A group of French Jewish students and exiled Iranian student activists from Europe and America have just returned from a visit to Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka and the Warsaw Ghetto. They described the March 29 – April 2 journey as part of “a shared fight against anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and hate speech.”

The trip was the brainchild of the Union of French Jewish Students, whose president, Jonathan Hayoun, reached out to a pro-Western international Iranian student group that advocates for “a free, secular, and democratic Iran.”

“Following the horrific killings in Montauban-Toulouse, it is important to strengthen and bring together those who struggle to defend democracy and advocate peaceful coexistence,” said Hayoun. “This so-called ‘Memory Trip’ strengthens our determination to work with like-minded Iranians who are fighting for democracy and against those preaching hatred of Jews.”

‘Following the horrific killings in Toulouse, it is important to strengthen and bring together those who struggle to defend democracy and advocate peaceful coexistence’

Farbod Talaee, an Iran-born resident of the United Kingdom who graduated from Reading University, was one of four leaders of the Confederation of Iranian Students (CIS) to participate on the trip.

Afterward, he spoke of the “powerful friendship” he and his colleagues made with the Jewish students. Talaee called the experience “an excellent opportunity to study the history and culture of the Jewish community during such a tragic, pivotal period in human history.”

“For those of us on the trip who encountered the shocking facts of the Holocaust, I’m sure none of us would tolerate any argument that seeks to deny the tragedy,” he said.

‘…none of us would tolerate any argument that seeks to deny the tragedy’

Talaee said the most powerful part of the experience for him and his fellow Iranians was the opportunity to meet Benjamin Orenstein, a Lublin-born Auschwitz survivor who joined the tour in order to give a first-hand account of the Nazi horrors.

“Benjamin’s life story made us more aware of the Jewish genocide and helped us understand the real pain innocent people experienced during that time,” said Talaee. “In my personal view, Benjamin’s [post-Holocaust] life is the most valuable reason to believe in the significance of life and love today.”

Talaee’s group describes itself as ‘the largest international Iranian student movement active both inside and outside Iran.’ On its website, it claims 7,000 members worldwide who “work tirelessly to promote freedom, human rights, and democracy in Iran.”

Holocaust Survivor Benjamin Orenstein locks arms with Iranian student activist Saghar Kasraie (Courtesy: Cyrus Atory)

Saghar Erica Kasraie is a member and spokesperson of the group. She was born in Iran and fled with her family to Italy and then the US following the 1979 Islamic Revoultion. After last week’s time in Poland, Kasraie emailed the French Union of Jewish students to thank them “for sharing with us this painful part of Jewish history.”

“We mourn with you the loss of a generation,” she said. “We have found solidarity despite the false propaganda that is being injected into our generation [from the Iranian regime]. We shall stand together in this fight.”

Two other Iranian student activists joined the trip: Amin Karimian, an 18 year-old student living in London and frequent blogger and political activist; and Armaghan Hooshmand, an Iranian pro-democracy activist living in Germany.

In total, the tour consisted of about 20 people: six French Jewish student leaders, four Iranian students, a handful of prominent French Iranians – including the Tehran-born actor who dubbed the French version of ‘Borat’ – and a group of prominent scholars, historians, and tour guides. And Benjamin Orenstein, who was the only one of his seven-member family to survive Auschwitz.

‘We mourn with you the loss of a generation… We shall stand together in this fight’

Elie Petit, Vice President of the French Jewish student group, said the most satisfying part of the trip was the opportunity to form personal friendships with the Iranian student activists.

“We spent a lot of time in buses together and spoke late into the nights,” he said. “Our group is committed to helping theirs build a stronger presence in France. We have plans to meet some of our new Iranian friends in Washington in May at the 2012 American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum.”

In addition to visiting the death camps, the group stopped in Warsaw and Krakow to meet the local Jewish communities and learn about modern Jewish life in Poland and hear stories of what life was like for the region’s Jews in the centuries before the Holocaust.

“The responsibility to fight against the propaganda that denies the bitter truths of the holocaust will remain for me always,” said Taelee.