer from Nazareth and Abdel Aziz Darawshe, head of the emergency ward at Afula hospital.
“We came here in order to know what happened exactly in order to express our sympathy and solidarity with the Jewish people,” Awwad Nawaf, 57, a teacher who lives in Nazareth, told AP. “We hope this will help us and the Jews to live as good neighbors, and to understand each other. We hope it can help stop the bloodshed and the cruelty.”
Several Israeli Roman Catholics, plus about 200 young Jews and Arabs from France, accompanied the group on the visit to the camp.
At the end of the ceremony at the camp, the group tearfully joined in singing the Hebrew Song of Peace.
“For me to sing the Song of Peace with Arab friends here in Auschwitz is the most important sign of hope that we can live together,” said Yoram Halevy, 53, a researcher from Yavne. “We cried in front of suffering and agony.”
Organizer Shoufani hoped the trip could help lessen the deep-rooted bitterness between Arabs and Jews, which has worsened after more than 30 months of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Shoufani’s initiative to study the Holocaust followed the October 2000 events, when 13 Arab demonstrators were killed by Israeli police during rioting in identification with the Palestinian uprising.
In July 2002 Shoufani published a book in France in which he noted that one “should learn the pain of the other side to stop the death circles.”
Seven months later, Shoufani’s group called a press conference in Jerusalem announcing its plan to visit the death camps in order to better understand the Jews’ pain.
A group of some 150 Jewish public figures was organized to endorse the project, including Dan Patir of the Abraham Fund, Eliezer Ya’ari of the New Israel Fund and Yeshayahu Tadmor of Jezreel Valley College. A similar group was organized in France.
Prior to the trip, the Arab participants held study meetings in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and in the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum in the north as well as two weekends of lectures and talks with their Jewish colleagues.
Last week, Shoufani stood on the podium at the Temple synagogue in Krakow, an hour’s drive from Auschwitz, and pledged: “We are here to be with the Jewish people and its suffering, and tell them, we are with you.”
It was the largest organized visit yet by Arabs to the camp, which annually sees about 500,000 visitors, according to the Auschwitz museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt.
The previous day, the group toured the historic Jewish district of the southern Polish city of Krakow.
“We are here to be with the Jewish people, in all its history and all its suffering,” said Shoufani. “From the suffering of our people today, we unite with your suffering,” he said.
The 1.2 million Israeli Arabs make up more than one-sixth of Israel’s population. While they acknowledged that it is important for them to understand the roots of Jews’ suffering, some of those who visited Auschwitz also stressed that Israel must now work to improve living conditions for the Palestinians.
Khatib Uthmans, 35, a teacher from Qalansuwa, said he wants to write a book for Arabs on the Holocaust based on the trip.
“Not enough Arab people know about the Holocaust,” he said. “Talking and writing about our joint visit, we can prove to politicians that people on both sides can get together and talk and live in peace,” Uthmans added. “We want to tell (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat and (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon that we can live together without a problem.”