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Rhody Radio episode transcription has been been made possible by the American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grants for Libraries, which is an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.


Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, author of SHOAH THROUGH MUSLIM EYES

Dave Bartos: [00:00:00] You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island's Library Radio Online.


Dave: This is Dave Bartos, coordinator of Adult Services at the Cranston Public Library and member of the Rhody Radio crew. For today's episode, we are sharing the Bornstein Holocaust Education Center's Fall 2022 Baxt Lecture, featuring Dr. Mehnaz Afridi. Dr. Afridi is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and the director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center. Her book, Shoah Through Muslim Eyes, was nominated for the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research and the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award. In this presentation, Dr. Afridi takes us through her research on the Muslim perspective of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and introduces us to how the Muslim world in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, was impacted by the Holocaust.

With her research and writing, Dr. Afridi brings to light the enormity of the Holocaust for the world, and in particular the Muslim reader, and calls for readers to find interfaith solidarity with each other. Enjoy.


Dr. Mehnaz Afridi: Shalom. Thank you so much Wendy and Kelly, who I couldn't say no to. I just drove from New York today, and I just got in like half an hour ago. I have to turn around and go home because I have to teach in the morning. I'm really happy to be here, especially during this social climate. This is part of why I'm here and I do the work that I do in terms of fighting anti-Semitism, but also trying to bridge the Jewish and Muslim community, not just in the United States, but also in places like Europe where I work, which is in Venice, in Berlin, and recently in Sarajevo.

We can be nuanced [00:02:00] and we can be hopeful, but only if we want to, and that's how I begin my work, the education I do with my students. Today I'm going to talk about my book and just give you some nuances of how we can think of Muslims and the Holocaust. How we can think of Jewish-Muslim relations. The fact that I just was on the advisory board for the Jewish Heritage Museum, where they opened their permanent exhibit on what hate can do. I'm really proud that I was part of the nuances that were displayed there about Tunisia, about Albania, about Libya, about Morocco, about Algeria.

I'm happy that this information is out, and there's a couple of reasons why. One is it's important for Muslims and Arabs to stop denying the Holocaust and relativizing the Holocaust. This kind of knowledge puts them in a place geographically where it is really inevitable for them in terms of any denial or relativism. Two, it also brings out wonderful, beautiful stories of rescue. Muslims who rescue their lives for Jews. Three, because this work is so important to both the Muslim and Jewish community. Colonialism, which is still a very deep wound in the Muslim community and the Holocaust, not to compare it to colonization, but is a deep, deep wound to the Jewish community.

What kinds of connections do Muslims and Jews have? We have many religious connections. The very, very important one for Muslims is Abraham, Ibrahim, who is somebody who appears in every single prayer in the Salah, five times a day. God, and the concept of God, of how Jews and Muslims worship God is exactly the same concept. Of course, Moses, Musa, who is the most frequently [00:04:00] mentioned prophet in the Quran. Historical sacred spaces. Spaces that we may even dispute, but we share. Jerusalem, we share spaces in places like Spain that we don't even think about when Jews and Muslims were in Spain. We share spaces in places like Sarajevo.

There's a lot of history that Jews and Muslims share that we have lost and forgotten in the ranker of politics, but also misunderstanding of one another. Living in empires under Christians was very, very hard for both Muslims and Jews. The forced conversions, the hiding of our mosques and our synagogues, not being able to speak languages that we would have preferred to speak in the Christian context. Also, don't forget that Jews and Muslims in places like Iraq in the 11th and 12th century translated the Greeks into Hebrew and Arabic, so that today, indeed what we call Western philosophy is available for everybody.

Living in empires under Muslims, meaning Jews lived under Muslims in empires, Muslims were better than the Christians, not great. There was the jizya tax that was to be paid. They were not allowed to build synagogues higher than mosques. There were some issues and points of conflict. However, Jews were never persecuted for their religion in these places. Colonialism and the Holocaust, right? Holocaust took place in Europe primarily, but also in North Africa. At that time in North Africa, the countries that I want to share with you were under colonial rule from the French, the Italian, and the British, but primarily the French in terms of the Holocaust in the Vichy government [00:06:00] that was in charge of many of the places that the Germans wanted to also occupy.

This, of course, happened after the occupation of France in 1940. Then, in terms of Northern Africa, it was in 1942 to 1945 until the liberation, which we called Operation Torch which is actually an anniversary this month, 80th anniversary of the Tunisian Liberation this month. Tomorrow, actually, I'm giving you another talk with Robert Satloff and a few other people who are interested in this topic to commemorate and make us remember that there were Jews in North Africa. Why the Holocaust and Islam? Why is this important? One of the impetus of my book is to take many, many of the verses that I was taught as a child by an Arabic tutor in my family to understand social justice.

One of the things that I grew up learning was that there was a lot of anti-Semitism in my community. Therefore, I felt a need and a desire because of being a Muslim, to start to think about how we would envision this in terms of the Holocaust and why there was this denial. Actually, I use religion a lot. I'm a religious studies person and most Holocaust scholars are historians. I fall in between history and religion. I really think that religion is a way not to always demonize the other, but also to understand what is our role in terms of social justice. I think the Jews understand that quite well in terms of their own understanding of tikkun olam and how God had commanded the chosen people, the Jews, to go out and create peace and democracy, and justice in the world.

In the same vein, Muslims are also commanded to do the same even if we go against our own people. The question that I wanted to ask was did Muslims [00:08:00] play a role in the Holocaust? Yes, they did. Muslims were occupied under, and these are Muslim Arabs and Africans, they were occupied under the French Vichy government. They had already lost a lot of rights. They did not have a citizenship in these places at all. They were treated like second class citizens. They were used by the Vichy government to be perpetrators. They were used to be bystanders to help with this process of vilifying Jews when they started to build camps in places like Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.

Why would you teach the Holocaust to Muslims? I think that is a very pivotal question. When I do teach the Holocaust to Muslims, there is great transformation and understanding of what happened in terms of Jewish history. I don't just start with the Holocaust. I try to start with Judaism, precepts of Judaism, what that means. Also, the history pre-Holocaust. I think the misperceptions in the Muslim and Arab communities are huge, and I find that that is also the case in Jewish communities in terms of Muslims and Arabs. I'm constantly trying to look and engage these questions as best I can so we can fulfill our historical narratives that we have may be lost along the way.

Why is this work relevant and important today? It's very relevant because we have, right now, the increase of anti-Semitism by 36%. That has not decreased. We have the rise of anti-Semitism in Western Europe. We have the rise of right-wing governments pretty much all over the world. We have the rise of xenophobia, anti-immigration here in this country, including in countries right now in Italy when there's no hope for the refugees sitting in the middle of the sea. Why is it important? Because Jews understand exile. They understand [00:10:00] refugee status, they understand what that means, they understand movement, they come from all different cultures, and so do Muslims.

Muslims are today the most afflicted in terms of their own Muslim extremism. I know we talked about Islamic extremism a lot, but majority of the people who are killed by Islamic extremism are Muslims themselves, and Muslims like myself that will not go along with their program. I want you to think about that very seriously that it is a group of people within certain countries that really want to take over what the majority of Muslims want, which is peace, and to live their lives well. How do Jews and Muslims respond to this today? That's a very big question. There are all kinds of Jews, there are all kinds of Muslims. We're geographically so different and apart, meaning all of us within our communities from Africa, to Asia, to the Arab world, to Europe, to the United States.

I think the reason I asked this question is that what can and how can we respond to this together? Not how necessarily, but also, how do we? I'm asking us to ask yourself that question individually, responding to these issues that we have today. What do we know about the expansion of the Holocaust, not very much. I just finished co editing a book called International Responses to the Holocaust and it does not mention Europe at all. What we did was, my colleague and I, we wanted people to understand Shanghai, the role of Japan, the role of the Middle East, the role of Mauritania, the role of all of these different countries, in terms of post Holocaust, but also Holocaust education in these places.

It's very important we do that, because we want to educate non Jews about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. I want that to be my audience much more so in a way that they can perhaps connect to issues of refugees or connected immigration. In [00:12:00] my work, I talked about Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria being the four areas. Remember, Algeria was not independent yet and neither were a lot of these countries under the French Vichy government. Algeria was still fighting to be actually drawing its own lines and a lot of elders were put into prison, including with Jews who were there at that time.

What do you know about colonialism? One of the things that is really important to understand is how the Arab, African, and Asian Muslims were colonized under the French, the Germans, the Dutch, the Italian is, and how much that impacted their culture, and their religion, as well as their ritual. I'll give you an example. My mother was a refugee from India and she went to the Muslim part of Pakistan, which is Pakistan today. I'm from Pakistan. I was born there. She grew up going to a Catholic school because there was no other option. At home, she was practicing Islam and at school, she was in this Catholic school with nuns.

I asked her, "How did that feel?" She goes, "Well, we really didn't have a choice if you wanted to have a good education." As a child, I maybe never really thought about it, but these were schools that was set up by Christian missionaries to convert Muslims all over Asia, Africa and the Arab world. That's a small example. Language was changed. You no longer were taking courses in say Urdu which is my native tongue, but we're taking courses in English or French or Italian depending where you're living. Food was changed, altered. There were a lot of things that had an impact.

Colonialism was not, "Oh, they're just sitting in my country." There was an oppression, there was an economic severe [00:14:00] oppression of taking resources away. These things, they culminated and a lot of the ways that we think about what we call the Arab, Asian, African world, which is still struggling with this idea of identity. Most of the Muslim countries today have been imprinted and affected by colonization, and they're still trying to get it together, believe me. What is my identity? Who am I? What kind of government do I want? Do I want to be an Islamic country or do I want to be democratic and secular? These are real questions that have been asked postcolonial. It's important we understand these things as we study about the Holocaust.

The Holocaust and colonialism is in no way a comparison. I am both a holocaust scholar and a religious scholar so I would never make that comparison. I want to be clear. I have a chapter in my book called the Holocaust is unprecedented. I don't say unique but unprecedented because I believe that the Holocaust expanded in a way and was organized in a way that no other genocide has been. If you know, I also teach other genocides. I'm also working in the Rohingya genocide right now and the Uyghur genocide that's going on in China as Muslims.

Perhaps we can understand historical context of different types of one another. Is that possible? For example, in class, I say, "Okay, if you can freeze yourself for one minute, and understand what was going on over there, but not your own people, and vice versa, can we actually have a dialogue? Can we provide an understanding of power structures? What they meant? The oppressors that were the same oppressors for both Muslims and Jews at that time. Define the many challenges that we face today between Jews and Muslims?" We again have power structures that define Jewish and Muslim relations both in the United States and Europe and the Middle East, including Israel and Palestine [00:16:00].

Muslims and the colonial memories and the boundary. What memories do Muslims have of this moment of colonization? If you get time, I would encourage you to go into the USC show of visual foundation and listen to some of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in North Africa, Moroccans, Tunisians and they have them and they're translated from the French or the Arabic into English. One of the things that they say all of them, and also, the Holocaust survivors that I have interviewed, is that they had no idea that there was a Holocaust happening in Europe, no clue. They had no idea. They were Maghrebi Jews. Basically, they were Arab Jews living with Arabs. They had nothing to do with Europe, they had no idea. They knew there was a war going on but they were under colonization.

I encourage you look at these materials because it really opens up your eyes in terms of what was the focus and what was not the focus at the time of World War II. The Nazis established, I don't know if you know, seventeen slave labor camps. Three in Morocco, three in Algeria, seven in Tunisia, and four in Libya. These camps were very brutal. Sometimes reported to be more brutal because of the temperature, desert temperature. Really, really hot and really, really cold. One of the ways that the Vichy captors tortured their victims was by burying them in the desert, very, very hot temperatures, and very, very cold temperatures.

There's a lot of research that Robert Satloff has done about this. He's gone to these places and has actually seen these camps. These labor camps were not in the cities. They were outside of the city, but they use the same kind of plans where they created trains and railroad stations around these labor camps. They were severe slave labor camps, almost like concentration camps, I would argue. In these labor camps, though, what's [00:18:00] interesting is that in the back is where they would live and this is like the one morsel of food they would get, there's actually quite a lot of pictures. There's a book called The Holocaust and North Africa, done by a Moroccan scholar and a Jewish American scholar, which I really would recommend as well.

Then Africa in 1940, it's important for us to know who was in charge of what. The British controlled Egypt and Sudan, you have the Italian East Africa, you have Soviet Union, you have the Third Reich, which was in control up here but went all the way down to Libya, and Tunisia, both directly. The Vichy French controlled Algeria and French West Africa. One of the things I asked my students to do is look at that map and say, "What do you think?" They're like, "Oh, my God, every single Muslim African country was colonized." We're not looking at the subcontinent where I'm from. That would be all British control.

I wanted to share with you just to give you an example of a memoir that we found from the University of Paris that was written in 1964, by Arezki Berkani. It was his experience of being in a camp with Jews as an Algerian resistance fighter. It's a beautiful diary because it talks about how the captains tried to pit the Jews and the Muslim or the Arabs together, so that they would fight with each other, but instead, they became bonded. They tried to help each other in these horrible camps because they knew that they were going through the same thing.

Also, in many of the testimonies, the Jews that were victimized were upset with their Muslim neighbors but also said that they had it coming next so it was a matter of time. They understood that the racial laws were only lifted at certain momentary times from Muslims or Arabs if they were needed [00:20:00] in terms of their allyship. What was the role of Muslims under the Vichy? I went through that, but I love this image of this woman in the hijab reading Le Monde. Le Monde here is actually in French, but then if you look at the script, it's in Arabic and French. Here it complexifies the image of the Muslim. Here you have a modern woman, but she's identified as Muslim, but she's in this completely different world of French and Arabic and this is actually at the time of the war.

Here, you see a family from Tunisia that's actually Jewish. A lot of these pictures you can't tell sometimes if they're Jewish or Muslim because they were essentially Arab and from the same country and shared the same language and food and culture. There were perpetrators, which was the Bosnian Handschar Army that was created by the Mufti. The Mufti did not compel the Holocaust, but he was highly anti-Semitic. Don't let anyone else tell you otherwise. He wanted an ally in terms of Germany because he wanted to stop the immigration to Palestine starting from the 1930s all the way to 1945, and then he actually was exiled. Did not have such a following but wanted to be someone who was a hero in a sense, at that time.

Yes, that does exist, but again, I must say that Muslims, Arabs, or Africans were not in charge of the Holocaust in any way. I know that that's floating around there, but it's inaccurate, both from a scholarly point of view, both from a Jew's scholarly and a Muslim scholarly point of view. Bystanders, this is a very important moment. David Motadel has a fantastic book. It's called Islam and Nazi Germany. I just reviewed it a few years ago, [00:22:00] and he talks about the propaganda, the Nazi propaganda that went to different parts of the Muslim world to get them to align with the Nazis. How much they aligned? Not really, but the fact that they tried to align them is a very interesting story.

There was also a story called the Berlin Moment in 1935 where a lot of the German scholars that were working for the SS tried to translate the Quran and tried to translate their pamphlets into Arabic and tried to make alliances with Muslims that were living in Berlin. What's interesting is that their alliances that they made in Berlin, and they probably didn't know this were with a very small denomination of Muslims that are the Ahmadiyya Muslims. They weren't really even tapping into the mainstream Muslims at all at that time. These are very interesting stories. With the Sisterhood of Salam Shalom, I took the Jewish and Muslim women to these places, and we confronted our histories together.

We also went to Auschwitz where we prayed, but we also prayed for victims that were Muslims that were killed at Auschwitz, which is also an unknown story. There's a lot of these little stories that we constantly forget that I think that should come to the forefront in terms of understanding what this very complicated history was like in North Africa. We have many rescue stories of Muslims and one is Khalid Abdul-Wahab. When he was in Mahdia, Tunisia, he was an amazing man because in 1942 he had been entertaining SS guards because he was trying to hide two families. At the same time, he got rid of them and knew that a woman, a Jewish young girl was being attacked by a Nazi, he went and intervened and stopped that [00:24:00].

He was named a hero. Yad Vashem has not recognized him because Yad Vashem has certain regulations of who they recognize. He didn't give up his life, or they have no proof for that. The one Arab that Yad Vashem has recognized is Mohammed Helmy who was the Egyptian doctor that rescued the lives of Jewish girls. He has been recognized because he was under threat and danger that they proved. There have been, of course, stories about the Moroccan king. The Moroccan king was the only person who defied the Vichy and said, "No, Jews are like Muslims. We are all Moroccans and I will fight against them." Of course, the Moroccan king had no power and he was overtaken by the power of the Vichy government.

These are people who spoke out against the anti-Semitism, against the colonial forces, against the Vichy, and the Nazi government. Albania's is a very, very famous story. Besa, the promise. Albania is a country that's 70% Muslim, 10% Orthodox, and 10% Catholic, and 10% Protestant, but Albanian Protestant. They're a very interesting country, very sad that the ones that actually rescued Jews during the Holocaust were persecuted by the communists who literally came into their streets and hung them in the streets. A lot of the Jews that were rescued by Albanians went back to get their belongings and they became friends, and some of them they never saw. Again, this is a documentary you can watch.

There's a book by Norman Gershom that he did photographs. He went all the way to Albania to do a story about Jewish-Muslim relations and how important. There are many, many Albanians that talk about the promise, their cultural code, [00:26:00] but also about how in the Quran it talks about Jews and Christians being your brother and sister that they could not watch it. Albania was the only country in Europe to save its Jews if not more than what they had before the Holocaust. The only European country, 70% Muslim. I want to just take note of that for a second.

My hero, Inayat Noor Khan, she was a British spy working against the Vichy government spying for the British allies, trying to rescue Jews. She was unfortunately found out who she was and she was executed in Dachau with two other Jewish women. I talk about her in my book and actually I'm doing a project at USC Scholar Lab about her in historical fiction and why she's an important figure. The Turkish Vice Consul, another example who helped people in Marseille, France between 1941 and 44. He gave documents of citizenships to dozens of Turkish Jews living in France who did not have proper identification.

A lot of the Imams, including in Tunisia and Paris, spoke out against the anti-Semitism. Some of them hid Jews inside of the mosque. We don't have documentation, and that's why I don't have much dates or anything on this, but there is a book called The Rescue in Paris at the Grand Mosque. Iranian Schindler, he's actually displayed in an exhibit I created, and I think a very important story, Abdol Hossein Sardari. He also created a very smart theory that Jews were not really Semitic, but that they were Mosaic, just like Muslims. He saved over 40 Jews during that time. This is an important story because there's so much tension between Israel and Iran.

I wanted to display something [00:28:00] showing the humanity of Iranians and also inviting Iranians to think about the Holocaust in a different way, where there's this lack of dialogue going on between these two countries. I know it's geopolitical, but I wanted to focus on that especially. Muslims in the Holocaust is not one story, but many. Here are just some documents. These are the list of Muslim concentration camp inmates compiled by the SS main economic and administrative office in 1944. You can see the different numbers of people killed through here in different camps and where they were from. For example, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck, Neuengamme, Natzweiler, Mauthausen.

Then you can look at where they were. A lot of them were Russian Muslims that were caught in the war. Some were Turks, some were Albanians, and some were people who just thought they were going to look for economic opportunity in Germany and got caught in a concentration camp and were killed because they didn't have the right race. Muslims in DP camps. There were many, many Muslims after World War II in DP camps. I haven't finished this research. I should, but there's lots of tracing services at the museum in D.C. It's going to take me years, that's why I haven't finished this. It's like all the post-World War II, all the Muslims are in these camps, and I'm like, "Okay, what were they doing there?"

Albanians, Russians, Eritreans, Syrians. Were they fighting communism, were they fighting fascism, and they had economic poverty. These are the things just to think about. These are documents I found at the museum like a Turkish who was moved to Russia, captured by Germans in 1944. Here you have a story about a Muslim woman, basically in the files talking about this. We can look at the story and say, "Wow, what was she doing there?" We have no idea. [00:30:00] All we know is that she was captured by Germans in 1944, and you can imagine what happened.

These are other documents. A Turkish woman whose husband had died migrated to Romania in 1943. The Germans arrested her and family because she did not have papers and was deported by the Germans to work as couriers for the German military. They were sent to Rothenberg after being in the displaced camp for a year in 1947. This is the display. These are migration patterns that you can look up, and my question is, what can we learn from this? Thank you.



Dave: Thanks for listening. I'd like to thank Dr. Afridi for sharing her work, both at this Baxt lecture presentation and also for allowing us to produce this podcast episode. Shoah Through Muslim Eyes is available at many of the college and university libraries in Rhode Island and can be requested for you via the interlibrary loan services at your local public library. I would also like to invite you to join us on Thursday, January 26th at 6:00 o'clock PM at the William Hall Library in Cranston for a special screening of The U. S. and the Holocaust. A film by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, followed by a panel discussion.

This event to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a partnership between the Cranston Public Library, the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center and Bristol Community College. More information can be found on the Cranston Public Library's event calendar at The theme music for this episode has been dramatic inspiring film music by Red Productions. Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book, and is brought to you by libraries and community members all across the ocean state.

You can find more from Rhody Radio on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. [00:32:00] If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to Rhody Radio and give us a review on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to help us reach more Rhode Islanders. Thanks again for listening.


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