By Nasser Alqaddi
Al-Quds University, American Studies Center
Actually this was a wonderful academic trip where I’ve learnt new facts about the Holocaust specifically the concentration camp of Auschwitz. First of all, I’ve to say it is really awful what happened at the concentration camps by Nazis incarcerating prisoners and then exposing them to different types of death brutally.
Before I came here I was thinking what I’ve found here didn’t happen because I’m not from this country to see what was going on; furthermore, I’ve read about the Holocaust and Auschwitz before this trip. I got some information without knowing there are real scenes and there is no possibility to understand without looking at that reality.
Our trip began with landing at the Frankfurt Airport in Germany; then we flew directly to Poland specifically to Krakow where we spent two days in the city. We had some discussions with each other and with the leaders of the project from the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. They were courteous and we learnt about their specialization, professional careers, and the goals behind this educational project. Our main concerns were, why this project brought a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz, and what are the lessons that should be learnt?
Indeed, I like this project, and I can see noble things why this project has been organized, mainly to identify the human suffering of other in order to bring better understanding and eventually reconciliation between two wounded bitter enemies. It is the first time for me to visit Poland where I’ve found hospitable, modest, and polite people despite what did their country face during WW II when it was totally destroyed by Nazi occupation. The remains of this war were clear through its remnants like houses, walls, and cottages that still until today stand as testimonies on Polish land. Meanwhile, the building style maintains its original culture that was during the war era. I have seen the people didn’t change this style drastically, except for few people living around the city who put new styles and inscriptions.
The first day we went to some ancient places with a guide tour to explore the culture, monuments, statues, and antiquities; then we visited some neighborhoods or suburbs so-called ghettos where the Jews living there forcefully suffered from restrictions on movement, racial discrimination, contempt, and oppression. However, I got into some deep discussions with German staff whom I met, so I took advantage to ask her to understand and her answers sharpened my interest focusing on what did they feel toward some matters as well as the perception of current German generation who carried heavy burden (bad legacy) from what their formal barbarous regime had done with Jews and others so they feel guilty as was described to me. This was a fruitful dialogue.
Furthermore, I had no information on Jewish life before the Holocaust and I enquired about the history from the Jewish professors from Ben Gurion University.
What do they think about our visit and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I wanted to know. They were courteous with me and I felt somewhat strangely because we’re enemies, so it was simple dialogue but with complicated orientations; they got me into sensitive memories which we used to see our wounds, given to talking concerning these wounds is indispensable. Regardless of the disturbances and differentiation as long as I’m seeking the facts.
The next day we checked out of the hotel going to Auschwitz where on our way we were hosted at a Jewish synagogue and other places with a guide tour who explained to us about the Jewish way in praying and we discussed the difference between the worship at the mosque and at the synagogue. Through this tour they showed us some locations and images that offered historical proofs about what did Jews face and the destruction of the Jewish life. The next station was the Dialogue Center where we stayed for three days.We prepared ourselves to visit the nearby concentration camps at Auschwitz 1 and 2.
At Auschwitz 1, I continued my enquiries either with German staff or with Israelis and the Palestinian colleagues regarding the questions that I’ve written before coming from Palestine. Here at Auschwitz 1, the reality was compatible with what I’ve read before but to see that on the ground added something different to my thinking enhancing the way I was thinking about it. There is something stirring about seeing the facts on the ground by your own eyes not like reading or watching TV, or seeing a movie, so this experience could be called feasible one.
What I’ve seen at Auschwitz 1 ?
Nice buildings from outside if I looked at just from outside directly the exact idea would be these are nice buildings and confortable place for living and housing, but when looking from the inside it doesn’t reflect your immediate thoughts from outside. All kinds of torture, humiliation, aggression, humanitarian transgressions that occurred there; I started to link between the information I had and the new reality, some of them weren’t applicable because, as I mentioned, reading sometimes doesn’t reflect the reality.
I saw the crematorium extermination buildings and learnt how this operation was going on as well as seeing the huge exhibitions that offered detailed description of the Holocaust. The comprehensive system documented the chronicles which included numerous portraits, and victims’ possessions, suitcases, shoes, clothes, hair, cans, personal items, and some tools used by the prisoners and their executioners.
I saw the bunkers and the harsh way in keeping the prisoners. The last building the guide tour accompanied us to see where the ovens used for burning the dead bodies.
My impression at this place is, I felt disgusted and real dehumanization, and how Nazis acted mercilessly with illegal inhuman decision to exterminate Jews with other prisoners.
When we got back to the hotel for dinner, I discussed this matter again with some comrades who told me their own views. The next day we went to visit Auschwitz 2. It was a scary place and larger than the first one, so our Polish guide tour injected numerous information in our minds about what was going on at each building… really awful and I couldn’t perceive how people has done that for each other during WW II. This terrible injustice to mankind. Especially touching were stories we were told about how the prisoners used restrooms each morning and how they were penalized by the tough restrictions imposed by Nazis.
Gradually, I’ve come with clear sense regarding this genocide where the prisoners faced the most awful types of death whether by gas chambers (crematoria) or by starvation, severe torture, forced labor, or by medical experiments. Actually this was deeply meaningful tour, so the findings were applicable with materials I’ve read but added more life regarding the use of the crematorium where bodies burned and the standards of Nazi in selection process like those who looked physically unhealthy or unfit would be chosen for immediate death at gas chambers. However, the Nazis separated women, men, and children also. The guide tour mentioned about infants and how they were gathered with their mothers into narrow bunkers , as well as targeted for medical experiments by a team of Nazi doctors, and the most two notorious of them were Dr. Cloud Cloudberg and Dr. Josef Mangle who searched among new arrivals for those they might practice this upon . Moreover, homosexuals and gypsies were also arrested and gassed quickly to their death.
Indeed, I learned terrible facts about this atrocious event as documented in history and unforgettable by the whole world; this human suffering of the Jewish people during WW II in Europe.
How could the Nazis send all these huge convoys of people to Auschwitz by trains and other local people were completely ignorant of what was precisely going on? (Maybe these are silly questions but I’m disrupted in this regard).
I’m a Palestinian participant in this trip and this is human suffering by the Jews as well as others. I cannot say anything that erodes or refutes this fact of human suffering.
Anyway , through this experience I would like to shed some light on what I felt particularly from other side, at each building where various violent manifestations occurred by Nazi S.S. officers, the same images came to my mind when I remembered what had the Israelis done and still do to the Palestinians nowadays. Each of m colleagues started to remember what happened with their brothers, sisters, relatives, and neighbors by Israeli soldiers on a daily basis constantly, so the portraits of house demolition, land confiscation, detention, solitary confinement, and waiting for long time at checkpoints without legal justification came to mind. I think these images are hard to be forgettable for Palestinians, as the Holocaust for the Jews, so I wonder, are the Israelis applying what their predecessors faced by Nazi regime upon the Palestinians? Why are we experiencing the same as what the victims of the Holocaust faced?
We feel as we’re victims of the victims of the Holocaust. We also have Remembrance Day as Jews have. The Palestinian delegation discussed this matter: How can we sympathize with the Jews in their trauma, meanwhile, we need who sympathizes with us. Furthermore, we don’t endorse what happened to the Jewish community. The focal point in the trip is the difficulty for us to ignore what Israelis are doing to us, and we do not from our ethical perception and values support Nazi ideology which decided to implement the Final Solution of the Jewish question.
Ostensibly, the Israeli team who came with us was extremely excited to hear from the Palestinian students but unfortunately I was the only one who mixed with them except the last meeting where we gathered together with approximately 5 Palestinian students. Our students did not feel like discussing current politics. Moreover, one of the German PhD students came to my table where I was getting my dinner and said: “Nasser, excuse me, I’m sorry to say that but I didn’t observe any integration or kind of harmony between the Palestinian delegation with Israelis except you. Is there any problem? Would you mind explaining this matter to me?” My response was: “There is no problem and I don’t know actually why my colleagues do not mix with Israelis and why Israelis do not mix with them.
But perhaps it is part of the study for them not to mix.” Then I asked her about the project. She said: “Well, we are looking in this study if there is a possibility for reconciliation if one is exposed to the human suffering of other side and if that would help overcome rifts especially between two conflicting groups, and how they’ll behave with each other, about what they’ll talk, and how this dialogue will go on when they’ll mention their own aspirations, to which extent they would sympathize with each other, and what do the Palestinians feel toward what happened to the Jews, and what do Israelis feel towards what happened during the Nakba. This is important for our work.”
Actually it was important for me to understand what do the Israelis think about our visit and by their answers to my questions we may realize how much this subject is sensitive at different levels.
Eventually I found out that it is hard to convince Israelis about our narrative. I felt that clearly as usual regarding the historical rights of the Holy Land, too complicated to be resolved this issue. They applauded our visit as was clear by their questions. It, doesn’t matter if I felt as if I was under investigation or not, because we were at sensible people coming from conflicting sides.
We were 27 Palestinian students plus 4 PhD students who came to Poland on this educational trip. I want to highlight briefly the status we lived in during this controversial trip from Palestinian perspective.
1. Surely, I admit there were fears among some Palestinian participants about why the Israeli group was there and so most of them boycotted the meetings with Israelis.
2. The media outlets were the main fear, so some students refused to have their photo in any newspaper which constituted inconvenience because if that had to be done. They would have perceived this to be shameful by their local society. Indeed this daring and unprecedented step in the Palestinian society became more difficult as accusations emerged by some irresponsible commentators later like saying this trip is big treason without knowing that there is no restriction over education.
3. There was a confusion when the group got news released by Israeli prestigious newspaper (Ha’aretz) reporting about our trip in Auschwitz. They feared what this may imply to them when they go back, and worried whether there would be a big scandal or not? It was so funny to see the redness of the facial expressions of some. I tried to alleviate their worries saying, “Don’t be bothered guys, we are not here to open mourning day or to become wholeheartedly with Israelis, but we’re here to learn and to show that our position is to reject these atrocities but not for subordination to any sort of brainwashing, on the contrast, we’ve to be respectful with civilized manner in dealing with people here even the Jews to reflect good perception.” Actually not all of them cared about this.
Finally, I would warmly like to appreciate these generous efforts by the staff of Friedrich Schiller University at Jena, with deepest gratitude for Prof. Mohammad Dajani who organized this educational trip to Auschwitz, also for Professor Munther Dajani who joined us on this trip, and others who were involved in the preparation of this project like Ms. Zeina Barakat, and especially to the Wasatia movement (moderation) that coherently realized what does this educational trip mean for the Palestinian students to explore what is unexplored regardless of the hardships and the worst ramifications.
1- I recommend this academic trip to be continued for next Palestinian group who seek knowledge.
2- I recommend for the next delegation to read thoughtfully about the Holocaust before going there because it is very important to understand the facts before the visit.
Such trips would help advance learning and knowledge not just theoretically but practically. Furthermore, they would portray us as civilized people with moral courage.