'Nothing prepared me for our journey to Auschwitz'

The March of the Living would have marked the Holocaust today – one Muslim writer recalls the power of last year's event

Remona Aly

Lessons from the Holocaust: The March of the Living, an educational event involving visits to Holocaust sites such as Auschwitz, should have been taking place today

A year ago, I knew I was about to go on a deeply painful journey, but I also knew it was an utterly vital one. As a Muslim journalist, I joined vicars, rabbis and other leaders from the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities to form the first official multi-faith delegation for March of the Living UK. The organisation is part of an international initiative that takes 12,000 people, mainly young Jews, from all over the world on an educational journey to sites of the Holocaust in Poland, culminating in a mass march through Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during the Second World War.

Amid the trauma, our holy, handpicked group supported each other with words, a knowing look or a clutch of the hand. We shared in the mourner's kaddish, bowed heads in silence, and clung closer to our faith. Like many, I have studied the Holocaust at school, watched films, even led a Muslim-Jewish campaign voicing unity with Holocaust Memorial Day, but nothing could impact me this profoundly.

The organisation’s educators brought the Holocaust effectively and chillingly close with a knowledge and sensitivity that were instrumental in conveying the anguish of the Shoah [the Holocaust]. They involved us at every step, as we read out first-hand accounts and walked in the footsteps and stories of victims. In Buczyna forest, where thousands of Jews were brutally shot, the trees seemed to have risen like a host of witnesses to the horror. As I stood crying and praying over the mass grave of children, I thought of my six-year-old twin nieces and one-year-old nephew, and imagined the fear on those children’s faces in the forest. As a Muslim standing by these Jewish graves, I felt keenly how grief and tragedy are part of all our existences.

Lessons from the Holocaust

I have no doubt that the Shoah is a pain that can only truly be experienced by the Jewish people, yet it does not dismiss the need for people of all beliefs to feel its shadow. For when we enter the psyche of each other’s pain, we not only reconfirm our collective humanity, we become categorically invested in it. Our entire multi-faith group continues to extend the long reach of our journey to families, friends and communities.

A particularly moving honour was meeting 91-year-old survivor Arek Hersh, who entered his first concentration camp as a child, aged 11. The camp contained 2,500 men and 18 months later, only 11 survived. Arek’s story, warmth and dignity, I will never forget. An important aspect of the journey was to highlight the history of Jewish life in Poland. We walked through a thousand years at the POLIN museum in Warsaw and learned that even when there were times of relative prosperity, they never prevailed. It was particularly striking to visit a Jewish community centre in Krakow, where its director rabbi proudly owned his Polish identity. In the bleak backdrop of our learnings in the camps, I found the testament of Jewish life in Poland today extraordinary, and sacred.

As we joined thousands of Jews on a life-affirming march through Auschwitz to Birkenau on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, placing candles and messages of love on the tracks that had brought Jews to their demise, a young Jewish girl draped in an Israeli flag spotted me in my hijab, and rushed over to say, “Thank you, it means so much your being here.” Considering the tensions that undeniably exist between our communities, it was a poignant exchange. 

The current coronavirus pandemic has meant there will be no march this year for the first time since 1988. That’s why raising its message of “Never Means Never” is as crucial as ever. Since our visit last year, there have been stabbings in a rabbi’s home in New York during Hanukkah festivities, an attempted attack by a gunman on a synagogue in Germany on Yom Kippur, and the UK has seen anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on synagogues and shops. A study by Pew Research Centre a year after the Tree of Life massacre found that almost one in three Jews sometimes hide their faith

Like any form of prejudice and racism, anti-Semitism is a plague on all our houses. In a world that is slow to learn, we see hate crime and the far right continue to rise. One antidote is recalling the powerful moment when our faith group, linked arm in arm, walked beneath the infamous sign at Auschwitz, "Arbeit Macht Frei", while singing words of survival, existence and hope. Every one of us felt the words "never again" sink into our heart and gut.

Equipped with the experience I had in Poland last year, I learned this: that suffering is not a sideshow, it is a collective human experience. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and hatred in all its forms are a threat to us all, so it follows that only through uniting forces can we combat them. It’s a path that begins with emotional solidarity and translates into words, actions and alliance. I don’t need my faith to tell me to stand with the oppressed – even though it urges me to – because I understand it to be a pact of shared humanity. Only when we recognise this, will we be able, together, to mobilise those three defiant words, never means never.

Remona Aly is a journalist and broadcaster with a focus on faith, lifestyle and identity. She is also director of communications for Exploring Islam Foundation

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