Mus­lim asy­lum seek­ers reckon with Ger­many’s Nazi past

Anti-Semitism is among rea­sons for in­te­gra­tion that ad­dresses Holo­caust

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ISAAC STAN­LEY-BECKER AND ALEXAN­DRA ROJKOV isaac.stan­ley­becker@wash­post.com

oranien­burg, ger­many — He walked across the bleak ex­panse of what was once the Sach­sen­hausen con­cen­tra­tion camp, to­ward the gas cham­ber that had been stocked with liq­uid Zyk­lon B, and posed the ques­tion that still strains the con­science of modern Ger­man so­ci­ety.

“How was it pos­si­ble?” Os­man Jamo asked.

Yet he also won­dered why the site, where barbed wire and guard tow­ers stood dark against the bril­liant sun­shine of a sum­mer af­ter­noon in this town north of Ber­lin, had been pre­served at all.

“Maybe the Jews want to keep th­ese places go­ing so they can be seen as vic­tims for­ever,” he said of Sach­sen­hausen, which was mainly used for po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers but by the be­gin­ning of 1945 held 11,100 Jews.

Jamo’s re­sponse is not the usual re­ac­tion to Europe’s post­war con­ver­sion of con­cen­tra­tion camps into memo­ri­als and mu­se­ums, places of atone­ment and civic ed­u­ca­tion that ask vis­i­tors never to for­get the Nazi past.

But this was not a typ­i­cal tour — nor was Jamo a typ­i­cal vis­i­tor. This was an ef­fort to sen­si­tize Mus­lim mi­grants to the dark his­tory of the coun­try that to­day of­fers them asy­lum. Two years ago, Jamo, 38, fled to Ger­many from Kobane, a Syr­ian city oc­cu­pied by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in late 2014. His am­biva­lent re­sponse to the suf­fer­ing of Jews at Sach­sen­hausen speaks to cen­turies-old re­li­gious strife as well as to the po­lit­i­cal con­flict that has torn the Mid­dle East since Is­rael’s found­ing af­ter World War II.

At the same time, the refugee’s views re­flect the moral quan­daries posed by mass mi­gra­tion for a na­tion re­built af­ter the Holo­caust on a set of bedrock prin­ci­ples that in­clude re­spon­si­bil­ity to the Jewish peo­ple.

“There is an ex­pec­ta­tion that peo­ple com­ing to Ger­many will as­sume that sense of his­tor­i­cal duty,” said Fatih Ue­nal, a Ger­manTurk­ish po­lit­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist who is found­ing a vo­ca­tional train­ing pro­gram for refugees in Frank­furt. “That makes the higher in­ci­dence of anti-Semitic views among Mus­lims hard to talk about, and so we haven’t found a good way of en­gag­ing dif­fer­ent sorts of peo­ple about the vi­o­lence that went on here.”

Jamo was ex­plor­ing Sach­sen­hausen with R.fu­ture-TV, a non­profit in Ber­lin that brings to­gether refugees to dis­cuss Ger­man his­tory and so­cial is­sues, fea­tur­ing them in short films on top­ics from the­ol­ogy to gen­der equal­ity. The project, run by two ac­tors, Nina Coe­nen and Sami Alkomi, has re­ceived 9,000 eu­ros of pub­lic fund­ing for five films.

The spec­ta­cle of bru­tal­ity on dis­play at Sach­sen­hausen did not awe Jamo, a for­mer pho­tog­ra­pher who had known daily vi­o­lence in Syria. No mat­ter the di­rect per­pe­tra­tor of the vi­o­lence Jamo had wit­nessed, the great­est cause of con­flict in the re­gion, he said, was Is­rael.

His view is at odds with the one stated by Ger­many’s chan­cel­lor, An­gela Merkel, in an ad­dress to the Knes­set, Is­rael’s leg­is­la­ture, in 2008, when she said Is­rael’s se­cu­rity was a crit­i­cal part of Ger­many’s “rea­son for be­ing.” On vis­it­ing Dachau in 2015, she said the hor­rors of the camps “ad­mon­ish us never to for­get.”

The his­tory that binds Ger­many to Is­rael is in­ter­preted dif­fer­ently by many in the Arab world, Jamo said: “The Arabs think what Hitler did was a good thing, be­cause he freed them from the Jews.”

He spoke bluntly be­fore a video cam­era that fol­lowed him around the site of the for­mer camp. His re­marks will ap­pear in a doc­u­men­tary film about how refugees in Ger­many un­der­stand the mass mur­der of Jews.

Jamo was one of only two refugees in­volved in R.fu­ture-TV who agreed to par­tic­i­pate in the film project on Holo­caust his­tory. Ger­many’s treat­ment of Jews has been a dif­fi­cult topic of de­bate, said Alkomi, a Chris­tian whose fam­ily es­caped to Ger­many from Syria when he was 9. At a meet­ing of the group last month, one man ad­mit­ted, “In some ways, we think of the Jews just like the Nazis did.”

Such opin­ions are grounds for con­cern that an­i­mus for Is­rael in the Arab world trans­lates into anti-Semitism in the refugee com­mu­nity in Ger­many. Numer­ous stud­ies con­ducted over the past decade sug­gest that hos­til­ity to Jews is more preva­lent among Mus­lim youth in Ger­many than among young peo­ple gen­er­ally.

In sur­vey re­sults re­leased this year, an in­de­pen­dent panel set up by the Ger­man Par­lia­ment found that Jews were “in­creas­ingly con­cerned for their safety,” with re­spon­dents rank­ing Mus­lims as the group most likely to com­mit phys­i­cal and ver­bal at­tacks.

“A lot of Mus­lim refugees,” said Josef Schus­ter, pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral Coun­cil of Jews in Ger­many “grew up in coun­tries where ha­tred of Jews and of Is­rael is nor­mal.” Many know lit­tle about the Holo­caust, he said, “and some even ad­mire Hitler.”

Oth­ers cau­tioned against sin­gling out Ger­many’s refugee pop­u­la­tion as anti-Semitic. Ali Fathol­lah-Ne­jad, an as­so­ciate fel­low with the Ger­man Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions’ Mid­dle East and North Africa Pro­gram, said anti-Semitism “can­not be writ­ten off as a prob­lem of the Mus­lim mi­nor­ity.”

Armin Langer, co­or­di­na­tor of the Salaam-Schalom Ini­tia­tive, an in­ter­faith group based in Ber­lin, said this charge is used to vil­ify im­mi­grants.

“Anti-Semitism is not a ques­tion of eth­nic­ity,” Langer said. “It’s a ques­tion of so­cial and cul­tural in­flu­ences.”

In Iraq, anti-Semitic in­flu­ences are per­va­sive, said Mo­hammed Ka­reem, the other refugee who had agreed to par­tic­i­pate in the film. But Ka­reem, 34, who had been a po­lice of­fi­cer in Bagh­dad, spoke with his back to the cam­era, wor­ried for his fam­ily still in Iraq if he were to be iden­ti­fied as “a friend of the Jews.”

“Ev­ery­where — whether on the TV, from imams or at school — we hear, ‘Jews are not good,’ and we don’t know any Jews to see them dif­fer­ently,” Ka­reem said. Since ar­riv­ing in Ger­many in 2015, he has en­coun­tered sev­eral Jews who vol­un­teer at a Ber­lin church that works with refugees. Now he is ask­ing him­self, “‘Why does my coun­try say Jews are not good?’ Their armies — that’s dif­fer­ent.”

At Sach­sen­hausen, Ka­reem and Jamo peered into the gap­ing trench where pris­on­ers were shot, ex­am­ined im­ages of the dead and took cell­phone pho­tos of each other by the cre­ma­to­rium. Ka­reem said he rec­og­nized that Ger­many had vi­o­lated hu­man rights. They de­cided the Jewish peo­ple could be dis­tin­guished from the state of Is­rael.

But the two men did not ac­cept the idea that the Holo­caust was uniquely hor­rific. They said the camp made them re­mem­ber the suf­fer­ing they had seen in Syria and Iraq — for that, they blamed the United States as well as Is­rael.

By the end of the day, Jamo was firm on one point: “We are def­i­nitely still against the Zion­ists.”

As Coe­nen led the refugees down the long path out of the camp, blan­keted in shadow as the sun be­gan to set, she as­sessed the day’s progress. The film, she said, might not doc­u­ment a full trans­for­ma­tion.

“One of our lessons is that this is a tol­er­ant so­ci­ety, where in­di­vid­u­als are en­ti­tled to their views,” she said. “It’s a process.”

ALEXAN­DRA ROJKOV/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Os­man Jamo, left, and Nina Coe­nen, right, stand at the main gate of the Sach­sen­hausen con­cen­tra­tion camp.

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