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Kwibuka means Zakhor

ct cover 12-2-11Why the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda should matter to the Jewish people

By Professor Avinoam Patt


Kwibuka means Zakhor.*

This year, Rwanda marks the 20th anniversary of the Genocide of the Tutsis, which began in April 1994 when approximately 800,000 Tutsi were killed when a Hutu extremist-led government launched a plan to murder the country’s entire Tutsi minority and any others who opposed the government’s policies. Under the cover of war, paramilitary groups killed Tutsis, and people suspected of being Tutsi, in their homes and as they tried to flee at roadblocks set up across the country during the genocide. Entire families were killed. Women were systematically and brutally raped. The civil war and genocide only ended when the Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by current President Paul Kagame, defeated the Hutu perpetrator regime. In the twenty years since the genocide, the Rwandan government has pursued a policy of “unity and reconciliation.”

One might ask: Why should it matter to the Jewish community what happened in a central African nation twenty years ago?

Kwibuka means Zakhor.

Each year before marking the holiday of Purim and blotting out the name of Haman, Jews commemorate Shabbat Zakhor.  “Zakhor et Asher Asah Lekha Amalek” – “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your departure from Egypt. … You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.” The Rabbis often ask: how do we remember Amalek while erasing its memory? How do we remember intellectually while also not forgetting in our hearts?

After the Holocaust, survivors were determined that the world not forget the evil represented by the Nazis. Amateur historians created historical commissions that would document Nazi crimes and asked fellow survivors to assist them in their “holy” work to collect and record the testimonies of the ‘Surviving Remnant.’

But they knew all too well that what they had just survived was a form of evil that had manifested itself repeatedly in history – that Amalek would resurface from generation to generation. They knew that throughout history there had been and would continue to be those who represent the ultimate form of evil, those who prey on the weak and the innocent, on those who cannot defend themselves. They understood that the commandment to remember the evil of Amalek was not just a retroactive commandment enacted in the aftermath of genocide — a form of remembrance fulfilled through memorialization; it was and is a positive commandment that carries with it the responsibility to educate for the future, to ensure that this type of evil does not return; and if and when it does return, that we are prepared to confront it.

This is why Jews must be at the forefront of efforts to memorialize the genocide in Rwanda, and educate so it does not occur again.

This year, as Rwandans mark 20 years after the genocide, they are confronted with a challenge different from the one faced by the Jewish people 20 years after the Holocaust. After the war, the Jewish people, scattered and displaced, could not return to their homes that had been destroyed. The vast majority, stateless after the Holocaust, rebuilt their lives in Israel, the United States, or elsewhere.

When the Jews commemorated the Holocaust 20 years after the war, many things had happened. The Cold War was in full bloom. Germany had been split in two and the Berlin wall had been erected; JFK had announced: “As a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Approximately 5,000 copies of the English language translation of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night, published in 1960, had sold. Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the so-called “Final Solution,” had been captured in his comfortable home in a Buenos Aires suburb, and tried and hung in Jerusalem. The Pawnbroker, based on Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel and released in the United States in 1965, was the first American film to address the effects of the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor.

In 1965, the Jewish world was remembering and rebuilding; the non-Jewish world focused on re-building. It would take almost another 30 years for Schindler’s List to win the Oscar; for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to open in Washington, D.C.; for film director Steven Spielberg to begin recording survivor testimonies; for Holocaust education to be mandated in five states. (The Greenberg Center is working with other groups in our state to see Connecticut join the list of states mandating Holocaust and genocide education.)

We must bear all of this in mind when we reflect on 20 years after the genocide in Rwanda. The Rwandans are still rebuilding 20 years after the genocide, but they are confronted with the challenge of remembering the genocide, while building a nation where victims, perpetrators, and bystanders can live side by side.

One year ago, Rwandan President Paul Kagame spoke at the University of Hartford and outlined his Vision 2020, a plan for economic development that will sustain and grow the Rwandan economy well into the 21st century and beyond. Kagame, who has worked to foster strong ties with Israel, understands that a tiny nation of only seven million people can best recover from genocide by building a strong and robust economy, while facing the challenges of nurturing political freedom in the aftermath of genocide.

Rwanda president Paul Kagame (center), with Professors Richard Freund and Avinoam Patt, Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies,  University of Hartford in March 2013.

Rwanda president Paul Kagame (center), with Professors Richard Freund and Avinoam Patt, Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies,
University of Hartford in March 2013.

Last September, Elie Wiesel and President Paul Kagame appeared together at a forum convened by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in New York called “Genocide: Do the Strong Have an Obligation to Protect the Weak?” Wiesel, the 1986 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has often reflected on what his survival means in a world where hatred, imprisonment, and injustice continue. Sitting on the stage with Paul Kagame in September 2013, he considered the responsibility of people towards the suffering of others, and by extension the responsibility of nations to assist other nations. “The main purpose is to believe we are not alone here,” he said.  “And therefore I must be ready to deal not with my loneliness but with my fellow man’s loneliness. There is one sin that I refuse: to allow another person who suffers to think that nobody cares. That is the worst thing that could happen.”

Wiesel argued that, as Jews, we must help commemorate and prevent future genocides if we expect the Holocaust to have meaning for future generations. “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

In the 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda, Jews and non-Jews have taken the message of remembrance and turned it into a message of education, understanding that genocide prevention is best enforced through genocide education. How do we confront evil? Through education – education about otherness; education that fosters empathy; education that encourages our students to be better citizens of this world.

Sunrise over Agahozo-Shalom.  Photograph by Suzanne Patt-Benvenisti.

Sunrise over Agahozo-Shalom.
Photograph by Suzanne Patt-Benvenisti.

The Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California has embarked on a project to collect testimonies of genocide survivors in Rwanda. In addition, at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in rural Rwanda, established through the vision of Anne Heyman z”l and originally funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Rwandan orphans are educated in “a place of hope, where “tears are dried” (signified by the Kinyarwanda word agahozo) and where the aim is to live in peace (from Hebrew, shalom).” The village, both in name and function, signifies the linkage between Hebrew and Kinyarwandan — and the attempt to apply what had been a successful model for youth education in Israel, where a significant portion of the population had to recover from genocide at the hands of the Nazis in World War II, to the young survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. Agahozo-Shalom teaches its young students that they must heal themselves while serving their community locally and globally. It links remembrance with tikkun olam – remembrance and education, remembrance and service, remembering for the past, remembering for the future.

At the University of Hartford and the Greenberg Center, we are committed to redoubling our efforts in Holocaust and genocide education. Our Museum of Jewish Civilization will house a new exhibition, in partnership with the Mandell Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, called “Facing the Holocaust: Greater Hartford Stories of Survival.” We are recording interviews with the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors as part of the “In Our Own Words” oral history project. And we are developing a new teacher training program for Rwandan teachers (spearheaded by special advisor on genocide education, Dr. Joe Olzacki) that proposes to couple English language training with genocide education.

In Holocaust and genocide education we understand that in order to learn from the past, we must teach for the future. We hope you will join us as we welcome Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana to our community on Thursday, April 3, 2014.


Professor Avinoam Patt is Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies.


Genocide Symposium at the University of Hartford

Professor Mathilde Mukantabana

Professor Mathilde Mukantabana

The University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda with a symposium on genocide to be held on Thursday, April 3, 6:30 – 8 pm in Wilde Auditorium, followed by a keynote address by Professor Mathilde Mukantabana, Ambassador of the Republic of Rwanda to the United States. The symposium is part of the Center’s Genocide and Holocaust Education Initiative.

The evening will also mark the closing of the Museum of Jewish Civilization exhibit, “Genocide: Israel W. Charny and the Scourge of the 20th Century.”

The symposium is free and open to the public.  Reservations are required.  For reservations or more information, call (860) 768-5018.

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