Returning Hope to History
By:  Inga Zornes
Wenatchee, WA


 

Barely a half-year after the world was stunned by the September 11 terrorist attacks, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel offered a simple but almost impossible antidote for evil. “We must first fight indifference,” he told the 32 million readers of Parade Magazine.
“Indifference to evil is the enemy of good, for indifference is the enemy of everything that exalts the honor of man. We fight indifference through education; we diminish it through compassion. The most efficient remedy? Memory…To live through catastrophe is bad; to forget it is worse” (Wiesel 5).

Though his memories of imprisonment under the Nazis are half a century old, Wiesel still uses them to speak out against hate and fanaticism in all forms. We need his voice. Wiesel, now age 74, and other living survivors of the World War II Holocaust will soon perish. Then only books, articles, television specials, and museums will remain to educate about the Holocaust. While these last voices remain, we must use them to emphasize to the next generation the immutable value of human life.

The Nazis killed in gas chambers. The Taliban puppets turned passenger jets into projectiles of death. In between these two events other holocausts have raged from South Africa to Bosnia, from Colombia to Cambodia, and from Israel to Rwanda.

In 1994, in Central Africa, a Rwandan holocaust seethed out of tribal lines. In a mere one hundred days, 800,000 lost their lives. The genocide flared up from a centuries-old conflict between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. Hutus, making up roughly 85 percent of Rwanda’s population, are characterized by stocky builds, round faces, dark skin, flat noses, thick lips and square jaws. The Tutsi have lanky bodies and long faces.

The stage for tribal genocide was set when decisions were made that held strong parallels to the Holocaust. In the 1930’s, while Nazis forced European Jews to wear yellow stars, colonial Belgians imposed ethnic identity cards in Rwanda (Gourevitch 56-57). By discouraging diversity, this Rwandan decree further divided the races. Then, four decades later, in April 1994, a missile downed a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. In the power vacuum that followed, Hutu extremists seized their chance, set up roadblocks, and began to look for Tutsis to kill.

Armed only with hoes, machetes, and hatred, the Rwandan killers slaughtered people five times faster than Nazis during World War II. The United Nations (U.N.), after primetime television showed 18 U.S. Rangers dragged to death after a raid in Somalia, sought to avoid another “bloody African adventure” (The Triumph of Evil). This same organization, after World War II, had promised that the world would “never again” allow a Holocaust. Despite several emergency cables from commanders for the U.N. African Mission in Rwanda, the event was dismissed as a “breakdown of cease-fire” and the U.N. voted to withdraw troops from the area (The Triumph of Evil). That decision only allowed the African holocaust to rage on, verified by gruesome reports of atrocities and corpses floating downstream.

Ironically, just a year earlier, then-President Bill Clinton had officially opened the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. There he told survivors, “The evil represented in this museum is incontestable, but as we are its witness so must we remain its adversary in the world in which we live” (The Triumph of Evil). Such words proved empty when world peacekeeping forces abandoned the Rwanda genocide.
Karel Kovanda, Czech U.N. Ambassador at that time, reflected, “When one comes from central Europe, one has a sense of what holocausts are all about. You recognize one when you see one. A lot of my father’s family perished in the Holocaust.” Then, asked if Rwanda’s genocide represented a holocaust, Kovanda replied, “Oh yes, definitely. There it was happening again” (The Triumph of Evil).

Ethnic killings do more than fill graves. They scar the hearts of survivors, often children who must deal with questions of hatred. Gizella Abramson, who survived the Majdanek death camp, didn’t remember the beatings which scarred her body as much as “the expressions on the faces of my tormentors and what they said” (Scher 53). Half a century later, a young Rwandan survivor, Valentina Iribagiza, told how she pretended to be dead when Hutu extremists attacked yet knew how the attackers crushed people’s skulls with stones, even smashing children’s heads together. “When they found someone breathing, they pulled them out and finished them off,” she said. “They killed my family. I saw them kill my papa and my brother but I did not see what happened to my mother” (The Triumph of Evil).

Besides the stories of horror, we must tell the stories of valor. When Jews and other "undesired people" arrived at the foreboding gates of Auschwitz on cattle cars, they passed under the ironic sign that declared "WORK MAKES YOU FREE.” Those not sent immediately to gas chambers endured hard labor to wear down their resistance. Some dared to protest, like Roza Robota, who helped smuggle in dynamite to blow up Auschwitz’s Crematorium IV. Just before she and the rest were hung for this action, she cried out in Hebrew to witnesses, “Hazak v’ ematz!” (Be strong, have courage!) (Nieuwsma 87). In the Netherlands, though not Jews themselves, Corrie ten Boom and her family courageously turned their home into a “hiding place” for Jews seeking refuge. Raided by the Gestapo in 1944, the family was sent to the notorious Ravensbruck death camp. Only Corrie survived because she was released through a clerical error. She spent the rest of her life, until her death in 1983, telling the world how her Christian faith enabled her to persevere and later to forgive her oppressors (Woodbridge 84-89).

Today, death is silencing the voices of those who survived the Holocaust of World War II. Yet their message must not be forgotten. Another generation is rising--one that will rule the nations and which needs renewed respect for human life. Author Milton Nieuwsma, who compiled stories of three Holocaust children, remarked that “it is the living who speak for the dead…To turn away is to kill them a second time. But to listen is to confront the monster that lurks deep in the human soul” (150).
The monster of indifference is more lethal than gas chambers, machetes or crashing jetliners. We must fight it by continuing to re-tell the dark stories of all holocausts, even the unheralded past and present killings. Only that perspective can help us turn memory into peaceable solutions that return hope to history.
 

Works Cited

Gourevitch, Philip. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our
families. New York: Picador USA, 1998.

Nieuwsma, Milton. Kinderlager: An Oral History of Young Holocaust Survivors. New
York: Scholastic, 1998.

Scher, Linda. “Let’s Not Forget.” Creative Classroom, September/October 2001: 52-56.

The Triumph of Evil. Videocassette. Frontline television program, Public
Broadcasting System, 27 January 1999. 60 minutes.

Wiesel, Elie. “How Can We Understand Their Hatred?” Parade Magazine, 7 April 2002:
4-5.

Woodbridge, John, general editor. More than Conquerors. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.
 

 


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