One of my most painful and transformative interfaith encounters was a recent trip I made to four of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Poland with a small group of American Muslim leaders. The trip came as an unexpected answer to many years of personal prayer.
As a recovering anti-Semite, who is deeply pained by current Jewish-Muslim relations in the U.S. and elsewhere, I knew I needed to develop a deeper understanding of the Shoah and its impact on several generations of Jews. As an imam and chaplain working actively to help heal the wounds between Jews and Muslims, I had to open myself more to the pain of my Jewish brothers and sisters.
Our trip included visits to Dachau, Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Krakow and conversations with several Holocaust survivors. I cannot fully articulate how powerful it was for me to actually walk in the footsteps of millions of brutalized and murdered people in a matter of a few days. While I had read books and seen films about the Holocaust, to stand on the very grounds where so many innocent men, women, and children were ruthlessly murdered was overwhelming.
Among the things that struck me most forcefully as we were guided through the camps was just how "ingenious" the Nazis were in their design of these killing centers. The death camps became so efficient in the last three years of their functioning that the Nazis were able to turn people into ashes in less than three hours after they arrived. It also became clear to me that the Nazis could not have pulled off this diabolical and complex undertaking without the contributions of countless people from different sectors within European society.
Traveling from Germany to Poland, from one camp to the next, I thought about all of the people who participated directly or indirectly in this demonic campaign to exterminate the Jewish people and others considered marginal and unworthy of humane treatment.
Before this trip, I also never quite understood the scale of the destruction. Twelve million people were killed, 6 million of whom were Jews, making up about one third of the world's Jewish population at the time. There were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland before World War II.
Fewer than 200,000 Jews were left by the end of the war, and today, there are approximately 1,000 Jewish families in Poland; this, after Jews had lived in this region for over a thousand years. Images of old men walking to synagogue for Shabbat services, young boys and girls playing in the streets after school, and men and women working in stores, factories, hospitals, and government agencies crowded my mind--all of them murdered simply because they were Jewish.
Because numbers -- especially such enormous numbers -- can be difficult to relate to, I want to share one very personal story from my trip.
For me, among the most painful images was seeing the hills of human hair in Auschwitz and Birkenau. The Nazis used to shave Jewish bodies and sell the human hair to various factories for commercial use. I will never forget those hills of human hair and the inhumanity it represented.
My 10-year-old daughter has beautiful, long, thick hair. I used to find so much comfort in running my fingers through her hair at the end of a long and tiring day. Since my trip, I find it very difficult to do this anymore. Whenever I touch her hair, those horrific images rush through my mind. And I was merely a visitor to the camps: not a survivor, not the child or grandchild of survivors, not even a member of the Jewish people.
As I continue to process my trip, I pray that people throughout the world take the message of NEVER AGAIN into their hearts, and that we develop the courage and compassion to work to end genocide and other forms of mass atrocities.
This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'