Tonight’s program includes the screening of the film Defying Genocide and a followup discussion. Defying Genocide is a short film detailing the efforts of Damas Gisimba to save children and others during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
JERRY FOWLER: Good evening, and welcome to the Holocaust Memorial Museum for tonight’s program, “Defying Genocide.” My name is Jerry Fowler, and I am the Staff Director of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience. We have a very special program this evening and I would like to begin by thanking the Blanche and Irving Lorrie Foundation for making it possible.
Before introducing the program, I need to dispense with a few administrative details. You should have received when you came in an evaluation and an index card. The index cards are for your use during the question and answer portion of the program. As questions for our guests occur to you, you should write them on the card. And then later on this evening, my colleagues will be collecting them from the aisles and will pass them on to Scott Simon.
The evaluations are for you to fill in after the program and hand to our staff on your way out. We take your comments very seriously. And in appreciation of your sharing them with us, we will be giving you four complimentary passes to the Museum’s permanent exhibition, which are valid for any time between now and the rest of the year. Also, one other thing, especially being in Washington, everyone has cell phones. If you could make sure to turn off your cell phone and your pagers, it would be greatly appreciated.
After I finish, we’re going to run a very brief video that provides some background information on the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide. After that, Scott Simon will take charge of the proceedings.
Scott probably doesn’t need an introduction, but I imagine that he would like one. He is, of course, one our country’s most respected journalists, a winner of the coveted Peabody Award, and the host of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday. We are deeply grateful to him for taking the time to join us this evening.
And I should actually say that we are doubly grateful to him because not only is he here, but he has enlisted his wife, Caroline Richard Simon, to provide translation for Damas Gisimba. So thanks to both of you for coming this evening.
Tonight’s program is being presented in conjunction with our new special exhibition, “Life in Shadows: Hidden Children in the Holocaust.” That exhibition is on this level of the Museum. And I know that many of you were able to visit it before now, when you came in. It will be open this evening after the program until 9:30.
Jewish children were special targets in the Holocaust, the Nazis’ calculated program of genocide. Out of about 1.6 million Jewish children in territories occupied by the Nazis or their allies, as many as 1.5 million perished. The small fraction, the heartbreakingly small fraction that survived did so through some combination of ingenuity, of luck, and often of help from others.
Help from others. Tonight we will focus on two stories of rescue, of individuals who took risks to save children threatened by genocide. We’re honored to have with us Simone Weil Lipman, who organized a network in Nazi-occupied France that smuggled children out of internment camps and found them hiding places. For years, she lived under a false identity, taking risks to save others.
We are also honored to welcome to the Holocaust Memorial Museum this evening, Damas Gisimba of Rwanda, because if there is anything that we have learned in the past six decades, it is that the challenge of confronting genocide is not merely a matter of history. During one of the most intense periods of organized mass murder in history, Damas turned his orphanage into a sanctuary for hundreds of children and adults, often literally standing between the militias and those he was trying to protect.
Part of the original vision of Elie Wiesel and the Museum’s founders was a living memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, one that would spark responses to contemporary genocide. They believed, as they said in their report to President Jimmy Carter in 1979, that, “A memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past.”
The Rwanda genocide, which began a year to the month after this museum opened, underscored the truth and the urgency of that vision. That is why in 1995, the Museum established a Committee on Conscience to alert the national conscience to threats of contemporary genocide.
As President George H.W. Bush, the elder President Bush, predicted in February 1991 when the cornerstone of this building was laid, with words that are now carved on the outside of the Hall of Remembrance, “Here, we will learn that each of us bears responsibility for our actions and for our failure to act.” Tonight, you will meet two remarkable individuals who acted to save others during humanity’s darkest hours.
Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party took power in Germany in 1933. Over time, they targeted Jews for persecution, and steadily excluded them from the nation’s economic, social, and political life. By 1939, when World War II began, German Jews had lost their rights, jobs, and properties, and were subject to physical attacks.
The Nazis extended persecution of Jews to countries they conquered, including France, which in 1940 was divided into two parts, one occupied by Germany, and the other administered by the French regime, based in the city of Vichy. The Vichy government collaborated closely with the Nazis and implemented many of the same racist and anti-Semitic policies.
In 1941, the Nazis began a campaign of mass murder of Europe’s Jews, what we now know as the Holocaust. On May 28th, 1942, they began importing Jews from France, primarily to Auschwitz. By the time World War II ended in 1945, more than 77,000 Jews deported from France had perished in Nazi camps. In all, the Nazis and their supporters murdered six million Jews, nearly two-thirds of Europe’s pre-war Jewish population. Of these, as many as 1.5 million were children.
In 1948, an effort spearheaded by Holocaust survivor and lawyer, Raphael Lemkin resulted in an international treaty binding nations to prevent and punish genocide. And yet nearly 50 years later, genocide occurred in the small African nation of Rwanda.
Rwanda has two main ethnic groups, a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority. In the early 1990s, Hutu extremists formed the Hutu Power Movement, and began carefully planning the campaign to exterminate leading Hutu moderates and the country’s entire Tutsi population. They demonized the Tutsis in the mass media, and trained and armed paramilitary militias.
In April 1994, the extremists seized control of the government and launched the genocide. Within hours, roadblocks were set up in the capital, and systematic killing began. Tutsis of all ages, men, women, and children, were hunted down in their homes, on the street, in schools and in churches.
Military officers, government officials, and Hutu militias orchestrated the attacks, which soon spread throughout the country. In 100 days, as many as 800,000 people were murdered, including three out of every four Tutsi in Rwanda.
Simone Weil Lipman and Damas Gisimba are two individuals who defied genocide, risking their own lives to save the lives of others.
SCOTT SIMON: It’s good to be with you this evening. Let me set the program up for a bit. We do invite your questions. We’re dependent on them, as a matter of fact. And it’s also part and parcel of the philosophy of this institution that people who have questions have a place to take them, and certainly two extraordinary individuals who I think might be in a position to answer them. So please do begin thinking about your questions, even begin writing them out. They will be conveyed up here, and we will ask them.
I think part of the purpose of having these two extraordinary people here tonight certainly also addresses a function of this institution. This is not just a place for memorials or the citation of martyrdom. This is a living institution which finds and venerates living people and those who, I think it doesn’t state it too strongly to say, gave the gift of their own lives so that others would have that gift as well.
This is a place that consciously seeks to find, celebrate, and venerate acts of heroism and individuals who can fairly be identified for our times and all times as genuine heroes. That’s a difficult word to use in these times. It is carelessly and thoughtlessly applied to 23-year-old pitchers who can make it to the seventh inning of a playoff game. The word “risk” is often, at the same time, also misapplied in its genuine sense. We too frequently think of risk now as a high cholesterol reading.
These are genuinely heroic individuals who are before us in the flesh tonight, whose heroism consists in understanding the genuine risks they face to save others. It is almost the highest compliment to cite them as two normal people of extraordinary capacity, and what makes them venerable. And the grace notes they are in our world today is that they knew the risks, and they undertook them anyway. They had an internal compass which told them what was the right thing to do, and they did it in defiance of not just a risk, but really, I think you can fairly say, almost a certainty of danger, and yet understood that their own definition as a human being and what distinguishes us on this planet was all wrapped up in their doing the right thing on behalf of others.
So my wife and I are not only honored to be here tonight, but humbled in the presence of these extraordinary human beings.
So we do ask you to think about questions. And I’m just going to begin, if I can, very simply with Simone and Damas.
Simone maybe first. Simone has lived for 17 years now in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And you will notice her English is quite good. You’ve actually lived here since 1949, I guess.
SIMONE LIPMAN: That’s right.
SCOTT SIMON: You were 20 years old when the occupation of France began. Tell us where life found you, and how you were -- tell us, help us recapture that time, if you can, what you were doing at that moment.
SIMONE LIPMAN: Well, I was living in Strasbourg with my family. Strasbourg is in Alsace, right close to Germany. And when France went to war in 1940, all the Jews from Alsace were expelled, and my family found themselves in the south of France, where they would have to spend the rest of the war, the next five years, in relative safety on a farm; whereas I was recruited by one of my friends to come and work in an internment camp in France.
Now, in my remote farm in the country, I really didn’t know at that time that the Vichy government had established a number of internment camps for foreign-born Jews. I had been a Jewish girl scout leader in Strasbourg. And one of my former leaders somehow located me on that farm, and that was the beginning of my involvement with the organization called Ouevres de Secours aux Enfants, a Jewish childcare rescue operation; a highly organized teamwork where our task was to rescue as many children as we possibly could.
SCOTT SIMON: Would you elaborate? Tell us.
SIMONE LIPMAN: It so happened that a number of voluntary agencies were given permission by the Vichy government -- as you’ve heard before, France was divided into two zones, the occupied zone and the “non-occupied” zone, which really didn’t last very long, because by 1942, all of France was occupied.
But there had been really a very big action about interning all the foreign-born Jews. And that population was augmented by all the Jews from the Rhineland, and the deportation westward. We always conceive of deportation eastward. But this was a westward deportation. The Jews from the Rhineland were handed over to the Vichy government, who promptly put them into these internment camps. And in 1941, I went to one of these camps, Limoges. There were about a dozen camps in the south of France.
And nothing had prepared me for the conditions in Limoges. These were old army barracks, in which the living conditions, the hygienic situation was beyond description. And although it was not a “death camp,” people died by the thousands because of the unsanitary conditions that prevailed.
And the voluntary agencies had their resident social workers there and lived in the camp. Our main tasks, they were really threefold. One was to find activities for the children, from all ages. I recently met a man who was born in Rivesaltes. In fact, I have met two of them who were born in an infirmary in Rivesaltes, if you can call it an infirmary. It was run by a Swiss relief agency. And we had children all the way up to 16, 17, 18, and to find activity for them. That was one aspect of my work.
The other aspect of the work was to help the people with additional calories. The rations were so small because the food never made its way to the internees. This was a time of occupation. This was a time where food scarce. And the guards, of course, could sell the food on the black market rather than give it to the internees. So in some ways, through the various agencies, we were able particularly to enhance the meals of the children by some milk.
SCOTT SIMON: Maybe we should remind ourselves, too, in the internment camps, there was, I assume, no central authority saying, you know, this lack of nutrition is a real problem. Too many people are dying.
SIMONE LIPMAN: No, obviously not. There were studies made that showed how diminished people were by these conditions. And certainly, we didn’t have the authority to make sure that people got the packages that were sent to them. Most of them didn’t reach the internees.
But most of all, in the agencies I worked for the leadership had some great foresight in making it a point to try to get the children out of the camp. And not knowing what the fate would be -- we now know what the fate became. But at the time, we didn’t. But to make certain that the children wouldn’t share the fate of their parents.
In some way, we managed to get a semi-legal way to get the children under 16 out. And when they’re a little bit over 16, we managed to falsify the papers, and we got many children over 16 out of the camp, too. When I say, we, I mean the OSE organization.
And where would we put the children? OSE had a number of children’s homes throughout France, particularly in the south of France. And they were staffed by wonderful people, and they were staffed by educators, doctors, nurses, who just couldn’t work anymore because they were Jewish, because all the restrictions on employment for the Jews had set in.
And so this is where the children went, where they lived in Jewish institutions as Jewish children, at least at the beginning. We enter a second phase a little bit later. So this was originally the kind of work that I was doing in helping get the children out of the camp.
Unfortunately, the situation changed somewhat in the middle of 1942, when deportation started. And actually, by May --
SCOTT SIMON: These are deportations to death camps?
SIMONE LIPMAN: Pardon?
SCOTT SIMON: To death camps, the deportations.
SIMONE LIPMAN: The deportation to the east. At that time, we did not know where these people were going. What happened was suddenly, the order came for roundups of the people in the camps. But again, the authorities, the Germans working with the Vichy government, did things by increments, which means there were still some exact categories.
And we scrambled -- we, meaning the various social workers of the various agencies -- to put together some dossiers, some papers, for these people to be exempt from deportation. And that’s how we tried, at least in the beginning, to try to save as many people.
The children, there were children in these deportations, too, because some parents simply could not separate themselves from their children. And this is probably one of the most poignant aspects of the work that I did.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me ask you to put your story on hold for a moment.
SIMONE LIPMAN: Sure.
SCOTT SIMON: Going to Damas here. When the unrest began in Rwanda, you were helping to run an orphanage.
DAMAS GISIMBA: Yes. I had been working for numerous years in the orphanage. I lived near the orphanage, and when the plane carrying the President crashed, I left the house to go to the orphanage, because very quickly thereafter, you could already start to hear gunfire in the town. And I was afraid that something would happen to the children. So I went immediately to the orphanage.
SCOTT SIMON: And what was it like at the orphanage?
DAMAS GISIMBA: When I went to the orphanage, some of the neighbors had already gone into the orphanage. They were looking for a place to hide. And that frightened the children. And so when I arrived, I calmed the children down, and I started to have meetings to discuss what they would do and to make sure that everybody felt secure.
SCOTT SIMON: Many other people would have said it’s just not safe to have other people come here.
DAMAS GISIMBA: Already in the town for some time, there were militias of people, people who were going in the streets, and already saying, down with the Tutsis, and who were already threatening, and making very clear what their intentions were. So there was a climate of danger which you couldn’t help but feel.
The neighbors who came to the orphanage for a stay were people who had received calls telling them that they were targeted, and that already in other neighborhoods, people were being massacred. So they were told quite specifically that they should hide. And that’s why they came to the orphanage. That’s why I was happy to let them be there.
SCOTT SIMON: In time, militias came to the orphanage, too, and as you said, you’re hiding people. What did you do?
DAMAS GISIMBA: In the beginning, they did come to the orphanage. They went house to house looking for people. And so the orphanage wasn’t spared. But they also didn’t know how many children were in the orphanage before things -- before everything started. So I was able to say that these were my kids, they had been there along, that there wasn’t anybody new.
The people who were finding refuge in the orphanage, the first weeks or so, it was a smaller number, so I was able to keep them up in the attic and just show the children. And the militias would say of the children, but are these all Tutsi children? But in the beginning, they left the children alone. That changed within a few weeks. And after about two or three weeks, they were killing anyone who was a Tutsi.
CAROLINE SIMON: So then the next question is, how were you able to -- may I ask the next question?
DAMAS GISIMBA: The anti-Tutsi propaganda started long before the war. It started in the -- certainly I was aware of it in the early 1990’s. And I already started to take measures against it because I wanted to make sure that the children who were in the orphanage were not swept up with this ideology; that they were together in the orphanage, and it didn’t matter what their ethnic background was. It was very important for me that they felt connected.
One of the things that I did early on was to have meetings with them and explain the importance of not believing some of the propaganda that was going on. And some of the young men wanted to be involved in groups -- in political parties.
And I was very wary that they do that, and told them not to get involved in the politics, that the only way they could start wearing the hats of a group was if I started to do something with the orphanage so that they could become involved in that, but not to get involved in different political parties of the time.
By the time the genocide started, there was a real sense in the orphanage that they needed to stay together, and they needed to fight this fever -- not just a fever, there’s this terrible thing that was happening. And that’s why the children in the orphanage were quite welcoming to anybody who came in to find refuge.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me turn to Simone a bit. You know what it’s like to try and fool the authorities, too. I wonder if you could tell us about a woman named Simone Dwerlin.
SIMONE LIPMAN: That comes just a bit little later, so I fill a little bit of a gap in there.
I was telling you earlier about the deportations having taken place practically day after day or week after week, and rounding up families and children, and bringing them to Rivesaltes, which became sort of a camp from which all the deportations took place. And when I say deportation, we did not know where these people were going. We knew they were loading them in trains, and they were shipping them off east.
There was a sense of forced labor. I think if somebody had told us that these people were shipped over to gas chambers, our minds couldn’t have fathomed it. It couldn’t have been something that we could really believe.
So by the end of 1942, the camp was closed. Before I got to really change my identity, I did indeed go to work in one of the children’s homes. And I’d like to just say that we tried to assure for these children as “normal” a life as we could. They went to school. We had activities for them. And we were with them all the time. This was not a 9:00 to 5:00 job. We were with them all the time.
But there came a time where the agency became aware that these children’s homes became easy targets for the Germans, in conjunction with the Vichy authority. And indeed, they were incidences where the whole population of the children, some along with the staff, was rounded up and shipped off to deportation. So it became important to close the children’s homes and to place the children into non-Jewish situations. And for that, a team was organized of some of us, who took on false identities, and who also worked under some kind of cover. So by the fall of 1943, I indeed became Simone Dwerlin.
SCOTT SIMON: Now, you chose or contrived that name because it was possible to change the documents.
SIMONE LIPMAN: Well, it was easy from W-e-i-l to D-w-e-r-l-i-n. I also -- I don’t exactly remember the process by which you falsified papers, but I became adept at it. And I had to first provide myself with an identity. But the whole team who worked under these false identities had wonderful covers. For instance, I lived in Chateauroux, which is about 70 miles north of Limoges.
And there, the department of health gave me a cover and the papers to certify that I was one of their public health nurses. I always traveled with a navy blue uniform, navy blue suit, and a black -- and a navy blue hat. We wore hats in those days, and a little red cross on my hat. So I played the part, but the main thing is that I had the papers.
I also am forever thankful for my former professors, who gave me statements under my false name, and references; in fact risking their lives so making these statements. And the fact is that without all these papers, I just couldn’t have survived.
Now, I made myself a certificate, a birth certificate, being born -- making sure that I was born in a town where the town now had been bombed. They couldn’t verify any of this.
But the reasons that we were able to get all this work done is that we had to have seals and a rubber stamp and all that. And we got them through many different sources, either through helpful employees in the various town halls, who were willing to help us, through groups allied with the Resistance. And some became very adept at making the rubber stamps themselves.
So now the task was, we had a staff of all people who had assumed false identities; some of us did. We were chosen because, “We didn’t look Jewish,” whatever that means. But that was very important, because you were stopped on the street, and you were arrested for whatever. And anybody could stop you and ask you for your papers at any one time.
But the main thing is now that we had a staff that worked under false identities, we had to fabricate new identities for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of children. We moved them from the children’s homes and found hiding places for them.
And here again, we never worked individually. We worked through existing organizations in France. Don’t forget that at that time, many parents of children all over France wanted to send them to the country because it was safer than being in Paris or Lyon and Marseilles, what have you. And so there were existing organizations that placed children, and we worked through them, even sometimes paying the foster families through the agencies.
We worked in placing the children with families. We placed them in convents. We placed them in orphanages, and were extremely well-received by the organization of Catholic and Protestant agencies as well, and were able to find places for some 3000 or 4000 children at the time.
SCOTT SIMON: Damas, how did you provide for the growing number of people who were coming to your orphanage? And how did you try and disguise their presence?
DAMAS GISIMBA: It was difficult. First, they couldn’t turn anyone away. People came to me with confidence that they were coming to somebody who could help them. So I couldn’t turn anyone away. And they shared the little that we had.
As far as hiding people, that also was difficult. The orphanage had a capacity of 60 people, and at its height, they were hiding some 400 people there.
Having so many people in the orphanage was a logistical challenge. After a while, people who were finding refuge in the attic had to come downstairs because they couldn’t go to the bathroom. And so they were finding that things were leaking from the ceilings and it wasn’t workable.
So they had everybody in the dormitories, but again, there were many, many people. It was not easy for them to all use the facilities. It was very hot. People were sweating, so it was very uncomfortable.
And food wasn’t as much the issue as water. It was very hot and people were getting dehydrated. But it was very hard to come by water. There were barricades all over the city, and it was virtually impossible to get by the barricades.
There were so many cadavers from the carnage from the massacres that they were even doing barricades with the piles of bodies. When somebody came to the orphanage, not only did I not wish to turn them away, but at a certain point, it became almost a miracle that somebody could get by all of those barricades. So the real difficulty was water and food.
The militias would come periodically to the orphanage. And I did everything I could to turn them away. Initially that was by giving them money. Eventually, we ran out of the money, and then I would give them whatever the orphanage had. Eventually, we ran out of everything in the orphanage, and we were expecting that we would die.
While we did bribe some of the officials who came, I don’t think that money is what enabled them to survive, because many others paid money and were killed nonetheless. So it was really a miracle. We were able during that time to get a little bit of water. We would send somebody who -- from the orphanage, who either had an identity card or had a face -- who looked Hutu and might be able to get past the barricades.
At about eight kilometers from the orphanage, there was a river where we could get water. We needed water to drink, but also for all of the baby bottles for the orphanage.
Now we were fortunate because three weeks after the beginning of the genocide, there was a man, who I believe is in the audience tonight, Carl Wilkins. Is Carl here? Yes? Carl Wilkins was there, and he decided to stay in Kigali. And he learned of the orphanage and went to go see us and ask how he could be of help. And one of the ways that he was very helpful is in supplying the orphanage with water.
Carl Wilkins didn’t just bring water. He was also able to supply the orphanage with milk. And milk was particularly important because they had so many babies at that time. Before the genocide started, the children, they had tended to be older. And so we didn’t have reserves of milk, powdered milk, or any milk. When the genocide started, a lot of infants were brought into the orphanage.
And one of the reasons for that was that in the massacres which took place, it happened so quickly, and so many people were killed that often they would go into a house and they would slaughter the family, and do so very quickly. And many babies survived that because they were thought to have been dead.
And they would be found later when somebody would come in and realize that everyone was dead, that the child was still alive. And so these children needed milk, and there were a lot of them. And so they were brought into the orphanage. And thanks to Carl Wilkins, they were provided for.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me just ask for a moment. Perhaps I should have coordinated this better. Have the cards with questions been collected? No? All right. I didn’t want to be frustrating that process. How will that be done? The staff will be coming down the aisles. May I ask you both to hold up in the narrative for a moment. Did you know that what you were doing was dangerous? It sounds like a naive question, but --
SIMONE LIPMAN: It’s very hard to answer, because I really don’t know, that at the time when you’re 20, 21, you’re sort of feeling invulnerable. But there were dangerous moments. I recognize it today in retrospect. Gosh, what we did was sometimes really very daring and very risk-taking. But you had to do it. There was no other way, and so you did it. And I’m one of the fortunate ones, as I said earlier.
You had three things: That’s luck, luck, and luck. I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my team lost their lives in doing exactly the same things. Some were shot. Some were deported with children. Some didn’t want to leave the groups of children they were with because there were groups of children that were smuggled into Switzerland.
And there were workers trapped, stopped at the borders with the children and went to deportation with them. And so, dangerous? I think I saw it much more as I got older than when I saw it at the time really.
And you used word “hero.” I just really never felt that this title applied to me. There was a job to be done, and we did it, and that was it. There were so many -- it seemed to me at the time that so many of my peers, who went into this kind of work because it was there and you had to do it. There was no other way.
SCOTT SIMON: Before we go to our next answer, I think we can fairly, in a scientifically and a scholarly way, apply that word to Carl Wilkins, who in fact is here tonight as well, here from Oregon. I’m glad that you can join us.
DAMAS GISIMBA: I was certainly conscious of the danger, but it wasn’t something that I felt -- I didn’t feel that it would prevent me from doing what I did. One of the risks is if they caught you giving this refuge to somebody, they would kill you or your whole family. So I was certainly aware of the risks. But I also felt that I needed to protect the people that I had always protected, certainly the children, and my neighbors as well.
And I questioned what kind of a world this would be. One of the things that I said is that because I was giving refuge to so many people, they would have to kill me 500 times over, and that didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t want to live in a world in which the world that they wanted to create. So it was important for me to defend what I was doing.
It wasn’t until after the genocide that I really did begin to feel a sense of danger. But in the moment, I felt like I needed to continue doing what I was doing, which was looking out for those children.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me turn to some of the questions that we have. You were both working to protect the most innocent victims of war. I’m wondering if you saw or experienced any acts of mercy or even humanity in the Nazis and Hutu who were evil. That’s a good question.
SIMONE LIPMAN: Clarify this for me.
SCOTT SIMON: Did you ever see a Nazi, a German soldier, a member of the Vichy government, who behaved in a way that was unexpectedly merciful?
SIMONE LIPMAN: Indeed there are, I can think of two particular employees of the city in the south of France, who made it possible for us. They were Vichy government employees at the city hall. And they made it possible for us to liberate the children from the camp in Rivesaltes and get them the papers necessary to go to this part of France. And once we had them there, it was easy then to get the safe conduct, to get them into many different places.
Most of them paid with their lives. One came back from deportation. The other one was deported as well. They were not Jewish. They were employees of the Vichy government, who took that risk.
SCOTT SIMON: Damas, were there any of the Hutu militia who came to the orphanage? Did any of them ever portray an act of mercy or compassion, or look like they knew what was going on, but decided to leave, look the other way?
DAMAS GISIMBA: Not really. The militias would come, and I would go out of my way to tame them, to talk to them, to be strong, to make them go away. And they would go away, but they would go and massacre people right next door or right near the orphanage. And frequently, they would come back in the evening, and I would have to be constantly vigilant. And then I would give them something to eat, or I would just keep them at bay.
It’s not the case that the children in the orphanage were completely protected. There were massacres within the orphanage. But in relation to the massacres that were taking place in churches and other areas that should have been sanctuaries, and throughout the country, what happened in the orphanage was relatively small.
Also one of the ways that I would keep them at bay, among these militias, within them there were chiefs. One of the ways that chiefs became chiefs was by killing the highest number of people. And it was of the things that they would brag about. I’ve killed 50, 500, and so forth.
The chiefs would come to the orphanage and knew some of the young girls who were in the orphanage, and knew them because they had killed their families. They wanted to marry them. They would say, when this is over, when we have triumphed, we’re coming back, and those girls will be our wives.
So I would agree to that. I would say, yes, we need to keep the orphanage safe so that when this over, you can come and I will save them for you, and you will be able to share them. I know who they are, and so forth. And I said it was atrocious, but that is one of the ways that I kept them away.
SCOTT SIMON: Let me turn to Simone. When you were confronted by enemy authorities or officials, how did you manage to look innocent, uninvolved?
SIMONE LIPMAN: I had one very tough incident, around many encounters. You know, in order to do the work that we did, we had to travel a lot. And travel, that means no cars. Nobody had any cars. The Germans had requisitioned all the cars. There was no gas. So the only mode of transportation was train, when they worked, because we also applauded when the trains didn’t work because it meant that the Resistance had burned up the tracks.
I had been going -- my residence was in Chateauroux, just about 70 miles north of Limoges. I had a meeting in Limoges because I was in charge of the region of 350 children. We met for planning meetings and all kinds of planning our operations. I had come down from Chateauroux on my bicycle because that was only thing that ran that day.
I had parked my bike somewhere, and was walking in the street meeting up with another girl, whom I had known previously. I wasn’t quite sure what her present name was, nor did I know exactly what she was doing. But we were stopped in front of a pastry shop, and in those days, everything was rationed, but there were some pastry shops. I don’t know what they used: Sawdust, saccharine, or whatever. But it was free. We didn’t have to give our precious ration coupons.
We went in, and when we came out, a young man, not in uniform, stopped us. He had a big book under his arm. And he says, follow me. And he opened the book, and it was a hollow case with a gun in it. We had no choice but to follow him.
They took us to the other woman’s apartment. She was a resident of Limoges. I felt pretty safe in the sense that I had good papers. But in the lining of my pockets, I had several rubber stamps to make false papers for the children. I also had lists of children. Let me just say that although we lost children who were either deported or denounced, what have you; in their places, we never lost the identity of a child.
It was maybe very sure that we had lists of the real names of the children and their fake names somewhere in Switzerland. Don’t ask me how they got there, but that was another part. You see, I only did my piece of the work, and those were to keep things safe. Each team had a piece of the work. I only know what I was doing.
I was lucky. When they were ransacking the other woman’s apartment, I asked very sweetly to go to the bathroom. They let me go. That was their mistake. So I undid my pocket, and I threw everything down the toilet, and whatever didn’t go down, I threw out through the window. When I came back, at least I felt the children were safe. There were no lists. There were no papers.
And they let me go. They put the other woman in jail. She was able to escape because after I left, I was able to alert other people. That’s another long story. But she was able to escape. I only really was reunited with her 60 years later, and that’s another story, too. But --
SCOTT SIMON: Just a few years ago.
SIMONE LIPMAN: Just a few years ago. Actually, just about four years ago. As a matter of fact, I made sure that somebody would remove all incriminating paper out of my rucksack, which was with my bicycle. The next day, I bicycled back to Chateauroux, where my landlady said, you had visitors yesterday. There were two young men from Limoges looking for you. I said, that’s too bad that I missed them. But I hopped on my bike, and I went somewhere else.
So that’s how I got out of that situation. And it was a matter of luck, too.
SCOTT SIMON: The sense of several questions here is, did you feel that the world was looking away? Damas?
DAMAS GISIMBA: Yes. This is something that occurred. I had always heard the term, “the international community.” I thought the international community will respond, will do something. And nothing happened. In the beginning, there was a UN force in Kigali, and they were there, and they were visible.
But as soon as the genocide started, they left. We would listen to the radio, and I remember listening to the radio, and you would hear reports of one nation and another nation saying that they would send 500 or 5000 troops to Rwanda. Everyone hoped that this would happen, and would happen very quickly.
As I said, these forces in the modern world could get on a plane and could arrive very quickly. They never did arrive, and yet I feel that even a small force could have made a difference, could have helped to stop the genocide, the massacres. It could have been a neighboring country. It could have been an African country. It could’ve been Europe. It could have been an international force. But nothing happened.
SCOTT SIMON: Simone, this was obviously a number of years before that. But did you feel that the world was looking away?
SIMONE LIPMAN: I can’t really quite remember what I felt, particularly looking at the world at large. I think what kept us going, too, was listening to the BBC and listening to the news of what’s happening. This was a world war at that time. We also had a Resistance movement. We had several groups that were resisting and kept us going, too, at that time, and not only helping us work, but giving us all these messages that something will happen.
And, of course, I remember very vividly D-Day. The war was far from over, but there was some hope going at that time.
SCOTT SIMON: Okay. I’ve been given the note that we have to begin to conclude. I hope you’ll indulge me if I ask another question because, it’s suggested by a couple in here, because I noticed that you at one point said, it’s luck, luck, luck. You need three things. Damas said that he believes that the lives that he helped to save were delivered by a miracle.
I’m wondering if both of you could share with us, with whatever examination you’ve been able to afford yourself over the years, what human qualities it requires of us to come to the assistance of others. Simone?
SIMONE LIPMAN: Well, I think you have to have compassion, and you have to see the other as yourself. You have to really be aware, too, that if you don’t speak up when you see evil, then it’s going to multiply. It’s going to progress. It’s going to get out of hand. When I talk to children, which I have done a great deal in talking in schools and talking in middle schools and high schools, university, that’s what I stress. It takes the courage to speak up.
Was I aware of it at the time? I don’t know. In retrospect, you saw the injustices when you worked in the camp, when you had to ask parents to separate themselves from their children to hand the children over to us, or when you had to say goodbye to a child and leave him in strange places.
In retrospect, I see that. But I also saw that there were so many people having the same kind of approach to human beings and were able to risk their lives in opening their homes for these children.
DAMAS GISIMBA: The first is to be courageous, to have courage. And the second is to see the other as yourself and to realize that, to have love in your life. With love, you can resist just about anything. And to be able to bring help to someone else who is just like you and to be able to feel love and be carried by that emotion.
SIMONE LIPMAN: I just wanted to add that when I first went to work in the camp where these people had been interned already for a year, and some Spanish refugees were still there who had languished since the civil war in Spain. I was very young. I remember these people from all walks of life who acted with such dignity. It was really a lesson for me. This is something I really carry with me, to see how they behaved with such dignity under those terrible conditions.
SCOTT SIMON: I believe there will be an opportunity now to see the exhibit. Thank you all for being here. We can all live very rich and valuable lives and never again be in the presence of three such people as Simone, and Damas, and Mr. Wilkins. We’re all together here tonight and have the opportunity to, in the smallest possible way, express our appreciation for what they’ve done for this planet.
WILLIAM PARSONS: I can only echo what Scott said at the beginning, that I always find myself humbled to be in the presence of people like this. I thank them so much on behalf of the Museum for coming. I thank Caroline and Scott for also participating. And thanks to all of you for coming this evening. As Scott said, the exhibition, “Life in Shadows,” will be open until 9:30. I encourage you to visit it. Thank you very much once again for coming.