Atiyah Aftab said she was already schooled in the horrors of the Holocaust, but it was not until she was in Auschwitz standing in a room filled with piles of women’s hair that the extent of the genocide hit her.
“It was physically nauseating me,” said the South Brunswick resident. “It was just unbelievable to me that this is humanity and it made me extremely sad. It made me think about what we can do in our lives today to prevent this from ever happening again and what we can do to make this a better world.”
Aftab was one of 53 women from across the United States, including four teens, who visited Berlin and Poland with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS) from June 26 to July 4 as part of its annual “Building Bridges” trip. Its purpose, according to organizers, was to walk in the footsteps of those who perished in the Holocaust and gain an understanding of the persecution of modern-day refugees.
“I started the sisterhood after my first trip to Poland where I saw the enormity of the Holocaust,” said SOSS co-founder Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick. “What I saw was truly horrific and overwhelming. While I could not change the past, I could change the future. I had been thinking for some time about how to change the course of hate. It occurred to me as Muslims and Jews we often are targets of the same hate.”
Olitzky and Aftab, an attorney who also teaches at Rutgers University and serves as director of its Center for Islamic Life, founded the sisterhood’s original chapter in North and South Brunswick in 2010. The group is dedicated to building friendships between Muslim and Jewish women and teens. SOSS went national four years after its founding, and Olitzky serves as the national director. Today it has 170 chapters — including a dozen teen chapters — in the U.S. and Canada. The first “Building Bridges” trip was to the Balkans in 2016, and last year they explored the civil rights movement in the southern United States.
This year’s tour of Poland and the city of Berlin was led by Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, director of Manhattan College’s Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center. Afridi is the only Muslim to head a Holocaust center in the U.S.
The SOSS itinerary included Holocaust sites, interfaith dialogues, and prayer services at synagogues and mosques, and Olitzky said they held what is believed to be the only Muslim-Jewish prayer service ever held by women in Auschwitz.
“No one can prepare you to see these sites of genocide,” said Aftab. “But this was a supportive group of women. There definitely was a sense we were all together in this. It wasn’t just a Jewish trip.”
One of the places visited in Poland, along with Oskar Schindler’s Enamel factory and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, was Warsaw’s Nożyk Synagogue, the city’s only surviving prewar synagogue. There they met with its rabbi and a representative of the Tartar community, Muslims who have lived in or near Poland since the 1400s. In Krakow they met with an interfaith group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and assisted in the cleanup of a Jewish cemetery.
Highlights of the Berlin tour included a prayer service in the Bavarian Quarter, which served as a ghetto for Jews, and visits to memorials for gay and Roma (Gypsy) victims of Nazi mass murder. They also attended prayer services at the Dar Assalam Mosque and Shabbat evening services at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse. They also met with Syrian refugees and interfaith groups of Muslims and Jews who are working to help newcomers to the city.
Roberta Elliott of South Orange had already been everywhere the group journeyed, “but I wanted to take a dive with my Muslim sisters.”
“When I went to Auschwitz in 1990 it never occurred to me there would be any reason to ever go again,” said Elliott, who co-founded the Essex Two chapter of SOSS as well as a chapter in Tucson, Ariz., where she lives in the winter.
Retired from a career in Jewish communal work, mostly working for Hadassah and HIAS in New York, Elliott said having Afridi, “who knows just about everything there is to know about the Holocaust, but it comes from the point of view of another minority,” proved both challenging and thoughtful. For instance, the group learned that a small number of Muslims also lost their lives at Auschwitz.
Miniimah Bilal-Shakir of Hillside said she feels a special kinship to the Jewish experience as an African-American and Muslim. She calls the Jewish women she’s met through SOSS “my sisters from another mother.”
At Auschwitz, Bilal-Shakir, a member of the Essex One chapter, said she was struck by the shared suffering “of slaves coming on ships from Africa, who couldn’t move and had to relieve themselves where they were, and the similarity of people on those boxcars.”
Heba Macksoud of Princeton, an original member of the North and South Brunswick chapter, said among the reasons she went on the trip was to gain an understanding of why Jews have such a strong connection to Israel. She said that until the trip it had never occurred to her “how Jews felt displaced after they were subjected to such wide and discriminatory hate. How could they want to go back to those places?
“Just walking in their shoes and seeing the remnants of that hate helped me understand why Israel is so important” to all Jews, said Macksoud. “It wasn’t necessarily about religion, but more about creating an identity for them as a people.”
Macksoud also brought along her 17-year-old twin daughters.
“I wanted them to get out of their social media bubble and wake them up to what’s going on in the world,” she said. “Now they understand and can continue the legacy of standing up for things. I heard every person on the trip, Jews and Muslims, say that it is their job to stand up for the other.”
Heather Ciociola of Lawrence-ville, who started the Mercer-Somerset chapter in 2017, said the experience of Muslims and Jews witnessing together the vestiges of genocide was a powerful image in the face of all the hate being spewed nationally against refugees, Muslims, Jews, and others.
“Since we can speak up now, we should speak up,” said Ciociola, a refugee advocate. “What we do makes a difference. It matters to stand up for our neighbors, and it matters if we hear something hateful that we stand up and call it out.
“It didn’t start at Auschwitz. It started long before that and we need to take a stand against hate, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-refugee sentiment.”