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An idea to make a documentary about the current lives of Holocaust survivors developed into another idea to explore subsequent genocides as well.

April 25, 2012 16:57
Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman

Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman. (photo credit: Courtesy of Righteous Pictures)

Filmmakers Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman set out to produce a documentary about Holocaust survivors, but soon realized that in order to attach true meaning to the words “never again,” it was imperative to explore subsequent tragedies worldwide.

The multi-award winning film The Last Survivor follows the lives of four survivors from four different genocides: the Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The survivors have all become leaders and activists in their communities, drawing strength from the atrocities they survived to help others and strive toward a world in which no one else will have to experience what they did, ever again.

It was Romanian-born Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried who first brought home to Pertnoy the universality of the horror of genocide and the commonalities between survivors the world over.

“When the film was first conceived, the idea was to make a documentary about the current lives of Holocaust survivors,” Pertnoy tells The Jerusalem Post. “Their struggles today, their ability to rebuild their lives after the trauma they suffered and their hopes for the future of our world.”

The focus of the film was originally to be Cafe Europa – a reunion of survivors in major cities across the globe, where they come together at banquets to reconnect with old friends, seek out lost relatives and celebrate the lives they still have.

It was during preliminary research that the two Michaels learned of Fried, who in 1984 started a social therapy group for her community of survivors in Stockholm called Cafe 84. After working in her own community, Fried began working with other survivor communities from Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, helping them to transcend the horrors they faced. In many ways, Pertnoy says, it was Fried who made them realize that in order to create a forward- thinking film about genocide, they must focus on what has since happened in the world and what is still happening. “That realization birthed The Last Survivor, and the rest is history,” says Pertnoy.

The survivors:

Hédi Fried was born in Transylvania in 1924. In 1944 she and her family were sent to Auschwitz where most of her family were killed. After being moved between several work camps, she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

Jacqueline Murekatete was born in Rwanda in 1984, and was not yet 10 years old when she lost her entire family in the 1994 genocide. Despite her tragic circumstances, she succeeded in embracing the life she was given and using it to help, educate and lead. Murekatete is graduating this spring from law school in New York City and is internationally recognized for her leadership work, speaking out for victims and survivors of genocide and helping them rebuild their lives.

Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa is a member of the Banyamulenge tribe of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was born in the village of Minembwe and lived there until 1996, when his village was attacked in the middle of the night. He fled to neighboring Burundi, then to Rwanda and Nairobi, before settling in St. Louis in the United States. He currently works as a translator at Barnes Jewish Hospital, aiding refugees to communicate with doctors and nurses. He is also the leader of the Voices of Africa church choir, through which he introduces his culture to the community there, and he speaks frequently to groups about his experiences in an effort to educate about violence in Congo and the struggle of his people.

Adam Bashar was born in a small village in North Darfur and is a member of the Fur tribe. In 2003, he was playing outside with his friends when his village was bombed and burned to the ground. He escaped Sudan, reaching Israel three years later, where he went on to co-found non-profit organization B’nai Darfur (Sons of Darfur) where he is now board director. Bashar also works for the Tel Aviv municipality as a liaison between the education department and the Darfuri community.

THE LAST Survivor presents the stories of these four survivors with the aim of educating people around the world on the subject of genocide prevention. The film is meant “to engage audiences in a way that allows them to understand the dangers inherent in racial or religious stereotypes and prejudices and see the connections between discriminatory behavior in their own communities and the root causes of past, present and future genocides around the world,” Pertnoy tells the Post.

By examining the Holocaust in the context of more recent atrocities, the filmmakers hope to encourage a contemporary approach that moves individuals to take action. “The film’s lasting message,” Pertnoy says, “is that we each have an obligation not only to remember those who have perished, but also to fight genocide wherever it exists and to take steps to prevent it by taking a stand and getting involved within our own communities.”

As Pertnoy says – and anyone who has seen the film could vouch for – The Last Survivor is defined by the strength of the four survivors and what they have accomplished despite the tragedies they endured.

Describing the way in which his protagonists inspired him, Pertnoy says, “They have managed to not only survive, but to rebuild their lives and learn how to live again. Each of them has become an activist and change-agent in their community. This serves as a constant source of inspiration and motivation to stay active, not get discouraged and keep all things in daily life in proper perspective... If they have the strength and the resolve to continue forward, so do I.”

The Post took the opportunity to stop by the B’nai Darfur headquarters located near the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv to interview Bashar. Just a 10-minute ride away from the city center, the area feels like an entirely different world. “Whenever you fancy a trip to Africa, just come visit here,” Bashar smiles, as we amble through Levinsky Park, which is filled with African refugees eating dinners doled out by volunteers. He jangles the keys he is holding to a large storage box filled with breakfast food funded by the Good People Fund – just one of the many initiatives to help African refugees that Bashar is involved in.

Over tea at the B’nai Darfur center, Bashar shares his experiences, insights and opinions.

It took him three years to reach Israel, fleeing from Darfur to Khartoum to the steps of the United Nations in Cairo. Faced with violence against his people in Egypt, he was again forced to flee, crossing the Sinai desert, where he found work for an employer who ultimately refused to pay him. So when his friend suggested walking to Israel, Bashar agreed. From the border, the security authorities put him in a detention center for illegally entering Israel, and released him six months later to a kibbutz. At 17, Bashar became the first Darfuri minor to be granted a right to an education in Israel. He completed high school at the Yemin Orde youth village near Haifa while simultaneously co-founding B’nai Darfur.

The organization began as an initiative to connect Sudanese refugees in Israel and to create a community. Bashar and his friend Ali would leave their kibbutz every weekend to visit other Sudanese in kibbutzim throughout the country. Everyone took someone else’s phone number while in prison, and in this way they managed to establish a network, which evolved into a non-governmental organization that they registered in 2008. B’nai Darfur’s main focus was initially genocide awareness, with Bashar at the helm as spokesman, organizing protests against Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Ahmad Bashir. The NGO strives to ensure that all Darfuri refugees have basic needs, including food, housing, employment, medical care and education. This year, B’nai Darfur is focusing on education and women’s empowerment, providing lessons in computer skills, English and Hebrew to people of all ages, from youths who wish to attend university to parents who want to be able to communicate with their children studying at Israeli schools.

“If tomorrow there will be peace in Darfur, everyone will want to go back,” Bashar says, “but they have nothing.” The goal of B’nai Darfur is to provide them with the skills they need to be productive members of society and to help them improve their economic situations.

When questioned about his opinion on Israel’s refugee policy, he says the problem is that there is no real policy. The most important thing the government needs to do is to distinguish between different types of refugees, he says. The state must separate humanitarian refugees from economic refugees.

Bashar is one of 578 Darfurians who received temporary residency status (A5), which, in 2007 – when there was a relatively low number of refugees – the government decided to grant on humanitarian grounds following pressure from B’nai Darfur and other refugee organizations. This was a one-off decision and since then the influx of refugees has sharply increased, but Israel has still not passed any real legislation on the matter.

According to estimations made by various refugee organizations, Sudanese and Eritreans together constitute between 85 percent and 90% of the refugees in Israel. It seems absurd then, that they do not even have access to the procedure to apply for refugee status.

Nick Schlagman, program manager at the African Refugee Development Center says that now, after some 55,000 asylum-seekers have entered the country, Israel is in a position where it really should pass legislation.

Having been in Israel for seven years, Bashar is accepting of the state’s unique situation, wanting to absorb refugees while at the same time maintaining the Jewish character of the state. He has also explored the links between the Holocaust and the Darfurian genocide, travelling to Poland and to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington. He provides an interesting perspective after having compared the two atrocities, telling the Post that the main difference that strikes him is that the Holocaust was calculated by well-educated people who sought to kill every Jewish person, in every place. “It would be very difficult for Bashir to follow me here,” he says.

Just before Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 10th Anniversary of Ongoing Genocide in Darfur, Bashar pre-empted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s words: “the issue of the Holocaust and genocide is still here. There is no difference between [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s speech and Hitler’s speech.”

Referring to his participation in The Last Survivor, Bashar says, “I want people to know what is going on in Darfur. There is no difference between a massacre in Poland and a massacre in Darfur... the message is to say ‘never again’; a life is a life.”

Bashar looks to the future with hope, saying “after all we have passed, we are still alive.” His positivity echoes a unique aspect of The Last Survivor; despite the weighty topic that it tackles, it leaves its audience with a strangely uplifting sense of hope and a desire to take action.

At the heels of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the message transmitted by Pertony, Kleiman and Bashar is pertinent. We must fight the discrimination and intolerance that lie at the roots of genocide and be aware that this issue did not end with the Holocaust.

“People can act by reaching out to government representatives, demanding they take action in places like Darfur and Congo,” Kleiman says. As a people who experienced genocide, it is important that Jews in Israel and around the world help genocide victims through aid, governmental pressure, and simple kindness. Visit thelastsurvivor.com for specific ways to take action.

The film’s title, The Last Survivor, provides a glimmer of hope as it looks to a future, where the long line of survivors finally ends – in a world free of genocide.

To purchase the Limited Offer Special DVD of The Last Survivor in honor of Genocide Prevention Month visit bit.ly/LS_DVD. The DVD is due to be officially released in fall 2012.

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