It was a deeply moving event, and a historic one. Survivors of two of the world's most tragic chapters in history - the holocaust and the Rwandan genocide - came face to face recently to share their stories, to support each other, and to find healing. At the gathering which took place at the Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto on September 27, 1998, I was one of a handful of people with no direct connection to either genocide.
The seeds for the encounter were planted several months ago. In June, a Rwandan delegation including Madame Seraphine Bizimingu, wife of the Rwandan President, visited Toronto. Mme. Bizimingu is honorary president of Tumurere, a charitable foundation in Rwanda. The delegation had come to attend an annual fundraising walk organized for it by the Canadian Hope for Rwanda's Children Fund. Noting the high degree of identification between Rwandans and Jews, Alan Simons, a Jew and volunteer with the Canadian group (and now honorary consul for the government of Rwanda in Toronto), arranged a visit to the Holocaust Centre as one of the items on the delegation's itinerary.
During the initial visit, schoolchildren visiting the centre heard the personal narrative of a holocaust survivor in the presence of people who had survived a genocide so recently that, as Mme. Bizimingu put it, they had not yet buried all their dead. Part of that first meeting focused on issues at the national level - how to ensure that the tragedy is remembered and the need for punitive justice for the perpetrators. But much of the discussion focused on the needs of the people, still so traumatized, and the idea for the September event was born.
Identification between the two communities
For the first time ever, the Holocaust Education Centre had a non-Jewish outreach director, Dr. Carole Ann Reed, and a mandate to try and put the message of the holocaust, while particular and unique, into a broader context. Rwandan Tutsis, singled out for discrimination and genocide by virtue of their ethnic origin, relate to the experience of the Jews. Jews, for their part, form a large part of the Rwandan support community. The ongoing U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, with its allusion to the Nuremberg tribunal that was its blueprint, also gave a resonance to the event.
The September meeting that brought Rwandan survivors living in Canada to the Holocaust Education Centre was significant on a personal level and in terms of its broad implications for further work. The museum's artifacts and historical records, viewed in the company of those whose experience of genocide is very recent and still ongoing, had a heightened significance. Certain features of the documentary film about the holocaust also had a particular resonance for the Rwandan people. Noticing the German word, gift (poison), on the side of the cylinders of deadly Zyklon B gas, one the participants wondered about its meaning. For victims of the genocide, it was considered a gift to be killed by a bullet, rather than a machete, and some people literally paid for this ghastly privilege.
After the museum visit, the Rwandan people and holocaust survivors moved to a room where members of the two communities were interspersed for a discussion period.
Talking about the unspeakable
With an emotional address, the initial speaker, Dr. Howard Adelman, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University set the tone for the dialogue that followed. An expert on the holocaust, Dr. Adelman confessed to knowing very little about events in Rwanda when he was commissioned to carry out a study. He told of unearthing the mass grave a French contracting firm had dug several months earlier. The researchers had obtained the signed contract for this work; this seemingly normal business document, which gave no hint of the actual occurrences it was a part of, evoked Goebbels' meticulous records during the holocaust. The bodies from the grave were laid out in a nearby school to be counted. When telling his silent audience that the bodies of the women had been mutilated and the children decapitated, the speaker couldn't control his own emotions and voiced his disbelief that such blatant inhumanity was possible.
The stories of two Rwandans were difficult to listen to. I marveled that they had the strength and courage to talk about such terrible things. So did the holocaust survivors. Most of them said it had taken them years, even decades to begin to tell their stories. But they encouraged the Rwandans, telling them how important it was to talk, to bear witness, to not leave the horrendous things unsaid. Talking helped, they said, but it didn't mean they could ever forget. One of the holocaust survivors gave a vivid account of what should have been a wonderful day - a trip to go and collect a new car he had picked out. Instead, on the way, he looked down at the train tracks at Union Station and a sudden flashback to the concentration camp made it "the worst day of [his] life."
A healing process
For the Rwandans, the meeting was a chance to be heard by people who understand the agony of both the experience of genocide itself and its aftermath. Who else but those who had had a similar experience could really know what it was like to feel abandoned by the world during the horrors and silenced and ignored afterwards? For the holocaust survivors, the meeting was a way of transmuting their pain into help and compassion for others, an important ingredient in their own healing process
Children of holocaust survivors were also glad to be there, and they gained from and contributed to the event in a different way from their parents. Closer to the Rwandans in age than their parents, there was a personal sense of connection. The holocaust, when it happened, was seen as a single, catastrophic, anomalous event. Tragically, genocide is far from uncommon today, and the Rwandans have discovered that the horrific events they experienced are all but ignored by a world that seems to have tuned out, inured to such atrocities. Children of survivors were relieved to have a forum to talk about how the holocaust affects their lives, even though they didn't have their parents' direct experiences.
Many of the holocaust survivors and even the next generation are involved in voluntary service work. Somehow, their painful experiences have become an incentive for them to help others and it seems that there is valuable research to be done on understanding how people can use their personal encounters with tragedy and injustice as a way to help others and to work toward reconciliation.
Preventing future genocides
The type of encounter pioneered at the Holocaust Education Centre also gives scope for peace research that goes beyond the personal. Genocide survivors from a range of different experiences can begin to articulate, from their unique vantage point, what happens to make a genocide possible. One Rwandan asked how people from different ethnic groups could learn to hate each other and be incited to kill. A common element both groups noticed was the deliberate process of dehumanization in the period leading up to the actual genocide, with people from other groups being called names like "cockroaches" or "snakes." This is a familiar process; soldiers are often trained to think of "the enemy" in these dehumanized terms. The sensitivity and experience of the genocide survivors can lead to the identification of early-warning signals of impending genocide. Sharing these commonalties from a range of different experiences could lead to a worldwide "genocide watch," similar to "human rights watch" programs that exist, and thus an opportunity to prevent such occurrences in the future. Implications for education and for the media to do preventative work and to respond to these situations before it is too late could also be an outcome of gatherings of genocide survivors.
Ending the cycle
How does a group of people deal politically with the aftermath of a bitter, racially- motivated conflict in a way that neither lets the tragedy be forgotten nor become a ratchet in an endless cycle of violence? The current Rwandan government is not alone in facing this question; it urgently needs a response in many parts of the world today from Guatemala to the former Yugoslavia to South Africa. It is difficult for a recently traumatized group to develop appropriate responses, so outside voices are necessary. Survivors of other genocides and violent conflicts could provide a unique perspective. Their common experience gives them credibility.
Bringing together the survivors of genocide and those in their immediate orbit is an opportunity for healing. The meeting at the Holocaust Education Centre has already been valuable, and I have no doubt that the planned future sessions will be important for the healing and well-being of those who attend. Even if this is all that is achieved, it will be vitally important and well worth doing. But this promising first step has implications for work that goes far beyond the personal needs of the participants.
Anne Adelson is a Toronto-based peace activist.