Insights: Muslims and the Holocaust: Reconciliation and Hope

This is an insight written by Margo Shear on a lecture given by Dr. Mehnaz Afridi as part of the Bahá’í Chair series on human nature. 

Perspective on History 

The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace recently hosted Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College. The subject of her lecture, “Muslims and the Holocaust: Reconciliation and Hope,” drew interest from guests in the hopes of exploring a dark part of history – from a different perspective.

The Holocaust strikes a deeply sensitive cord for people of many different faiths. Jews, Muslims, and Christians have their own stories to tell – whether that be from history books, religious documents and sermons, or family accounts.

My grandfather, Sam Shear, is a Holocaust survivor. Born in Będzin, Poland, he was captured by the Nazis at the age of 13 while he was in line for bread. Torn away from his family, he was taken to Buchenwald while, unbeknownst to him, his brother, sister, and parents were taken to Auschwitz.  My grandfather spent five years in concentration camps while enduring brutal winters, Typhus Fever, and physical and mental pain that no human being should ever experience. He was on the Death March when he was finally liberated. He reunited with his younger brother, his only surviving immediate family member, months later. Their stories of survival have become a part of who I am. They are both alive today.

As I manage undergraduate communications for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, my colleagues with the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace informed me about this lecture early –months before, in the summer. Immediately after reading the title, I marked the date on my calendar. I commend the Bahá’í Chair for addressing such an important part of history and welcoming discussion with a unique context.

How is the Holocaust connected to Muslims? 

The Holocaust is typically associated with words and phrases that ring in the memory of those personally affected, and even those who were not: the slaughtering of six million Jews, Nazis, Hitler, “The Final Solution,” – just to name a few. To me, as a Jew, they sting with a different meaning. However, Muslims are rarely mentioned in these words, phrases, and discussions. “Where were the Muslims during the Holocaust?” recalled Dr. Afridi in her lecture. I asked myself why I hadn’t thought of this.

Muslims and Jews have dark histories of suffering, yet the worst atrocity in recent history largely leaves one of them out. They have both suffered, been marginalized, and endured centuries of being a minority. Why are their stories of during Holocaust not aligned? Why aren’t Muslims typically included in the Holocaust discussion? My reasoning was because of Hitler’s “Final Solution” to wipe out all Jews in existence. But there is a deeper story to uncover. Dr. Afridi has made it her life’s mission to get this conversation started, and to keep it going.

Dr. Afridi exposed a truth about the Holocaust that allowed me to see the Holocaust from another perspective. Muslims were victims during the Holocaust, too. I was stunned to learn that Muslims were thrown into concentration camps in northern Africa, while Jews were in the Death March and camps thousands of miles away in eastern Europe. I came home from this lecture and called my family. I still ask myself why this fact isn’t more well-known.

I also was intrigued after learning that Muslims played a role in helping Jews escape from the Nazis. Dr. Afridi exposed the history of courageous Muslim leaders who risked their own freedom by hiding Jews in their homes. However, she also acknowledged the reality that there were Muslims who turned a blind eye to the oppression of the Jews and who aided the Nazis in their efforts. Acknowledging both sides of this dark history is a major step in reconciling the connections between Muslims and Jews – and their suffering at different (and same) times in history.

Why is this significant in creating a bridge of understanding between Jews and Muslims?

Dr. Afridi is the human bridge that is helping to build this understanding between Jews and Muslims. Her life and work embody would-be contradictions: she’s a Muslim woman who studies the Holocaust, and serves as director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College. She’s set foot in concentration camps in eastern Europe that eradicated millions of Jews – and as a Jew, I cannot say the same. She’s arguably more knowledgeable about the Holocaust than most Jews I know. More should follow her lead.

“Liberate.” We use the word “liberate” to describe when Holocaust survivors were freed from captivity. When Dr. Afridi said “liberate” in her lecture, she added that many survivors wouldn’t describe it as liberation. I never considered this, as the word “liberation” is a precious word that symbolizes my grandfather’s freedom. Although my grandfather was liberated from the Death March, was he really fully liberated? Memories, loss, and lifelong side effects prevent him and other survivors from full liberation. I found comfort in knowing that Dr. Afridi recognizes this harsh reality, and even more comfort in knowing she is working to keep survivors’ stories alive.

About the Author:

Margo Shear is the Coordinator for Undergraduate Communications & Recruitment for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSOS), and the advisor for the BSOS Dean’s Student Advisory Council and the BSOS Ambassador program. Margo is an alumna of University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, and previously worked as a producer at WUSA9 television. Originally from the Pittsburgh area, Margo currently resides in Washington, DC.

Photo Credit: Lori Evelyn Allan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *