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.
Nearly 60 years after the Holocaust, the prayer in memory of the 1.5 million Jews murdered in this camp, and the support of this unusual group of Israeli Arabs, was just too hard for the woman to take.
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.
“I am sensitive to Palestinian pain regardless of the political dispute with them,” Gisser says. “I came because they showed sensitivity to Jewish pain.”
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.
After the October 2000 riots among Israeli Arabs, as relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel deteriorated, and after endless discussions with Jewish friends, Shoufani declared: “I understand that we did not understand.”
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 Foundation, Eliezer Ya’ari of the New Israel Fund and Yeshayahu Tadmor of Jezreel Valley College. A similar group was organized in France.
On Monday, 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.”
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 or our own people,” Shoufani said, “but it is out of this pain that we unite with you in your pain.”
It was a courageous act, the first time since the October 2000 riots that an organized group of Arab public figures openly raised the flag of reconciliation with the Jews.
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.
It was particularly important to join ranks now, he added, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continuing and relations between Muslims and Jews in France deteriorating.
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.
“At one point I said to myself, ‘Why did I come here, why did I not stay at home in Nazareth?’ ” said Tawfik, a bank manager. “I am telling you, I read books, I saw movies, but until I came here and saw this, I did not have the faintest idea of what the Shoah was like.”
“We leave here not the same people that came here,” said Jallal abu-Tuameh, former mayor of Baka al-Gharbiya.
Nazir Majali, one of the organizers of the group, said they were determined to enlarge the circle and call on the rest of the Arab and Muslim world to join this act of reconciliation.
“We shall not be deterred by the critics,” said Majali, the former editor of a communist newspaper.
The visit ended with a brief ceremony at the Death Wall in Auschwitz. After reading three chapters from Psalms, an Arab and a Jewish woman laid wreaths and the group sang a song written by Hanna Szenes. The young Jewish paratrooper, who was sent to Hungary by the British Army during the war, was caught by the Germans and executed.
“God,” goes the song, “let it not end for ever, the light, the song of the waves, and the prayer of man.”
Nuha Ka’awar, a poet from Nazareth, could not sing along because her Hebrew was not good enough. But in her pocket she carried a folded sheet with a poem in Hebrew.
She had written it just a few minutes earlier, on the bus from Krakow to Auschwitz: “On the banks of the Wisla river, my bones were left. On the banks of the Dead Sea I left my sisters . . . I was left alone without mother and my two brothers, and I asked about my father: Has he left without me?”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.