Awareness Committee remembers the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide


Photo courtesy MONUSCO Photos, Creative Commons

Adama Dieng spoke at the first event of the Holocaust and Genocide Awareness week April 1.

Nick Swindell, news staff

The Jewish Studies Program’s Holocaust Awareness Committee, or HAC, held Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week April 1-5.

Attendees commemorated and reflected on the Holocaust and other genocides through daily events and presentations, asked tough questions regarding the prevention of mass atrocity and recognized warning signs of a society on the brink of genocide.

“The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers, same with the genocide of the Tutsis did not start with the machetes. They started with hate speech — words kill like bullets,” said Adama Dieng, the U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide.

Dieng: “‘Never again’ to again and again”

For the first time, HAC added the Rwandan Genocide as a discussion topic in addition to the Holocaust. The dual focus served as a somber reminder that genocides continued to occur after the collapse of Nazi Germany.

HAC was formed at NU in 1991, but the university has held Holocaust Awareness Week since 1977. This year, the committee debuted a digital archive of audio, video and photographic material from past years, which includes an annual lecture given by a Holocaust survivor.

Gerald Holton is one such survivor. He escaped Germany through the Kindertransport, an effort by the United Kingdom to transport Jewish children out of Germany and surrounding countries prior to World War II. He became a physics professor at Harvard University.

Many speakers, including Holton, made note that survival, goodwill and altruism during the Holocaust were far outweighed by human suffering.

Natalie Bormann, an associate teaching professor of political science who sat on the Awareness Week organizing committee, said it is necessary to understand the scale of death and destruction while learning about the Holocaust.

“It has to go hand-in-hand with these larger narratives that really showed the depth of the suffering of the killing,” Bormann said. “[Holton] made it clear he was part of this rescue scheme, that children were transported on trains away from Austria, Germany, and 10,000 children were rescued in that scheme. But over one and a half million children died in the Holocaust. So you have to keep that scale in mind. It’s a wonderful story of surviving, but that is not the story of every individual.”

Bormann also talked about systemic and structural approaches to these situations: How a feature of modernity is that genocide can be brutally mechanical and bureaucratic and efficient.

Jessie Sigler, a fourth-year computer engineering major with a Jewish studies minor who volunteered during the week, said it is vital to remember the stories of Holocaust victims.

“It’s such a pivotal time we’re in right now with regards to the Holocaust in that survivors, most of them will be dead within the next 10 years, so the time to learn those stories is now,” Sigler said. “Those inform our future so much because of the lessons these people can teach us, not just about humanity and empathy but about politics and living when they lived and seeing everything that went on.”

Omar Bartov, a professor of European history and German studies at Brown University, presented the research he conducted for his book “Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz.” In the book, Bartov tells the account of genocide in Buczacz, Poland. He said he chose an Eastern European town because that was from where the most Jews fled and where the most Jews were murdered.

Bartov noted that about half of Holocaust victims were not killed in concentration camps and that many Jews died in their hometowns and in their own synagogues, often at the hand of their own neighbors, a fact that motivated him to write the book.

“And many of them — in fact, the vast majority of them — were killed where they lived,” Bartov said. “They were killed in their own towns, in their own synagogues, in their own cemeteries, in nearby ravines and forests. They were killed within eyesight of where they lived.”

Sigler said it was fascinating listening to Bartov and talked about some ideas she found particularly illuminating.  

“When he said there’s no such thing as a bystander, there’s only degrees of engagement, I just thought that was fascinating and how that applies in any state at any time, recognizing the complicity of a system that’s violent,” Sigler said.

Student research on the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide was also featured throughout the week.

HAC Undergraduate Representative Yael Sheinfeld, a second-year communication studies major, is the Gideon Klein scholar for the 2019-20 academic year. She is producing a documentary based on a family friend’s children’s book about a tree planted in a concentration camp and the artwork produced by the children living in the camp.

Sheinfeld said she wants to highlight dashes of human hope in seas of human despair.

“[I want to] highlight how these children still had a passion for life even though they had no idea what their future was going to be, and how this translated very much to their artwork,” she said. “So, I want to talk about how this greater idea of how people can have hope even in the most dire of circumstances.”

Sheinfeld also said she thinks people can individually educate themselves on genocide, drawing comparisons to modern day rhetoric that “otherizes” people.

“I think it’s a good first step to say what can we do to make sure this never happens again,” Sheinfeld said. “But, I think it also requires a different level of awareness that these things are relevant right now, and we need to work on smaller parts of the problem before we can just eradicate genocide as a whole.”

Participants seek to prevent genocide in the future

“There were those that predicted that [the end of World War II] was the end of history,” Bartov said. “That now we had come to historical Nirvana, and capitalism has won, and things would be much better than they were before, and just as these predictions were being made, two events happened.”

“Bosnia in 1992, a genocide and ethnic cleansing which cost the lives of approximately 250,000 people, many of whom were killed by their own neighbors. And then two years later … across the world [in]1994, another genocide occurred in Rwanda, which has the distinction of being the fastest genocide in history, in which about 800,000 people were killed in 10 weeks.”

At nearly every event that featured a Q&A session, attendees asked how to recognize the warning signs of genocide and prevent it. Dieng said educating youth across the globe is a priority. He paraphrased Nelson Mandela’s quote, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” to emphasize his point..

“I strongly believe in education for the prevention of genocide,” Dieng said. “I finally concluded with UNESCO that along with the education of Holocaust, we need to have also education to the prevention of genocide, although we do recognize the uniqueness of the Holocaust.”

Bormann gave examples ofhow to use genocide research to help prevent future genocide and emphasized the role institutions may play in the manipulation of societies.

“We can think about how individuals may get manipulated, we can think about structures like capitalism and inequality, or we can think about political systems and how they operate in terms of separating different units and society or on creating solidarity among someone, not others,” Bormann said.

Bartov and Dieng put the week in perspective by referring to how the international community has responded to genocide in the past. Bartov said if someone was to read a book on World War II in the 1950s, ‘60s or ‘70s, they’d likely find no reference to Auschwitz or the extermination of Jews. Dieng said some states “pay lip service” to the prevention of genocide while doing nothing to educate their populations on its place in world history.

Daniel O’Leary, a fifth-year political science and philosophy combined major, presented his research on the Rwandan genocide. O’Leary said genocide is only studied in its aftermath and said that it is a unique academic endeavor because of how it informs our decisions.

“I think that genocide studies are interesting because very few … serious scholars come to it, with the idea that this is just a puzzle to unpack in an academic sense so that we can deepen our understanding,” O’Leary said. “But they come to it with the belief that if we understand this, we can maybe change the behavior of the future.”