Speaking at Seton Hall University Nov. 14, a Muslim cleric said his recent visit to Auschwitz was a “life-changing, transformative experience” that helped him understand the “collective psyche” of the Jewish people.
“I thought I knew something about Jewish history,” said Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University in North Carolina. But his experience at the death camp, he said, “came as a slap in the face.”
“We never realized, we never understood the depth of human failure” before this trip, he said to those gathered at a colloquium on the South Orange campus of Seton Hall, a Catholic institution.
Antepli visited the Auschwitz death camps with seven other prominent Muslim leaders in August as members of an interfaith mission organized by Professor Marshall Breger of Catholic University’s School of Law in Washington, DC. The mission, believed to be the first of its kind, was led by Rabbi Jack Bemporad, executive director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding in Carlstadt, and was cosponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Germany.
Antepli, Bemporad, and Breger were the key speakers at the 2010 colloquium of The Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall.
The colloquium, “Sharing the Message of Auschwitz: Muslims Bear Witness to the Holocaust: A Journey to Mutual Affirmation,” was held at Seton Hall’s Jubilee Hall Auditorium; some 200 people attended.
The delegation visited Munich, where they took part in an interfaith celebration of iftar, the evening meal following the Ramadan fast. In Cracow, Poland, they had dinner with the country’s chief rabbi.
Following the trip, the eight leaders issued a statement vigorously condemning all forms of anti-Semitism and declaring any denial — or justification — of the Holocaust “as against the Islamic code of ethics.”
Antepli, a native of Turkey, said he was schooled in the Turkish versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the early-20th-century anti-Semitic tract that outlines a fictitious Jewish plan to achieve world domination.
“I was subjugated to a very sophisticated propaganda,” he said.
He was able to overcome his prejudices — “Baruch Hashem” — with the help of “my own religion and wonderful Jewish friends and colleagues,” he said, using the Hebrew term for “bless God.”
But even so, “something was not clicking” with his ability to understand the “collective psyche” of the Jewish people before his visit to Auschwitz.
Noting the extreme efficiency of the Nazi extermination effort, he said that in the last three years of the Holocaust, it took less than three hours for the Nazis to reduce the Jews — once they disembarked from the trains — “into ashes.”
When he closes his eyes, Antepli said, he can still see “those hills of human hair,” and he no longer has the inclination to play with his own daughter’s long, beautiful hair.
“‘Never again’ is such an important message,” he said, adding that Shoa denial and the proliferation of the Protocols is rampant in the Muslim world.
And while Muslims often view the Shoa through the lens of the creation of the State of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, the fact remains that the Jews “were innocent; they had nothing to do with what happened afterward,” said Antepli, who is hoping to get Iranian clergymen to visit concentration camps.
“The Holocaust should be understood in its own context,” said Antepli.
When asked by an audience member, “Where do you stand on the legitimacy of the State of Israel?,” he answered that he was a Muslim “friend” of the Jewish state.
Asked by an audience member how his message has been received in the Muslim world, he replied, “They know I am not insane,” adding, “I have enough credit in my bank” to make his point.
Still, he has received his share of hate mail, including letters purportedly written by Jews. “Those minority voices will always be there,” he said.
Bemporad, who lost much of his family at Auschwitz, said the imams who “courageously” took part in the trip were sensitive to his emotions and “took good care of me.”
Event sponsors were the Sister Rose Thering Fund, named for the late Seton Hall professor whose life’s work was dedicated to improving Jewish-Christian relations and the university’s Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Religion, and College of Education and Human Services.