They were Christians, Muslims, and Jews from Africa, North America, Europe, and the Middle East. They converged on Lublin, Poland, for four days in May to consider intergroup relations, with Majdanek — the nearby Nazi concentration camp — as their backdrop.
And while all the participants “were committed to interfaith dialogue,” said Rabbi Alan Brill, the only American Jew on the trip, “I don’t think many of them knew much about the Holocaust.”
Brill, who holds the Cooperman-Ross Distinguished Professor Chair in Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, is a veteran of many inter-religious encounters. But, he told NJJN in a May 18 telephone interview, the multi-faith pilgrimage to Majdanek was one experience he did not want to miss.
It was arranged by Yehuda Stolov, executive director of the Interfaith Encounter Association, whose website says it is “dedicated to the promotion of co-existence in the Middle East, through cross-cultural, religious study and dialogue.” Brill is a member of its advisory board.
The trip was financed by the Anna Lindh Foundation, whose stated purpose is “to bring people together from across the Mediterranean to improve mutual respect between cultures.”
The 60 people who were in Poland included 10 Jews, 20 Christians — including Christian Arabs from Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon — and 30 Muslims from Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Bosnia.
“The Jewish number was kept small,” said the rabbi. “We wanted to spend money to bring people who did not know the Jewish story, so most of the Jews were Israelis associated with the Interfaith Encounter Association.”
The bond they made transcended their differences in religious belief, he added.
“Everyone belonged to a group at home that wants to work for peace, reconciliation, or some interfaith effort,” said Brill. “They came in wanting to work things out together. But the visit to Majdanek gave us all a sense of the horrors and the incredible evils of the world that need to be overcome.”
Although it lasted only several hours and came at the end of four days of group discussions and workshops, the tour of Majdanek was the centerpiece of the gathering.
It began with “The Theater of No Name,” a presentation by a Polish Catholic priest who, said Brill, “puts on one-man plays and skits about Jewish life for the current inhabitants of Lublin.”
The priest “gave a detailed tour of Majdanek, including the disinfection and gas chamber, the barracks with displays of huge piles of hair and huge piles of shoes as they were,” said Brill. “Then there was a long walk to the other side of the camp where the crematoria and the autopsy rooms still stand.” Brill said that at the site, where there are “ashes in a huge pile and…a memorial on top of it, we did Christian, Muslim, and Jewish prayer.”
Brill described the visit to the camp as “a very emotional experience. Some people broke into tears. I don’t think many of them really knew what had happened there.”
‘I felt the pain’
Encounters like these represent a new trend in interfaith relations, said Brill.
“After the Holocaust, when Jews first engaged Catholics, the focus was fighting anti-Semitism that led to the death camps. Over time, Catholics began to address the very nature of their relationship with Judaism, and the problematic elements were overcome,” said the rabbi. “This last year, Jewish groups have awakened to the idea that we need to share our narrative, including the Holocaust, with Muslims.”
Iris Gjinish, an Albanian Muslim, was among the trip’s participants. She is manager of women’s projects at the Institute for European Regional Development in Tirana.
“As I was visiting the barracks used to house prisoners of all ages, seeing firsthand where such horrific atrocities were committed and learning about how cruelly they had been treated in that Nazi camp, I kept asking myself the same question: Why?” she wrote in an e-mail to NJJN.
“What sin had they committed to have been so savagely tortured, abused, killed, and burnt?” she asked. “I pray to God that these things will never happen again. We need to be mutually supportive and find a way to cooperate with each other in the face of common challenges, and if there has to be a competition let it be only in the performance of good deeds.”
Sulaiman Khatib, a Palestinian graduate student active in an Israeli-Arab peace group called Wounded Crossing Borders, also corresponded with NJJN by e-mail.
During his visit to the camp, he “really couldn’t believe that humans could reach this level of killing and humiliating others. I felt the pain and the suffering of all people who been tortured and killed. I was crying in my heart and praying that tragedy will never happen again.
“Part of me was thinking how we together, Muslim and Jewish and others, can do more efforts to prevent any kind of killing between us over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” said Khatib.
To Anas Alabbadi, who is studying at American University in Washington, DC, the visit to Majdanek triggered “mixed and intense emotions.”
In an e-mail to NJJN, Alabbadi wrote, “Being there brought chill to my skin since I almost can feel the spirits of those innocent people floating around, especially the children.”
Noting that Palestinians often feel they are “the victim of the victim,” Alabbadi wrote: “After being there, I realized how important to bring everyone there, because it help them to reflect and rethink about the present and the future. I believe it is our mission, especially the children of the victims, to pass the experience to all the mankind to make sure that such a suffering will not happen again, not only to the Jews, but for all mankind.”