Muslim professor at Catholic school writes Holocaust book

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On a recent Friday evening at the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn and Manhattan College religion professor Mehnaz Afridi sat before worshipers at that evening’s Shabbat service to discuss Afridi’s new book, “Shoah Through Muslim Eyes.”

Afridi hopes the book will help create a bridge of conversation between the two faiths of Judaism and Islam as she interviews Holocaust survivors, uses Muslim-Arabs works, covers the reach of the Holocaust under the Vichy and Nazi governments, and discuss anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

One of the attendees, Harriet Jackson, also is Afridi’s friend. Yet, she’s been waiting to buy “Shoah” because it’s unique, coming from a Muslim woman’s perspective.

The word “Shoah” is the Hebrew term for “Holocaust.”

There is “always room for bridge-building between Muslims and Jews,” Jackson said. “And, if Professor Afridi found a way to build a bridge through this book, then I would like to be a part of getting the message out.”

Afridi wrote the book as a Muslim as a way to acknowledge the World War II atrocities that killed millions of Jews and other minorities, primarily because there is a lot of denial in many Muslim communities.

Afridi is in a unique position as a Muslim. She’s an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, a Catholic school, specializing in Islam and Holocaust studies. She also is the director of the school’s Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center, which promotes Jewish, Catholic and Muslim discussion to work towards mutual understanding.

“As a woman, I feel that we can bring to light many issues that men may not think of, like how women felt in the camps in terms of their sexuality, menstruation and being naked,” Afridi said. “I feel women are also likely to see multiple perspectives.”

In her book, Afridi interviewed actor Robert Clary, perhaps best known for his role of Cpl. Louis LeBeau in the television show “Hogan’s Heroes” as well as Renee Firestone, a founding lecturer at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Education Outreach Program.

Clary, 91, first began sharing his experience in the 1980s after years of silence. He spoke of losing most of his family, and how his talent as a singer likely saved his life.

His 2008 conversation with Afridi was his first and only discussion with a Muslim on the subject.

Firestone spoke of having a conversation with a doctor who ordered a colleague to conduct science experiments on her sister.

Perhaps one of the most poignant stories of the book is Afridi’s conversation with survivor Elisabeth Mann, who she called “the most intense” of her time on the project. The Nazis sent Mann’s entire family to Auschwitz. They were there for 12 months and later moved to five other concentration camps. All of her family members were eventually murdered in the camps.

Mann, Afridi said, recounted how she felt guilty about sending her brother with her mother in a time when women and children were instantly killed at Auschwitz.

“Her retelling of this story was painful and really stood out. Her brother had just turned 12 and she still saw him as a child who had just had his bar mitzvah, but she regretted it.”

The chapter’s title, “The Document,” came from a conversation Afridi had with Mann asking her what she would say to Holocaust deniers or those who questioned if it occurred. According to Afridi, Mann called those deniers “idiots,” adding that “basically, I’m the living document.”

After hearing Mann’s response, Afridi realized it captured exactly what she wanted to convey — the human suffering and courage of survivors, in their words.

Viewing the Shoah from a Muslim perspective served as a challenge for Afridi “in how to walk a fine line and demonstrate that one can be faithful to one’s own faith but also care about others equally.” The wording was another area Afridi was careful about because she wanted to avoid using language that would stereotype either faith.

Afridi was born in Pakistan to Muslim parents, and raised in Western Europe amongst different faiths and backgrounds. Her family eventually moved to New York where Afridi attended Scarsdale High School and experienced anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice, when her family experienced harassing phone calls.

Her interest in studying the Holocaust came when she was placed as a graduate teaching assistant for a class that studies the Shoah. She also took courses in Judaism.

She made history in 2011 as the first Muslim woman appointed as the director of the Interfaith Education Center, and Afridi very likely is making history again as a Muslim female scholar giving her take on the Holocaust.

“I hope we can all learn to acknowledge each other’s pain and also see how complex issues were, and are, on each side when it comes to individual suffering, loss and anti-Semitism, including Islamophobia,” Afridi said.

“Shoah Through Muslim Eyes” is available on Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.

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