November 01, 2015
by Louise Lawrence-Israëls
I work with a special teacher from Nebraska, my friend Mark. About 10 years ago I met Mark at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I was asked to speak to his students when they came to Washington, DC, to visit the Museum. He came with 30 interested and well-prepared high school students and some chaperones. They came into the classroom at the Museum carrying backpacks, pillows, and even blankets. I jokingly asked them if they were planning to take a nap during my talk. That is when they told me that they had gotten up that morning at 2:30 to catch the plane for Washington. After the visit to the museum, they had a little time to visit the Washington monuments and then they would catch the plane home. The pillows and blankets were for the plane ride, they said.
The talk went fine; the best part was all the questions. All of the listeners had stayed awake, and if we could have had another hour there would have been more questions. Since that first visit, Mark has brought students every year, sometimes twice a year. I have been with them every time. Mark and I became good friends, and I learned how passionate he is about teaching the Holocaust and about genocide education.
A few years ago, I heard that Mark and another teacher, Drew, had started an organization to teach teachers in Rwanda about the Holocaust, so that those teachers would teach their pupils, based on a similar format our Museum uses. “Why Rwanda?” I wondered.
Twenty years ago genocide happened in Rwanda. In only about 100 days, Hutus managed to kill up to one million Tutsis. As in the Holocaust, most of the world stood by and let it happen.
Mark and his colleague made contact with schools and teachers in Rwanda with help from the Rwanda Genocide Center. That is how they started their first conference. They came home so full of enthusiasm about their project and shared their experience with the Museum. The Museum became involved the following year.
When I saw Mark again, he said, “I wish you could attend a conference; it would have such an impact on the teachers to talk with you and to ask you questions.” When I came home I talked to Sidney, my husband, who said, “You should go. I would like to join you.”
I called Mark and asked him if he had been serious when he said that he wished that I would join him. The answer was “absolutely.” I mentioned it to my friend, also a survivor volunteer, and she said that she and her husband would love to join us. We talked with Mark, who said he would be happy to have the four of us join him in Rwanda. I would do a talk, and my friend and I would do a questionand- answer session together. We made plans to see a little more of Africa before going to Rwanda. We decided also to go on a safari in Tanzania.
When we arrived at our hotel in Kigali, Mark and Drew were waiting for us with a present—a traditional Tutsi cone basket, so very beautiful. We asked some questions over dinner. We still had a few days until the conference and wanted to see some of the countryside. I was especially interested in seeing some of the genocide memorials. We had heard and learned about the genocide, but I felt that I did not know enough about it.
It was a very emotional experience. The places where mass killings had taken place had been left intact. We went to a church where the altar cloth was still blood stained and all the benches were covered with bloody clothes—they were the only things left of the murdered people, who thought that being in a church meant sanctuary. There was only a little plaque on the outside of the church, which mentioned the murder of the 300 people there.
The next day I had to work on my talk to the teachers, most of who were children during the genocide. I knew that I could not just do my usual talk as I do in the Museum. I wanted to try to incorporate both genocides, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. I could not get those bloody clothes out of my mind.
In our Museum, when I take groups through the Permanent Exhibition, I stop for a long time at the display of shoes. I ask people to pick out one shoe, and imagine that a person used to wear that shoe—now it is the only thing left of that person. I knew that was the link, the bloody clothes I had seen in Rwanda and the shoes from Europe.
When we arrived at the Genocide Center, where the conference was being held the next day, we were embraced and kissed by the students. We felt very welcome. We ate a meal together and talked a lot. Everybody wanted to learn, so that they could make a difference through teaching what happened, informing students, and coming up with a solution to prevent genocide in the future. There was so much positive energy. We felt it the whole week we were in Rwanda; people were rebuilding and working hard on a good future.
Rwanda is a mountainous country; it is known as “The Land of the Thousand Hills.” With waterfalls, lakes, many forests, and so much green, it is a beautiful country. The country is only as big as the state of Rhode Island. Just 20 years after the genocide, Rwanda is an energetic country; people talk about their experiences and work hard to make Rwanda a modern nation where people can live in peace.
I made the mistake of asking one of the teachers if he was Hutu or Tutsi, he smiled and told me politely that you do not ask that question. They are all Rwandans now. We are privileged to have visited Rwanda.
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