You might think that memories of the Warsaw Ghetto are a world away from the Arabian Desert. But for Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, the two are inextricably linked.
The 51-year-old is the man behind the first Holocaust exhibition to be staged in the Arab world and has devoted one of the galleries in his privately-owned Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai to educating Emiratis about “the biggest crime against humanity”.
In our modern history, he says, “there is nothing bigger than the Holocaust”.
At the centre is the life-sized figure of the ‘Warsaw Ghetto boy’, his hands raised before a Nazi gunman. The exhibition includes displays on Anne Frank and Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor who was the first Arab to be recognised as a Righteous Among the Nations for rescuing Jews in Berlin.
Al Mansoori, a former member of the United Arab Emirates Federal National Council, learnt about the Shoah in fourth grade, but the trigger for the launch was the sight of “some very bad images of antisemitism” on the news and his realisation that Jew-hatred was far from a thing of the past.
When he opened the memorial on Yom Hashoah, 2021, Al Mansoori envisaged it would be temporary, but he was amazed by the influx of visitors on the first day. “When I saw the reaction, I decided to make it permanent,” he says. Since then, he has welcomed British-based survivor Eve Kugler to share her memories of Kristallnacht – on the 84th anniversary of the pogrom – and the UK Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis.
Noting that Al Mansoori had been collecting and displaying Jewish artefacts long before the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE, the Chief Rabbi told him last November: “You’re not a product of the Abraham Accords, you’re a product of your heart.” Also last November, it was announced that the Holocaust is set to be fully included in the UAE school curriculum.
Al Mansoori has observed that, even though many locals may be unfamiliar with the history, any laughing or smiling from visitors perusing other parts of the museum is immediately replaced by a reverent hush when they enter the Holocaust exhibit.
He insists he welcomes the opportunity to answer anyone who is “in denial or ridicules the story or tries to say it’s politicised”, adding: “I get questions: Did it really happen? Isn’t it exaggerated? You create a dialogue, you show them the facts. I told them this museum is showing a very beautiful side of the relationship between both civilisations, both cultures – who are brothers before being cousins.“ But he says that for the vast majority, whether they come “from the far left or far right, they put their political hat outside”, adding: “More than anything, visitors say: ‘Thank you for making this.’”
Religious Muslims are particularly moved by the sight of one of the Torah scrolls rescued from the communities of Bohemia and Moravia during the Second World War, which Al Mansoori has on loan from London’s Memorial Scrolls Trust. “Because it’s the same God,” he says. “So they get very excited when they see Jewish items with religious symbols. Many people have read about them, but have never seen them.”
Elsewhere in the museum – which opened in the basement of his home in 2006, before moving to a former royal house in Dubai’s historic Al Shindagha district – is a handwritten letter by Theodore Herzl, which he bought in Vienna in 2016 and took with him when he spoke at the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress in Basel last August.
Al Mansoori was partly inspired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, to which he donated when it opened in 1993. He has grand plans for his own gallery – which was curated by his Israeli chief operating officer, Yael Grafy – and says he will eventually move it into its own independent building once he has acquired more items to display.
But he is just as proud of the changes he is seeing across the wider Arab world, including the fact that Egypt joined the UAE in January 2022 by putting on its own commemoration.“I’m sure someone will come up with something better than I have,” he predicts, “and I will consider that more of a success for all of us. This museum opened the door and I’m sure other countries will have more items about the Jews and Judaism because they had larger communities.”
He adds: “I believe that when the Jews and Arabs were living together peacefully, the Middle East was the light of the knowledge, the principles, the values – it shone on the whole world. And since the negative aspects happened – the last, let’s say, 100 years – the region has lost its soft power.
“This is the place to be as a museum – to be a catalyst project for the whole region.”
- This interview was first published in the spring 2023 edition of the United Synagogue’s United magazine. Click HERE to read it
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