To Counter Anti-Semitism, French Women Find Strength In Diversity At Auschwitz

Feb 28, 2019
Originally published on March 3, 2019 5:51 am

France has been shocked by incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism in the last couple weeks, including 80 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery painted with graffiti and swastikas earlier this month.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said France and other Western democracies are experiencing a "resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II."

One effort to counter the hate brought about 150 French women together from different religious, ethnic and economic backgrounds to go to a notorious symbol of terror and genocide from that war: Auschwitz. Together they wanted to learn more about the Holocaust, in the hopes of bringing a message of greater understanding back to France.

"Women can transmit and educate — to their children, to the rest of society," said Samia Essabbaa, a high school teacher who is president of the diverse group Langage de Femmes, or Women's Voices.

The group started their tour at the Judenrampe, or the Jewish platform, where nearly a million men, women and children from around Europe disembarked from trains to go straight to the gas chambers.

Members of a group of French women from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds lay a wreath near the Auschwitz gas chambers earlier this month. After learning more about the horrors of the Holocaust, they hoped to bring greater understanding to their country riven by new acts of anti-Semitism.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

A 94-year-old Holocaust survivor named Ginette Kolinka described what it was like. Kolinka was deported to Auschwitz from France in April 1944, at age 19.

"After we got down from the rail cars and had assembled on the platform, we were told to go to the left or the right," she said. "This was the selection — whether we were to live or die. But we didn't know it at the time."

The Judenrampe was the last place she saw her father and younger brother.

Samia Essabaa is president and co-founder of the group Langage de Femmes, or Women's Voices, which recently visited Auschwitz.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

"The Nazis lied to us, and they lied to us with such aplomb that we believed them," she said. "They said, 'don't worry, you will all meet up in the camp.' When we got to the camp and saw the chimneys and the smoke and were hit by the terrible odor. And we quickly found out from the other prisoners the terrible secret. But we could have never imagined such a thing."

Between 1940 and 1945, researchers estimate at least 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, a complex of forced labor facilities and death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. More than 1 million of them were killed. Most victims were Jewish, but there were also Roma and other groups.

Langage de Femmes is one of the latest interfaith groups to visit the Nazi site at a time when Europe has experienced bouts of vandalism, harassment and attacks against minority groups. Jewish groups and researchers in France say a new anti-Semitism has risen, largely within the country's Muslim communities.

Several Jewish cemeteries and memorials in France have been hit with anti-Semitic vandalism in recent months.

Earlier in February, two illustrations of a prominent Holocaust survivor were graffitied with swastikas in Paris. The images were of Simone Veil, who was deported to Auschwitz at age 16 and later went on to became one of France's most beloved politicians and public figures. The group visiting Auschwitz peppered their tour guide with questions about Veil.

A rose is placed on mailboxes that were vandalized with swastikas covering the face of the late Holocaust survivor and renowned French politician, Simone Veil, in Paris on Feb. 12. According to French authorities, the number of registered anti-Semitic acts rose to 541 in 2018 from 311 in 2017.
Michel Euler / AP

Other minority groups are also targeted in Europe. Researchers tracking discrimination, harassment and hate crimes against Muslims have warned of a rise of Islamophobia in recent years.

Essabbaa, who is Muslim, explained how meaningful it was to visit Auschwitz with women from different backgrounds seeking to stop the hate. "To bring a group of women this diverse here is very important because when we are all here, there is no social level, no one with a job more important than another, and no cultural or religious differences," she said. "We are all part of one community of women whose common goal is to struggle against racism and anti-Semitism."

Awa Mangara (right), who grew up in Mali, came to Auschwitz with her 18-year-old daughter Ina, who was born in France. Both were speechless after hearing stories from a Holocaust survivor there.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

Some of the women, like Awa Mangara, said they were learning about the Holocaust for the first time. Mangara grew up in Mali and came on the trip with her 18-year-old daughter Ina, who was born in France. Both women were silent after Kolinka's testimony.

"It must have been so horrible to live through that," Mangara said. "We are in solidarity with her."

Another woman on the Auschwitz trip was Laetitia Avia, a congresswoman from President Macron's party. She said as a black woman from a housing project in a Parisian suburb, she has dealt with discrimination her whole life.

Avia said her efforts to stop anti-Semitism have earned her the moniker "Negress of the Jews." But that doesn't dissuade her. The 34-year-old recently introduced legislation in French parliament that would slap social media platforms like Twitter with millions of euros in fines if they don't remove hate speech within 24 hours.

"[Auschwitz] shows where words and acts of hatred can lead," Avia said.

Ibtihele Ben Amor, a teacher at a high school in a Paris suburb, says many of the students grow up hearing stereotypes about Jews at a young age.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

Ibtihele Ben Amor is a high school teacher in the Paris suburb of Noisy-le-Sec. She is Muslim and wears a headscarf, which she takes off when she teaches. France's secular law prohibits wearing noticeable religious symbols or clothing in public schools and institutions.

Ben Amor thinks it would be wonderful to bring her students to Auschwitz. She said some of them grow up hearing stereotypes about Jews from a young age.

"We tell them to put aside everything they were told and we try to establish reality," she said.

Suzanne Nakache (front) and Samia Essabaa at a ending candlelight ceremony at Auschwitz. Nakache is Jewish and Essabbaa is Muslim, and they hope their strong friendship serves as a model for others.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

Langage de Femmes' vice president Suzanne Nakache, who is Jewish, said for French Jews it is important that the much larger Muslim population understands the trauma of the Holocaust. She believes the women on the trip now do and will share what they learned.

"It was very hard for some of the black and Muslim women to think what happened to the Jews here, and I could see that," she said.

There was stunned silence as the group walked through rooms showing tens of thousands of pairs of leather shoes and eye glasses.

Nakache said during the tour one woman squeezed her hand, while another had tears streaming down her face.

"They understand why you can't use insults like 'dirty Jew,' because it can end up here," she said.

Nakache co-founded the group with Essabaa, and wishes everyone could have a relationship like theirs.

"Samia is my best friend and she is a Muslim," she says. "We are very very close. I trust her, I love her. And she loves me, I'm sure."

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Anti-Semitism has been on the rise in France. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joined a group of women of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds who have decided to tackle the problem together. She accompanied them on a trip to a notorious symbol of where hatred can lead - the death camp of Auschwitz.

GINETTE KOLINKA: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: One hundred and fifty French women - Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and atheist - are gathered around as 94-year-old Ginette Kolinka tells her story at a spot beside the rail track once known as the Judenrampe or the Jewish platform.

KOLINKA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Kolinka was deported to Auschwitz from France at the age of 19. And this was the last place she ever saw her father and little brother.

KOLINKA: (Through interpreter) We arrived at dawn. It was still dark. Here on the platform, after we got down from the rail cars, we were told to go to the right or to the left. This was the selection - to live or die. But we had no idea.

BEARDSLEY: Kolinka says she thought the Nazis were humane because they let the old people and the mothers and children ride in trucks and told them everybody would be reunited in the camp. Kolinka says she soon saw the chimneys and the smoke and found out the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: This interfaith women's group called Langage de Femmes, or Women's Voices, was founded a year and a half ago by high school teacher Samia Essabaa, who is Muslim.

SAMIA ESSABAA: (Through interpreter) Here we have grandmothers, mothers and daughters coming together at a camp where we witnessed the annihilation of women and children. We see here where the wrong choice leads. But this is not only a story of Jews. There are women in our group of African culture. And the Rwandan genocide was only yesterday. Today in France, we see people scrawling hate graffiti again. We must be on alert.

BEARDSLEY: Some of the women are learning about the Holocaust for the first time, like Awa Mangara, who grew up in Mali. She says she was extremely moved by Kolinka's testimony.

AWA MANGARA: (Through interpreter) Women are the heart of the family. They bring up the children. They're the basis of society, really. So if we stand in solidarity against racism and anti-Semitism, we can be a real force for change.

BEARDSLEY: The French women pepper their Polish guide with questions about Simone Veil's time here. Veil, a former French government minister, was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 16. She went on to become one of France's most beloved public figures. Crowds lined the streets of Paris for her funeral in 2017. But just last month, someone scrawled swastikas on portraits of Veil that adorned two public mailboxes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Three young members of the group lay a wreath at a memorial near the gas chambers the Nazis blew up in an attempt to hide their crimes. The site of collapsed concrete with mangled metal girders sticking through has been left as-is since 1945. Jade Benouri and Chloe Coquin met on this trip. They both live in the Paris suburbs, where anti-Semitism has flourished in largely immigrant, African and Muslim communities. These 20-year-olds say this visit will make them react differently.

CHLOE COQUIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: When young guys say the Jews are rich and control business and television and society and that's why we don't have jobs, well, that's not going to fly with me anymore, says Coquin.

JADE BENOURI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Benouri agrees. We learned about this in school, she says. "But being here makes you realize it really happened and how massive it was."

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: The women light candles and sing a song prisoners sang in the camps. Suzanne Nakache, who is Jewish, says for French Jews, it's important that the much larger Muslim community understands the trauma of the Holocaust. She believes these women now do.

SUZANNE NAKACHE: They didn't understand. And they didn't believe. And now they understand. I think that they understand the Jew now. Yes.

BEARDSLEY: Nakache founded Langage de Femmes alongside Essabaa.

NAKACHE: My best friend is Samia Essabaa, who is a Muslim. And we are very, very close. And I trust her. I love her. She loves me, I'm sure.

BEARDSLEY: I wish everybody could be like us, says Nakache. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Auschwitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.