At a site of Nazi terror, Muslim refugees reckon with Germany’s past
By ISAAC STANLEY-BECKER AND ALEXANDRA ROJKOV | The Washington Post | Published: August 12, 2017
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 includes 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 German-Turkish 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, its sponsor, he said, was Israel.
"Israeli aggression is the most basic problem," he said.
His view is at odds with the one stated by Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, in an address to the Israeli Knesset 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 among the refugee community in Germany. Numerous studies conducted over the last decade suggest that hostility to Jews is more prevalent among Muslim youth in Germany than among young people generally. Tensions simmered this spring when the parents of a 14-year-old boy said they had removed him from a Berlin school with a high proportion of pupils of Turkish and Arabic descent, alleging he was bullied and at one point told, "All Jews are murderers."
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. Lawmakers pledged to respond but have deferred action until after the September election.
"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 African 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," said Langer, who has done rabbinical training. "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. And 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 — and for that they blamed the United States as well as Israel.
"If Germany paid reparations to Israel, then Americans should pay for what they did in Iraq," Kareem said. By the end of the day, Jamo was firm on one point: "We are definitely still against the Zionists."
As she led the refugees down the long path out of the camp, blanketed in shadow as the sun began to set, Coenen 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."