(Adapted from an address delivered today at a joint Muslim-Jewish observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potoćari, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Alongside the ceremony, the author and Husein ef. Kavazović, the Grand Mufti of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also jointly issued principles for dialogue for understanding and coexistence, which can be viewed here.)
Seventy-nine years ago today, soldiers and officers of the Soviet Union’s Red Army liberated approximately 7,000 prisoners, most of them Jews, who had been left behind in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. These victims of the Nazi terror, of Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” were deemed too weak, too ill to be taken on death marches and transports to camps in Germany as the Nazi troops retreated from Poland.
“It is impossible to describe in human words the meeting of the imprisoned, saved from certain death, with their liberators,” recalled one of these newly freed survivors, Regina Grimberg, a French Jew. “Soviet officers and soldiers in rags, exhausted, freezing cold, but victorious, cried like little children at the sight of piles of corpses in front of barracks and people in agony, resembling skeletons, stacked on bunks. The female prisoners screamed, sobbed, and lovingly touched the clothes of their liberators to find out that these people were real, and kissed their hands.”
Today, we remember. Today, we mourn.
Standing here in Potočari, we remember, we mourn the millions of Jewish men, women, and children who were systematically murdered by the German SS and their multinational accomplices at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and all the other places of horror.
We remember the Serbs, Jews, and Roma who were slaughtered by the Ustaše at the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia. So, too, we remember the 11,343 Jews from Bulgarian-occupied Thrace, Macedonia, and the formerly Serbian district of Pirot who were deported to their death by Bulgarian police and military units in the winter of 1943, and all the other innocent victims of the Holocaust.
Standing here today in Potočari, we also mourn, we also remember the thousands of Bosniak men and boys – the Bosnian Muslim men and boys – who were murdered by Bosnian Serb chetniks in the Srebrenica genocide in July of 1995.
We remember – we must never forget – all the Bosniak women and girls who were raped and violated here, and the women, children, and elderly who were forcibly deported from here as part of that genocide.
Standing here today in Potočari, each of us retreats into our individual memories, into our individual sanctuaries of thought.
[Leader of the Bosnian Jewish community] Ambassador Jakob Finci, who was born in a concentration camp on the island of Rab off the northern Croatian coast in 1943, is thinking of more than 50 members of his family who were brutally put to death in the Holocaust, while [Srebrenica Memorial Center Deputy Director] Amra Begić is thinking of her father, grandfather, 26 other relatives, and her best friend who were brutally put to death in the Srebrenica genocide.
[Srebrenica Memorial Center Director] Emir Suljagić remembers his friend Nehrudin Sulejmanović, who accompanied wounded Bosniaks out of Srebrenica and disappeared into the ether of that genocide, while Vlado Andrle [president of the Jewish cultural, educational, and humanitarian society “La Benevolencija” in Sarajevo] thinks of his great-grandmother who was killed by the Ustaše in Jasenovac.
[Srebrenica Memorial Center’s Public Relations Officer] Almasa Salihović is mourning her brother who was torn from her arms and murdered by Bosnian Serb chetniks, while I am mourning my five-and-a-half-year-old brother (my mother’s son) and my grandparents who were murdered in a gas chamber upon their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
We join together in sorrow, and our tears become prayers – prayers of remembrance but also prayers of hope.
Goodness Breaking Through
We remember the evil that was done to us, but we must also not forget the rare rays of light, of goodness, that broke through the darkness of that evil.
In 1940, Derviš Korkut, the Muslim chief librarian of the National Museum of Bosnia, published an article entitled “Anti-Semitism Is Foreign to the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” in which he argued for tolerance toward Bosnia’s Jews. Korkut subsequently not only rescued the historic Sarajevo Haggadah from certain destruction by the Nazis, but he and his wife Servet hid a Jewish girl, Dorkica Papo, also known as Mira, in their home, thereby saving her life. More than five decades later, when Korkut’s daughter Lamija and her family fled from the ethnic carnage in Kosovo to Skopje in what is now North Macedonia, Mira Papo’s son Davor was among those who enabled them to settle in Israel.
Two other Bosnian Muslims, Mustafa and Zejneba Hardaga, similarly risked their lives by sheltering their Jewish friends and neighbors, Rifka and Josef Kabiljo, and their two children in the Hardagas’ Sarajevo home. Zejneba Hardaga went on to save other Bosnian Jews from being rounded up by the Gestapo and the Ustaše, resulting in her and Mustafa being recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority, as were Derviš and Servet Korkut. And here again, goodness was met with goodness. In 1994, at the height of the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, after Mustafa had died, Rifka Kabiljo arranged for Zejneba and her family to be taken out of that city and brought to safety in Israel.
On Sunday, Aug. 23, 1942, as Jews were being deported from France to Nazi German death camps, Roman Catholic priests throughout the archdiocese of Toulouse publicly read out a pastoral letter from Archbishop Jules-Géraud Saliège in which he protested that Jewish men, women and children, fathers and mothers were being “treated like cattle” and “dispatched to unknown destinations.”
“Why does the right of sanctuary no longer exist in our churches,” he asked. “The Jews are men, the Jews are women…They are part of the human race. They are our brothers, like so many others. A Christian may not forget this.” As a direct result of Archbishop Saliège’s public protest, popular sentiment in and around Toulouse turned against the Germans and many Jews were saved.
The following year, Metropolitans Stefan of Sofia and Kiril of Plovdiv of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were largely responsible for persuading King Boris III of Bulgaria not to deport 48,000 Bulgarian Jews to Nazi German death camps, even though they did not succeed in preventing that fate from befalling the Jews of Thrace, Macedonia, and Pirot.
Derviš and Servet Korkut, Zejneba and Mustafa Hardaga, Archbishop Saliège, and Metropolitans Stefan and Kiril may have been in the minority during the years of the Holocaust, but they are the role models whom we, as we approach the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, must seek to emulate.
A Joint Commitment
Today is not a time and this commemoration is not the place for politics or to express our respective views or opinions on present-day global developments. Today is a time — and this commemoration is the place — for remembrance, for not allowing the ghosts of our past to fade away from us.
And yet, today is also a time and this commemoration is also the place for us to jointly commit ourselves to doing everything in our power to prevent the horrors we remember here today from being repeated, and to do everything in our power to prevent or at least ease the suffering of the innocent.
Above all, we must not be — we cannot be — indifferent to suffering, to all suffering. Still, we also must not, we cannot ignore savagery and wanton brutality and cruelty, especially when the proclaimed goal of such savagery, brutality, and cruelty is the annihilation of men, women, children, and infants only and exclusively because of their identity.
And so let me state clearly and unambiguously here today that we must condemn and repudiate the savagery perpetrated by Hamas against Jewish men, women, and children on October 7 on the Israeli-Gaza border, the rapes and violations of Jewish women and girls, and the violent kidnapping of more than 200 hostages into Gaza, over 100 of whom remain there in horrific captivity today, more than three and a half months later.
And at the same time, let me state equally clearly and equally unambiguously here today that we must not, we cannot be indifferent to the deaths and displacements endured by Palestinian civilians in Gaza over the course of these same more than three and a half months. Anyone with a heart, anyone with a soul must have deep compassion and empathy for the suffering of Palestinian civilian men, women, and children desperately in need of humanitarian aid. Anyone with a heart, anyone with a soul cannot fail to shed tears at the sight of dead Palestinian infants in shrouds, the victims of a war for which they bore no responsibility whatsoever.
Simply put, in order for us to move toward one another rather than further and further away from one another, we must, in the words of a man attending a meeting of Standing Together, a grassroots organization of Israeli Jews and Arabs that promotes tolerance and coexistence, “be able to feel pain for the other side.”
We must also remember, on all sides, that while words in and of themselves do not kill, hateful words can all too easily result in violence, in killings, in atrocities, and, yes, in genocide. An essential element in the perpetration of the Holocaust, in the perpetration of the Srebrenica genocide, indeed, in the perpetration of all genocides, was the dehumanization of the other. When any one group of human beings disparages another group by depicting them as inferior to themselves, as animals or as vermin, the process of dehumanization, of demonization has begun. It is up to us, to each one of us, to insist that the other, even our perceived political or national adversary, is a human being created and existing in a divine image.
While we here today cannot change the past, we can and we must do all in our collective power to change the future, to prevent further destruction and violence, and to reject all manifestations of antisemitism, of Islamophobia, of bigotry, of xenophobia, and of hatred. And we must do so together, as Muslims, as Jews, as Christians, as human beings, all of us created by God, by Allah, by Adonai, in the image of God, of Allah, of Adonai.