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Jewish Journal

Surviving survival: Living life after genocide

by Stephen D. Smith

April 23, 2014 | 9:57 am

Plastic rose flowers in one of the bullet holes, at the building in which 10 Belgian commandos were killed by forces of the Rwandese army during the onset of the Rwandan genocide, at a memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers, in the Rwandan capital of Kigali on April 8. Photo by Noor Khamis/Reuters

Plastic rose flowers in one of the bullet holes, at the building in which 10 Belgian commandos were killed by forces of the Rwandese army during the onset of the Rwandan genocide, at a memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers, in the Rwandan capital of Kigali on April 8. Photo by Noor Khamis/Reuters

April brings many moments for reflection and sorrow. On April 24, 1915, the Armenian Genocide began; the massacres in the killing fields of Cambodia began on April 17, 1975; and on April 7, 1994, the genocide in Rwanda exploded with ferocity that would last for 100 days. Yom HaShoah, which falls on April 28 this year, is when we remember the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. The coinciding of these times of remembrance brings together a worldwide community of children and grandchildren whose families will be forever scarred by genocide.

Last year, I traveled to Rwanda with Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, a feisty 90-year-old with Auschwitz No. A-12307 tattooed on her arm. I watched as she talked to the survivors of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, most of them almost 60 years her junior. They wanted to know what happens next, to draw strength from her, to know that everything will all be all right, that their children can expect to have a full life, and that they, too, will live to an old age.   

I, too, often wonder how the Holocaust survivors did it — survive survival and rebuild their lives, that is. The thought of being without family, home, country or language, scouring the landscape of Europe in search of clues of any fragment that remained, is overwhelming. It continues to perplex me how they emerged as human from total dehumanization, animalization in some cases, where pure animal instinct became the means for survival. And then, as if by some miracle, these dirty, skinny remnants have become rosy, plump bubbes and zaydes, squeezing their grandchildren at their b’nai mitzvot.  

It was, of course, no miracle. Every day of the last nearly 70 years has been hard-fought. The struggles — to find a home, get some form of education and engage in a vocation, all while enduring nightmares, anxiety and uncertainty — were never easy. Even now the demons of the past are never far away, because after the killing stopped, the Holocaust was not over. That is how genocide is.

And yet, time passes. Earlier this month, Rwanda commemorated its own post-genocide “miracle.” Just 20 years after the brutal mass murder — in which Hutus turned against Tutsis, neighbor against neighbor, husband against wife — the next generation of Rwandans are building their country together. On April 7, at the national soccer field in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, 600 young people filed onto the grass and sang about the spirit of Rwanda. There were no Hutus or Tutsis out there on the field, just young Rwandans, making a life and a future. 

If anywhere is the poster country for renewal after genocide, Rwanda is it. Daily nonstop flights from Europe mean tourists can enjoy one of its many new hotels and explore breathtaking landscapes and rainforests in comfort and safety. Rwanda’s burgeoning economy ranks among the fastest growing and most stable in Africa, and is on the top-10 list of best countries in the world for investment. It feeds its entire population and aims to have dramatically reduced international aid by 2020.  

Rwanda isn’t altogether dissimilar to another small country that, in the wake of a genocide, built a country from a land with few natural resources, relying on advances in agriculture, education and high tech to drive its economy. Rwanda and Israel are by no means identical, but once a population knows what genocide means, it behaves in a completely different way.

Kwibuka, in Kinyarwanda, means “remember”; like the Hebrew word zachor, it has become the central motif of the commemorative efforts in Rwanda. Kwibuka20, a Rwandan organization commemorating the 1994 atrocities 20 years later, has overseen memorial activities, watched Rwandans come together with the world to remember, and continues to show the miracle of surviving survival is indeed possible.  

Jewish Holocaust survivors and those working to preserve the memory of that genocide have taken part. A group from the USC Shoah Foundation and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum were present at the national commemoration in Kigali this year. We were there to share both sorrow and hope, because we know just how difficult surviving survival really is.


Stephen D. Smith is executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation and executive producer of Kwibuka20, an organization that is convening commemorations in Rwanda and around the world of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

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