At the opening ceremony of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on a cold April day in 1993, Elie Wiesel, one of the museum’s founders, called on the United States to confront the ethnic cleansing taking place in Bosnia at the time. Wiesel turned to Bill Clinton, then U.S. president, and asked if he could tell him something. The 65-year-old Romanian-American Holocaust survivor was obviously going off-script. Clinton leaned forward to listen. “I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen … People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done,” Wiesel declared.
Wiesel wasn’t interested in a museum that was only about the relics of the past. He wanted it “to bring the living and the dead together in a spirit of reconciliation.” Since 1993, the Holocaust Museum has done just that. It has held exhibitions about genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. And last December, it opened an exhibition entitled Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us, which runs until August 2018. Although Bashar al-Assad’s killing of his own people is not technically a genocide because it doesn’t target a specific group, the murder of more than 500,000 men, women and children is a crime against humanity.
The exhibition tells the story of Mansour Omari, a Syrian activist who was imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime for 356 days. Omari was one of “the disappeared”—one of 100,000 Syrian citizens whose names haven’t been released by the regime. Their loved ones don’t know anything about them. Held in a military facility, Mansour and his fellow prisoners wrote their names on five scraps of fabric using ink made of rust and their own blood. What Mansour and his friends did was extremely dangerous. According to the Syrian military, documenting information about the secret prison was tantamount to espionage and is punishable by death. When Mansour was released, he smuggled out the pieces of fabric so he could inform his cellmates’ families about what had happened to them. The pieces of fabric with 82 names on them are on display at the exhibition.
As an Iranian, I’m ashamed that the government of my country has been one of the main enablers of the Assad regime. As far as I know I’m also the only Muslim who’s ever made a sympathetic film about the Holocaust. (There are of course hundreds of films and programs denying the Holocaust and Iran holds an annual Holocaust Cartoon Exhibition.) My 1994 documentary The Voyage of the Saint Louis was about the fate of a group of Jewish refugees aboard a German ship in 1939. For the last few years I’ve been working regularly with the U.S. Holocaust Museum. So, when I came across Mansour’s exhibition at the museum, I knew I had to make film about him.
I met Mansour in Italy, where he’s been working on his memoir. Mansour’s stories tell us about the isolation and humiliation endured by prisoners in Syrian jails. In one story, a man is forced to bark like a dog and then imitate his wife reaching orgasm. But these stories also remind us of the camaraderie and compassion of the people held in over-populated cells, places where men have to sleep “like swords” on their sides so everyone can lie down at night, only to wait to be woken up by electric shocks from Tasers in the morning.
Mansour’s vision now is to open a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Assad regime and other groups in Syria, inspired by the Holocaust Museum. He has visited the museum several times and has been guided through the exhibition by Holocaust survivors and historians. In my film, we see Mansour listening to a survivor who spent months in Auschwitz, where her parents and siblings perished. We also follow him as he visits Holocaust memorials in Germany, where Mansour learns about the importance of preserving the past, and also about how Germany has become a tolerant society, with one of the largest Holocaust memorials in the world. As one German tells Mansour, “Germany was a killing field, and in order to build a life in it again, you need to address the killing field.”
One of Mansour’s main achievements documented in our film is his ability to remain human despite what happened to him. He shows us that no matter who we are and where we are from we should care about the Holocaust and learn about it. And his courage in saying so also means that we—all of us, as human beings—should care about the Syrian tragedy today and try to find a way to stop it.
We will release two different versions of the film. Last month, the museum published footage from the film in 15 short video segments, which you can watch here, in English and Arabic. The Arabic videos have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people in Arabic-speaking countries. For many of these people, it is the first time they have received objective information about the Holocaust, and not government propaganda. The one-hour film, 82 Names, will be released in May.