While we should condemn extremism and terrorism espoused by any religious group, we should celebrate our religious diversity. Thus I was deeply saddened by the misinformed and intolerant views expressed by Franklin Graham, and the decision by Duke University to reverse its decision to permit a Muslim prayer call from the tower at Duke Chapel. I am alive because Muslims and Christians of conscience took great risks to save my family during the Holocaust. While I could tell many stories that demonstrate the fundamental decency and beauty of Muslim belief, I will simply relate one.
In April 1941 as the Nazi’s invaded Yugoslavia, my father’s family, German-Jews, had taken refuge in a farmhouse outside Mostar. In an account written in 1959 my grandmother Elli Silton recounted, “there was intense fighting between the Croats and the Serbs and the machine-gun bullets flew through our kitchen, where we were lying on our stomachs on the floor (with a flour sack at our heads for protection) eating our soup. And finally the Germans marched in. A whole regiment.”
Fortunately, the Germans did not occupy the small village and my family remained in hiding. As my grandmother wrote and my father still remembers, their safety was entirely dependent on a Muslim police official. One day the Muslim police officer sent his young daughter with a message warning my family to prepare to evacuate immediately, as deportations were about to commence. Having sold their furniture, my family entrusted a few rugs and the family silver to the police officer. He issued them travel permits to go on “vacation” in Italian-occupied territory. The family dressed as if they were going on a brief holiday, and farmers hid their suitcases under hay in order to later bring the suitcases to the train. The police officer’s wife, a teacher, told my grandmother to take off her jewelry because it would draw unwarranted attention. The Muslim teacher promised to ferry the valuables across the demarcation line and return the jewelry when my family was safely in the Italian zone.
When my family boarded the train, their luggage was waiting for them, along with enough food to tide them over for a couple of weeks. When the train reached the first station on the Italian side, the teacher appeared and handed my grandmother her jewelry.
My family survived the war, and in the early 1960s my grandmother returned to Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia for a visit. She decided to telephone Mostar to see if she could locate and thank the Muslim policeman. When the police officer finally came to the phone, he expressed joy that my family had survived and told my grandmother he’d been hoping she would contact him so he could return the family silver and rugs. My grandmother took a bus to Mostar to retrieve the silver and gave the Muslim police officer the rugs.
Each year as my family celebrates Thanksgiving, we use the silver and give thanks to the Muslim policeman. Duke University should reverse its decision and allow the Muslim call for prayer so that all of us can honor and celebrate the millions of good people who practice Islam.