Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people. —Peter Strople
Human memory is a very strange phenomenon. For many of us, memories fade with time, whether we desire it or not- it is not in our control. Some memories penetrate deep within our psyche, etching themselves deep into our hearts and mind. And they may not even be our own memories. Such it is with "legacy", something that we are "handed down" in one way or another, coming from a time and a place very different than our own. These legacies, as difficult as they may be to fathom and accept, can imbue our lives with the deepest of meaning, love and longing.
On January 25, 2022, I was proud and moved to create, along with my colleague in Rwanda Joseph Kalisa, a unique and inspiring cross-cultural event comprising 65 participants from Rwanda, Israel, the US, Canada, Germany and perhaps even other places. We chose the name of the event carefully: "Reflecting Together on our Historical Legacy: the Holocaust and Rwandan Genocide Against the Tutsi." We chose the date carefully as well, 2 days before the International Holocaust Remembrance event. For us it was important not to blur the unique memory of the Holocaust, which was a tragic period and genocide unlike any other in so many ways. In my mind, each tragic event in history lives on without connection to the other. The devastating events of the Holocaust and those of the Genocide, are separate, different, with no need and reason to compare, analyze and disrespectfully lump together.
I awoke on that early morning of January 6th in my Israeli home, with a strong compelling feeling that pervaded my body: do we, who have experienced or inherited the tragic legacy of the murder and extinction of our innocent dear ones for no reason other than the fact that they belonged to a different "identity", do we not share a certain legacy that lives deep within us? When I messaged my colleague Joseph in Kigali about the idea of putting together such an online Zoom event, I immediately got the response- "A great idea. We should do it". And, as they say, the rest is history…or should I say not just history but also part of the future?
In the Holocaust, between 1933-1945, Nazi Germany and her many collaborators created one of mankind's most monstrous killing machines in history, systematically gassing, burning and shooting 6 million Jews (and an estimated 5 million others). To this day, over 76 years since the end of the war, the effects and influence of the Holocaust live on in the world in many visible and invisible ways. The Holocaust is a legacy that is ever-present in the lives of Israelis, Jews as well as non-Jews, and in many ways, the legacy of the Holocaust is more evident and out in the open now than ever before.
Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000- 1,000,000 Rwandans were brutally murdered in the space of 100 days. Most of the dead were Tutsis - and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus. Many of them knew each other, lived in the same villages for years. The genocide was conceived by extremist elements of Rwanda’s majority Hutu population who planned to kill the minority Tutsi population and anyone who opposed those genocidal intentions. Reconciliation and the subject of "forgiveness" has been part of the legacy of the Genocide in Rwanda as the country has moved forward in its economy, society and healing.
The feedback on the event has been overwhelmingly positive. Most participants were either survivors, descendants or family members of either the Genocide of 1994 in Rwanda or the Holocaust of World War II. Those who were not, attended as they are deeply involved in the subject and drawn to learning yet more. Participants shared how excited they were to engage in conversation with people they did not know, from cultures they did not know about, around a difficult subject that is inherently personal, and yet undeniably of great universal and global importance…."When is the next meeting?", is what we have heard time and again.
I opened the event, expressing how I am deeply driven to share the story of my dear father, Mordechai (Max) Dunetz, who miraculously survived the massacre in his town ("Zhetl", (Dyatlovo), in Belarus) in 1942, which took the lives of his parents, brother and sister, and about 2500 other Jews. He and his older sister, Fanya, survived the massacre, the slave labor camp and the life of a "Partisan" in the forests trying to survive while fighting the Nazis.
My father's Holocaust legacy has always held a profound place in my mind and soul, yet it was only after his death in 2019 did I feel that time had come to go out and take this further. I deeply feel the responsibility to "tell the story" and this is what led me to create a 10 minute film on my father's testimony at the mass grave site in Zhetl, Belarus, on the memorial day of August 6, 2000. This film I have called "A Sacred Legacy", while it is deeply personal, it can no longer be just that. It is the legacy of my father and his murdered family, as well as the millions of others who call out to me to take up this path.
I shared how the legacy of the Holocaust, and the experiences of my father and aunt, have long impacted how I see myself as a Jew, an Israeli, and always a human being, with the responsibility to our world for "tikkun olam", the repairing of the world in Jewish tradition. Now, at 62, I feel drawn to reflect on my life path and how it has been influenced by the dear, slain people whom I never knew, but have never ceased being part of my life. This "sacred legacy" is never stagnant, it is present and grows as I move, grow and become in life. This too is what legacy must be about, I wonder.
Freddy Mutanguha, Executive Director of the Aegis Trust, spoke with moving and endearing openness about his personal experience during the Genocide. Freddy was 18 at that time, he described some of his terrifying experiences and the barbaric slaughter of his parents and 3 of his sisters- only he and one sister survived. Freddy in many ways represents the Rwandan experience of rising out of the ashes of the Genocide to help create a new Rwanda, that goes forward but does not forget to honor and respect the catastrophic past.
Despite being an orphan and having to deal with all of the trauma of the Genocide, Freddy went on to study education, to become a teacher and leader of peace education, helping to found AERG, Rwanda’s student survivors association, and going on to become Secretary General of IBUKA, the national umbrella association for Rwandan genocide survivors. Freddy shared the loneliness and the longing he felt for his family when he stood at his wedding ceremony some years later. There are moments in one's life that one yearns to reach out lovingly and embrace one's dearest, the people who brought you into this world and helped you grow into who you have become. And they were not there…
I could not help feeling overcome with the parallels between what Freddy had shared and my own father's story, in another place decades before. Just as in Freddy's experience, my father was left alone in the world with one sister after the massacre in his hometown during the Holocaust. My father too went on to train as a teacher and an educator in the world, never forgetting to honor the legacy of his past. After the meeting was over, I went over to the photo albums of my parents that I keep nearby in my home office, to the photo of their wedding in Jerusalem in 1954. I was reunited with the feeling I recalled- how serious and sad my father looked in the photo under the wedding "chupah" (canopy). Could it be that my father was experiencing these very same feelings as Freddy in the happiest of moments in his life till then?
The Breakout Rooms
The height of the event was the 30 minute "breakout rooms" in which 3-5 people (a mix of Rwandans, Jews and others) could interact privately with each other on the question we send them to reflect upon: " How has the Holocaust or Genocide influenced your life and the way you see your life?" Participants shared that this part was particularly profound for them, to listen and hear each other's stories, to learn things that they simply never knew from the mouths of people they would never have had the opportunity to meet. We could only scratch the surface in the designated amount of time, but the experience and message was crystal clear: for those who have suffered, or carry a legacy of such suffering, there is something magical, transformative and deeply profound in sharing and being heard.
We all have a story to tell.
Viktor Frankl was the founder of Logotherapy. A brilliant, Austrian-born psychiatrist and neurologist and the survivor of 4 concentration camps, Frankl lost his parents, wife and brother in the Holocaust. He wrote in his best known book, Man's Search for Meaning:
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
I believe very deeply that the suffering of our parents and families will continue to have meaning for us so long as we uphold, engage with and fully explore what and how these legacies have impacted our lives. To develop this legacy in our lives so that we may pass it on to future generations.
We will meet again. I have no doubt. There are some memories which we choose to cultivate, and there are those memories who choose us to explore and pass on. This is both our conscious and unconscious legacy that is working through us.
We have an important role in this. As Holocaust denial has alarmingly taken root in so many places, our role is all the more critical. I believe it will be the same in Rwanda, as the years move on and the Genocide becomes more "historical" for the younger generations.
It is our role to reflect, to tell, to teach and to remember. It is our sacred legacy.
To remember and not to forget. If not us, then who?
Never again. Never again.
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