Commemorated with rituals and traditions, Yom HaShoah—or Holocaust Remembrance Day—helps us pause to focus on the lessons of history—painful, brutal history. In most communities, observations will feature presentations from Holocaust survivors or their children, remembrances in the flesh and—through their stories—living reminders of the exclamation, “Never again!”
In a recent interview, I spoke with internationally recognized human rights activist and Rwandan genocide survivor Jacqueline Murekatete. Murekatete is the founder of the Genocide Survivors Foundation which is dedicated to preventing genocide and supporting survivors in need.
KS: For readers who are unfamiliar with the Rwandan genocide, what are some high-level details that you think are important for them to know and understand?
JM: I think that it’s very important for people to recognize that, like any genocide, the genocide in Rwanda did not happen overnight.
After I read the news, I often feel powerless. What can any of us do to prevent genocide, to dismantle structural inequalities, or to stop the other horrors we hear about in the news? The massive scale of the problems in the world can feel overwhelming, but we shouldn’t let it be paralyzing. My own involvement in activism changed dramatically in high school, when a human rights activist inspired me to hope.
For the month of April, a large banner draped over the Bay Bridge draws the attention of 250,000 drivers to the Armenian Genocide each day. On my commute to work, I asked two passengers in my rideshare if they knew about the Armenian Genocide. Aside from stating that a genocide happened in 1915, neither could tell me what happened, who the Armenians were, or where Armenia is located.
"Thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson. These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history."
-Judge Fouad Riad after confirming the Srebrenica indictment of Mladic and Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic on 16 November 1995.
I have long wanted to develop and teach a unit on the Nanjing Atrocities for my students at Millennium Brooklyn High School. As a high school history teacher with an undergraduate degree in East Asian Studies, I see it as an important history that we seldom teach in the United States.
Images are an important entry to stories of genocides and mass violence. They provide evidence and context but they can also shock us, jolting us into the immense amount of human suffering that occurred. This is why we must be careful when we prepare lessons for students that touch on such graphic and often difficult-to-absorb topics.
It is impossible to imagine what Raphael Lemkin would be thinking and doing if he were alive today. He dedicated his life to stopping mass violence against people based on their identities and to holding those who were responsible accountable for their crimes. As a young man, he studied past slaughters, including pogroms against Jews, and he immersed himself in understanding the mass murder of the Armenians by the Turkish state, the failure to stop it, and to punish those who were responsible for it. In the midst of his efforts to draw attention to these issues, he lost 49 family members, including his parents, in the Holocaust. They died in the Warsaw ghetto, in concentration camps, and in the death marches.