LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.