Back to Rwanda?

Joe Olzacki with Rwandan Commissioner of Human Rights Pierre Karemera.

BLOOMFIELD – A year ago, Dr. Joseph Olzacki saw the results of genocide up close. A speaker at the UNESCO Global Intergenerational Training Forum in Rwanda, he learned first-hand how a culture and society can be destroyed when one group turns on another.
Olzacki, director of visual and performing arts for the Bloomfield public schools, is no stranger to the concept. He created The Identity Project with Rabbi Philip Lazowski, designed to help his students understand what happens when, as he puts it, “someone strips you of everything that makes you, you.”  The answer, he teaches them, is genocide.
Olzacki, who is not Jewish, holds a degree in political science with a focus in Holocaust studies. He designed The Identity Project to make the idea personal for his students, most of them of Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.
“They had to realize that they’re important,” he says, “that they could have changed or fixed something during the Holocaust, and that now they must stand up for others.”
While in Rwanda, Olzacki met Pierre Karemera, head of the Rwanda National Commission for Human Rights and president of the International Choir of Kigali.
Now Rwanda wants Olzacki back, this time to conduct music master classes with choir members and instructors.
“When I was in Rwanda, what I saw was a society still rebuilding, still in progress,” Olzacki says. “In the genocide, their culture was decimated. They have no musicians, their artists have mostly fled the country. They have some understanding of Western music, but there’s no one left to teach it.”

Typical Rwandans live in poverty; the average Rwandan lives off ten dollars a month.

The 1994 mass murder took an estimated 850,000 lives, or as much as 20 percent of the country’s population. Olzacki says that there is a fear in the country that ignorance of other cultures will breed another genocide. For that reason, Karemera has created the Western-style chorus so as to broaden knowledge and awareness of the arts outside Rwanda. “They realize that, without development of the arts, their society will stagnate,” Olzacki says.
“When you look at totalitarian governments, the first thing they try to control is the arts,” Olzacki says. “The arts represent freedom of thought and require everyone to take all of what they know and believe and put it out there for others to experience. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini all tried to control the arts, and eventually abolished them, because freedom of thought is the biggest enemy to totalitarian governments.”
Olzacki hopes to bring what he has learned through The Identity Project to the Rwandan chorus. “I would be helping to feed their knowledge and understanding and their ability to think outside the box,” he says. “In this way, people become more tolerant of others because you realize that everyone has something to offer.”
Olzacki has a professional track record in rebuilding arts programs. After earning his PhD in education from the University of Hartford, he helped bring back the arts to the Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury and public schools in East Haddam, before coming to the Bloomfield public schools.
While the International Choir of Kigali will host Olzacki, he is responsible for the cost of a plane ticket. The Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT) is serving as a repository for tax-deductible donations, and is approaching several foundations on Olzacki’s behalf.
“We’re very fond of Joe and we know of his deep commitment,” says Bob Fishman, JFACT executive director. “He is very close with Rabbi Lazowski, who has asked us to pitch in and do what we can to help.” Fishman says that Olzacki would be asked to share his experiences with audiences in the Greater Hartford community upon his return from Rwanda.

For more information,  contact Bob Fishman at JFACT: (860) 727-5701/ jfact@mcmgmt.com .

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