TW: sexual violence, genocide
The cemetery seemed like a perfect field trip for a dreary, dismal December morning in Paris. It was our first day of vacation, after all.
For an American Jew raised in the long shadow of the Holocaust, genocide is hardly taboo, hardly abstract, hardly unthinkable.
The previous two weeks had been marked by days filled with stories of the depths of human trauma and betrayal, seasoned with moments of almost unbearable joy and triumph. And while each day in Rwanda — my first trip to Africa, with a group of bright young students I’d never met — was rich in discovery and novelty, it was attended by an undercurrent of recognition, of deep familiarity. For an American Jew raised in the long shadow of the Holocaust, genocide is hardly taboo, hardly abstract, hardly unthinkable; instead, it is a truth we have baked into to our understanding of the world from the moment we are first taught what it is to be a Jew. We learn that we are one of history’s underdogs, and though sometimes Goliath can be brought down with a clever mind and a small stone, sometimes he comes to battle armed with insidious ideologies of hate, or smallpox, or bayonets, or manacles, or the Wermacht. Then you just pick up the pieces of your people, and tell the stories to the world — if they’ll listen — and to your children, and vow to never forget.
For two weeks I was immersed in exploring the familiar contours of genocide in a very unfamiliar context. In Rwanda, genocide meant something much more raw than Biblical giants or 20th century storm-troopers: here was bloody, brutal horror in my own lifetime; some of the perpetrators and victims were people my own age; the scars on the cities and the farms and the churches and the bodies and souls of the people raw and real and visible in a way my Holocaust — with its faded purple forearm tattoos and long-dead Kommandants and rusty-gated killing fields — could never be. My Holocaust was still (just barely) living history**, but had had two generations to filter and refine its story by the time it was told to me; Rwanda’s was less than 25 years old. We weren’t just seeing scars; there were still smells.
So it came, then, as somewhat of a relief for Nancy and myself to find ourselves after the trip at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, where death was simpler, smaller, easier to digest. Here a crumbling mausoleum holding the remains of a merchant prince, who died over 150 years ago. There a baroque tombstone for an 18th century diplomat; here, a humble marker for a 19th century artist; here, a crowded pile of rocks to honor a 20th century feminist.
(In the Jewish tradition, there is a custom of placing small stones, rather than flowers, on the graves of those whose memories we want to honor. Stones, unlike flowers, won’t wither and die. The stones remain, and accrue, and remind us that we are not alone in our grief, and that our mourning is both individual and collective. I placed stones at each of the sites we visited in Rwanda, but mine was always the only one there. I was surely not the first Jew to make this pilgrimage, so the lack of stones I attributed to the hypothesis that in their zealous maintenance of memorial sites, the Rwandans saw gestures like mine as merely misplaced pieces of gravel and swept them clean.)
Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, then, was an altogether more comfortable place to contemplate mortality, with its cinematic grime and tended paths and quaint, familiar piles of pebbles. It was, honestly, quite a lovely, atmospheric, and romantic morning in Paris.
In was in the unlikely peace in this place of death that I found myself starting to unwind from the tension of our travels in Rwanda. Learning a new history, looking into the eyes of the brutalized, shaking the hands of the brutalizers, bearing witness to the horrors and celebrating the country’s heroes and activists…all while traveling in a very foreign country, and all while helping the trip leader (the students’ redoubtable professor and (not-incidentally) my wife) keep track of making sure our driver got paid, our students got fed and the next day’s appointments were scheduled was a lot to juggle. The journey had taken a toll, and our slow-strolling solitude and lack of an agenda on that drizzly Tuesday morning was a much-needed change of pace and priorities.
And thus I found myself, with my guard down for the first time in weeks, rounding a corner on a cobblestone path and being, unexpectedly and entirely, emotionally leveled by a statue.
I’d held myself together in a church-cum-abattoir, in a schoolhouse with children’s bloodstains still on the wall, placing my solitary stones on the pristine plinths of mass graves, and in the crypt where a woman subjected to hours of rape and torture was interred — and her skeleton on display — in the splayed position in which she was discovered. The Tutsis, too, prayed for a humble David who — when he finally came — was much, much too late. All the while I remained stoic, horrified but in control, bearing witness and being present but hardened, I’d believed, by an understanding of human nature informed by the reality of genocide and giants from my earliest understanding of the world.
And there were many echoes of the Holocaust in our tour of Rwanda’s more recent trauma. Piles of the moldering clothes of slaughtered refugees in a schoolhouse in Butare recalled the piles of shoes in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. All Rwandan citizens were required to carry ID cards that noted their “racial” identity, a practice introduced by Belgian colonizers in the early 1930s. At almost the exact same moment in history, Nazis began requiring yellow stars be sewn on the lapels of all the Jews in Poland. German synagogues were desecrated on Kristallnacht in November of 1938; Catholic churches became slaughterhouses in Nyamata and Ntarama in April of 1994. Hungary had boxcars; Gikongoro had eucalyptus groves. Paul Rusesabagina and his refuge sanctuary in a high-end Kigali hotel; Oskar Schindler the Polish industrialist and his eponymous list. Barbed wire and Zyklon-b; bullets and machetes.
And the questions the students grappled with, when learning these details in Africa, are the same as my cohort and mine in Hebrew school and at home, when the story of the attempted destruction of our entire people was told to us. How did this happen? Why was this allowed, when the world was watching? Who are the types of people who can perpetrate such monstrosities? Who are the types of people that can go on with life after surviving them? Would I have had the courage to be a hero? What are we doing to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again? Where did we go wrong when we promised, already, “never again”?
Walking through the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, what I see — what undoes me — is 12-feet tall, carved marble dripping with winter rain: a sculpted impression of an emaciated ribcage and a twist of barbed wire. These images strike me in such a deep place, access a generational trauma so core to my identity that I’m doubled over with grief before I even consciously register what I’m seeing.
Because it turns out — and I had I known, I would have sought it out instead of stumbling accidentally across it; and I had known, I would have had my guard up and not been blessed with so profound an emotional bombshell — that Paris’ oldest, most venerable cemetery, where we had been strolling all morning enjoying the experience of mortality-as-blameless-history, death-as-natural-not-bestial, graves-belonging-to-individuals-or-maybe-families-but-certainly-not-whole-peoples — has an entire section devoted to memorials to the French victims of the Holocaust.
Half a dozen huge, horrifying, stylized sculptures in granite and marble, concrete and bronze, in memory of those who were killed at Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Oranienburg and Sachsenhausen, and to all “victims of Nazi barbarism.”
And so in Paris we stopped, and translated each plaque, and placed a stone on each of the memorials. And I struggled to understand my own reaction — why here? why now? After a lifetime of knowing the Holocaust, after two weeks of immersive travel and study among the so-recently buried dead and traumatized living of Rwanda, to suddenly feel the grief of all the unjustly slain, in both Poland and Ntarama, in Lithuania and Murambe, Berlin and Paris and Kigali. I’m not sure, exactly, but I know I didn’t expect it, and that I’m glad it happened, and that despite the Internet and Obergefell*** and my job and my house and my life, I still have reasons to grieve, and I still have reasons to know I will never, entirely, feel safe.
Trauma is both individual and collective; so is memory, and grief, and so is healing. In April of this year, Rwanda began its 25th annual period of national mourning and remembrance of the three months of terror that culminated in the deaths of nearly 1 million people — mostly Tutsi but also many politically-moderate Hutus (not to mention the rape, mutilation, and property destruction of millions more). Being in Rwanda, learning some of its history, hearing some of its stories, honoring some of its heroes, and celebrating some of its contemporary scholars and activists, was an incredible honor. There are people in civil society and in government committed to ensuring that the nation — and the world — will never forget what happened there, despite the forces that conspire to muddy, remove or write-over that truth.
I have tremendous respect for the difficult work being done in Rwanda to remember and to heal. The stories and videos I find on the internet about their remembrance events are somber and profound — international leaders gather to make speeches and light candles; citizens march and mourn and sing. But I know — because I have friends there now, and they tell me — that what we aren’t shown on this side of the planet is the screaming in the streets, the nightmares, the resurgence of hate crimes that crop back up during the 100 Days of Healing. These shadows of genocide are memorial and memory, too, as is the knowledge the evil still walks among us, maybe not invincible, but still seductive and terribly, terribly strong.
On May 1st, just a few days ago as I write this, Israel recognized Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance of the 20th century Holocaust of the Jews. This is how it sounds.
Tutsis, Hutus, Belgians, Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Nazis, Yazidis, Uighurs, Rohingya, Bosniaks…may we come to some healing, but may we never forget. May we scream, and remain silent; may we shed habitual tears and be unexpectedly clotheslined by grief; may we honor our dead, and reproach the living, for as long as hate and the potential for such violence endures. I placed a stone on the memorial to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Paris, and I placed a stone on the marble slab at Nyamata, as well. I’ve placed stones at Sand Creek, at Dachau, in Washington, DC, and in Choeung Ek, Cambodia. And I keep some stones in my pocket, too. They’re small, but they can sometimes come in handy for bringing down giants.
* Yiddish for remembrance on the anniversary of a death.
** About ⅔ of European Jews — around 6 million people — were exterminated in the Holocaust of 1939-1945, mostly in concentration camps in Poland and eastern Germany. At least that many more non-Jews were also killed, including Roma, political dissidents, the disabled, prisoners of war, and sexual minorities. Experts estimate there are only about 100,000 Holocaust survivors in the world left who can tell their stories first-hand. The population of Jews in the world has not yet recovered to its pre-Holocaust numbers.
*** Obergefell v. Hodges is the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage across the US. It represents a landmark judgement — attending a sea change in public opinion — in the movement for full civil equality for the LGBT community.
Pogo is Prof. Wadsworth’s partner, and accompanied the group as an assistant to the class.
Professor Nancy D. Wadsworth
I hope to continue refining the class in coming years, but I know that the profundity and sense of emotional community that marked the first time with this remarkable group of students will be forever impressed on my memory.
Honoring the Dead? Struggling to Understand the Presence of Human Remains at Rwandan Genocide Memorials
The Rwandan government argues that the display of human remains is one necessary effort to counter denialism about the Genocide Against the Tutsi. Thus, it is not without careful consideration that bodies are placed on display.
Defining roles in the civil wars and genocides is much fuzzier than the official government narratives would lead us to believe.
In Narcisse’s story, this truly seems to be what has caused him the most suffering: the feeling of having everything that was once his being ripped away with no ability to control the outcome.
As we learned, some of the deadliest massacre sites were Catholic Churches, most notably Ntarama and Nyamata, and partly because their priests abandoned their own parishioners or actively enabled genocidaires.
With so much emphasis on survivors, it’s difficult to understand what inspired some Hutus to murder and others to resist.
From the Fields of Genocide: How Individuals Accepted Genocidal Ideation in the Genocide Against the Tutsi
Examining the role that propaganda played in the genocide and focusing on the internal psychological processes that translated genocidal ideation into active participation in ethnic cleansing.