Survivors of modern-day atrocities seek answers with Holocaust survivors

Man’s inhumanity to man has been and continues to be demonstrated on a regular basis around the globe.

April 16, 2015 12:14
March of Remembrance and Hope

Jothi Shanmugam (standing) at Birkenau during the 2014 March of Remembrance and Hope.. (photo credit: JONATHAN HIRSH)


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IT IS just over 70 years since the Russian army liberated the infamous hellhole that was the concentration camp at Auschwitz. It’s almost as long since the British army, on April 15, 1945, arrived to rescue the few souls who survived similar horrors at Bergen Belsen in northern Germany. Somber anniversaries.

“Never again,” they said.

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But “never again” failed to deliver.

Man’s inhumanity to man has been and continues to be demonstrated on a regular basis around the globe. The Holocaust was the defining genocide in history, but, sadly, it hasn’t caused mankind to walk back when reaching the brink, time and again, tragically and bewilderingly, repeating the most awful of crimes.

So it is then that survivors of other genocides and ethnocides have felt increasingly drawn to seek answers and, maybe, move on to a better place after visiting Poland and Germany, walking hand-in-hand with the few aging survivors of Hitler’s Final Solution; never forgetting their own personal trauma or that of their people, but finding a way to derive some comfort in the shared experiences that most of us cannot begin to imagine or comprehend.

Rwanda. April 7, 1994. The day the gradual demonization of the Tutsi minority by the governing Hutu majority finally triggered a horrifyingly brutal explosion of violence that surfaced in the capital, Kigali. Over the next 100 days, approximately 800,000 people were murdered “en masse” as the Hutus sought to bring about an end to the Tutsi people.

Two of the survivors of the Rwandan killing fields went on to build new lives in Canada.

They found comfort in learning about the Holocaust, empathy from Canada’s Jewish community, and took it upon themselves to join young Jews and old survivors of the Nazi genocide, visiting the death camps and ghettos in the March of Remembrance and Hope, which brings Jews and non-Jews together to pay their respects at the sites of the most heinous crimes in history.

“I was 11 years old and living with my parents in Kigali on April 7, 1994. When the genocide started, we started running and trying to hide. We happened to be Tutsis,” recalls Eloge Butera, a human rights activist working as the legislative and research assistant to Senator Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire of Canada. He is also an Honorary Witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

“During the three months of the genocide I was blessed to have my mother and two siblings survive, but my father was murdered along with around 70 relatives of ours around the country. Entire families of my relatives were wiped out. Some sole survivors ended up being raised by my mother.

“We left our house having seen that my father’s brother (who lived a few hundred meters away) had been killed along with his three children and his wife. We were told there was a squadron of murderers going house to house looking for Tutsis and killing them. [The killers] were from the Hutu militias that had been trained by the government and had spent months developing lists of prominent Tutsis to target; mobilizing; [and] distributing weapons and radios which were later used to encourage Hutus into committing the genocide.”

Butera’s first-hand account of the pursuit of Tutsis by the Hutu killers bears a striking resemblance to accounts given by Jews in Eastern Europe of the frenetic pace and manner of the killing in the Baltic States, Ukraine and Belarus, among others. The moment the Nazis came in, they gave the green light to local fascist militias to go about the slaughter of people who only a day earlier had been their neighbors.

The first week of the Rwandan genocide was all about organized hit squads made up of Hutu government soldiers, but later, most of the killing was done by mobs of Hutus with machetes, hunting down and finding Tutsis who were in hiding.

“We lived in the suburbs and the day after it started we fled and hid in the bush. We then sought shelter in a dairy farm, then at night we attempted to leave Kigali because we thought the killing was only going to take place there and not spread throughout the country, Butera recalls. “On the second day, I was separated from my mother and sister when we reached a roadblock where people were being murdered. My father happened to be amongst those taken aside to be shot, and when they started the shooting I was immobile, waiting to see what would happen.

There was a group of over 500 people.

It turned out that the man commanding this mass murder had once been a patient of my father – my father was a medical doctor – and he decided not to kill him and let us go before going after the rest of our family and neighbors.

“We walked with my father for around 160 kilometers, south of Kigali, hiding from the killers, but when we finally got there, my father was caught and murdered. My brother and I were taken in by a Hutu who hid us for the three months of the genocide,” he says.

Like the well-documented cases of the Righteous Gentiles in the Second World War who risked their lives saving Jews, there were some Hutus who rose above the Goebbels- like propaganda peddled for months ahead of the killings, and who still had enough humanity and bravery to save innocent Tutsi lives.

“When the genocide was over,” Butera relates, “my mother managed to find us and we were reunited. We lived in Kigali for several years, then after high school I moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada, and it was here that I discovered the genocide in Rwanda wasn’t the first – I knew it already – but I hadn’t met a survivor of another genocide who was willing to tell their story.

“When I was 18, having lived in Rwanda for seven years after the genocide, I was in search of understanding and finding a way to live with the memories and the awful things I had seen. I had seen people murdered. I had seen really evil things being done to other human beings, so I chose religion and psychology as my undergraduate degree. One of my first-year professors, who was introducing me to Judaism, happened to be a local rabbi, and he invited me to a Sabbath service. His wife asked me if I had ever read a book by Elie Wiesel called ‘Night.’ I said I had never heard of it. She recommended that I read it. When I took it from the library, I pretty much read it in one night because I couldn’t believe that you can actually put words to the kind of extreme experiences and human acts to which I had been witness. In some way, by reading that book, I found a voice to express and speak of this extreme evil.”

Through the Vancouver Holocaust Education Center, Butera met Robbie Wiseman, a survivor of the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. Wiseman, the aging Polish Jew, and Butera, the young Rwandan survivor, became friends.

Wiseman had been one of the “Boys from Birkenau” – along with a young Yisrael Meir Lau, who would later become Chief Rabbi of Israel. According to Butera, the two boys were joined at a later stage by the subsequent Nobel Peace Prize-winning Wiesel who was taken with them to France and examined by psychiatrists who determined the boys would never be properly functioning people after going through such childhood traumas.

“By 2007, Robbie had never been back to Poland, so I decided that I would go there [on the march] and visit Treblinka where his family perished,” Butera says. “I would say Kaddish for Robbie’s loved ones. I hoped someday he would get to go there, too, and he did, a few years later. It was a very important trip for me because I had a theoretical understanding of how the genocide happened, but to see the industrialized scale of the Holocaust, how a society put so much knowledge and wealth into the destruction of a people was something very, very different.

“There is a good project about the fact that ‘Unto Every Person There Is A Name,’ so that the Jews who perished in the Holocaust were not just numbers. Six million is so big to actually fathom; it’s every individual with a name, a family, a history, a future that was cut short by the Nazis. With every generation, I think this is the response we need to give to these ideas.”

MOSES GASHIRABAKE is another survivor of the Rwandan genocide who later made his home in Canada. He is a political science graduate from Concordia University, and is president of the Black Law Students Association of Canada.

“We lived two hours from Kigali in a city called Gitarama, and that’s actually one of the reasons we managed to survive. One of my parents is Tutsi and the other Hutu, but for the purposes of 1994 we were considered Tutsis. In Rwanda, your ethnicity is mostly based on your father, so if your father is Hutu, you are considered Hutu,” Gashirabake explains.

“We unfortunately lost many close family members and friends who were killed in 1994, but luckily, in my immediate family, we survived. My dad developed a friendship with someone in the Rwandan military who helped us. Without that we might not have survived. It took quite a psychological toll on my family, particularly my mum and my older siblings.”

Gashirabake spoke of how the loss affects different people in different ways.

“Some of my older siblings struggled to finish school because of constant wondering of what they were aspiring to, and when will their dreams be stopped again... Many of my family members are very open about it, which contributes to the treatment. In my own case, I was young, but some of my siblings were over 18 in 1994 and were affected very differently.”

His family left Rwanda during the genocide.

From the age of seven to 20, he lived in Kenya but was officially a stateless person, constantly reminded that he had left his country because of persecution. After finishing high school, he was refused a government scholarship because he was not a Kenyan citizen, so he upped and left again, this time moving to Canada.

“Throughout my life in Kenya I had not opened up. The first time I opened up was in a human rights class of political science at my university in Canada,” he says. “The more I spoke about my experience, the more I felt I was offloading the tons of emotional baggage that I had kept with me. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree, I had spoken in many schools, community centers and conferences. In the beginning, I would sometimes break down and take a few minutes to collect myself, but by the time I finished my undergraduate degree four years later I felt empowered by speaking and became interested in learning of other communities who had faced a similar situation. The contexts are different, but there are similarities in the genocides against the Tutsis in Rwanda and the Holocaust in Europe.

“When I went on the March of Remembrance and Hope, I was hoping to pay my respects to the innocent lives that were lost during the Shoah and, secondly, it was an experience I was hoping to learn from in terms of me being a genocide survivor. I absolutely felt a connection and all sorts of emotions were going through me. I broke down internally when we visited Auschwitz and I saw the hair of women and children’s shoes. It reminded me of the fact that human emotions and connections are very strong. It also reminded me of my little cousin who we lost. She was just two years old and was killed by being banged against a wall.

“Human life anywhere is a human life everywhere.

The emotions are the same. An infringement of life in one place is as impactful as the infringement of life in another place, even though politically you see that some lives have been deemed to have more impact than others. It gets you thinking, ‘Is life in one place worth more than life in another place?’ This is a question I constantly ask myself as someone who is privileged to be in a country like Canada. I wonder, ‘What is the best solution to stopping these atrocities?’”

Jothi Shanmugam was born in Sri Lanka, but grew up in Canada. She works with palliative care patients, but has also been deeply involved in documenting the atrocities carried out against the Tamil minority by government forces during the bitter 25-year civil war that cost more than 100,000 lives. Her family fled the war-ravaged north of the island in the early 1990s, when she was just six, and she didn’t return to Sri Lanka until 2011 when she conducted more than 200 interviews with Tamil survivors two years after the war officially ended.

“For my research project, I had to interview survivors,” Shanmugam says. “This was probably the most painful experience I’ve ever had to go through because of the agony that comes with listening to survivors’ stories. You are left paralyzed. When I interviewed the survivors in Sri Lanka, there were a number of themes that came up again and again; rape, murder, disappearances, tortures, mass displacement, physical and psychological pain, and personal, community, and intra-generational trauma, because people had lived through the conflict for the last 50 years [before, during, and after the war].

“For me, the Holocaust became a central way to understand what was happening in Sri Lanka when I came back after collecting all the interviews and stories. You really start questioning humanity and what people are capable of doing to their own species. I clearly remember coming back to Canada and not being able to understand how and why perpetrators do what they do, causing unimaginable violence and pain, and on the other hand, not being able to completely understand how survivors continue to live and have empathy?” Shanmugam told me of the squalor in which so many Tamils were living even two years after the war had officially ended. They had nothing, “yet there was so much humility, so much empathy,” she says. “The only comfort I had was knowing that I could get out of there, that I am the privileged eye witness.

“My initial introduction to the Holocaust was through Primo Levi and the way he described the incidences with other prisoners and his examples of writing about witnessing dignity in an unimaginable place. It was a strange awakening of the soul, of the mind, to realize that there is something really important in our common experiences.”

She joined the 2014 March of Remembrance and Hope and her emotions suddenly came full circle when, like Eloge Butera, she visited Majdanek concentration camp.

“Majdanek has this dark, rusted barbed wire that is all around the camp,” Shanmugam vividly relates. “I remember the moment I saw the barbed wire. The only thing I could recall was being in a field in Sri Lanka, seeing people who were behind barbed wire and not allowed to leave the camps they were in. It was very much like [the ghettos]. There were stories I heard there of mothers who didn’t want their daughters to be raped by soldiers so they volunteered themselves to be raped by the soldiers instead. The number of times I heard this story, the number of times I heard of those that had died through disease, lack of water, people disappearing, etc.” She takes a moment to breathe.

Beyond seeing Auschwitz and the other sites, the key component of the trip for the Sri Lankan-born 26-year-old was being with the survivors and hearing their experiences. She traveled with veteran Holocaust educator Pinchas Gutter, a man who also made a lasting impression on both Eloge Butera and Moses Gashirabake on earlier trips.

Gutter’s words were quoted by President Barack Obama at the 2014 Shoah Foundation Dinner, at which the president recalled the survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and six concentration camps, saying, “I tell my story for the purpose of improving humanity, drop by drop by drop. Like a drop of water falls on a stone and erodes it, so, hopefully, by telling my story over and over again, I will achieve the purpose of making the world a better place to live in.” Obama added, “Those are good words for all of us to live by.”

“That was essential to the healing process, not only for my personal healing process, but also to grasp the scale of the Holocaust,” Shanmugam explained. “Pinchas played a significant role in trying to educate us and to help us feel what it was to be in their shoes. People should take the opportunity now to travel with the survivors while they are still here to recount their experiences.”

She asked Gutter why, having lost everybody by the time he was 10 and being aware that he was never going to see them again, he still wanted to live? His answer, “All I know is that I wanted to live longer than Hitler,” before adding, “the only way to beat evil is to outlive it.”

“To my knowledge,” Shanmugam concludes, “the March of Remembrance and Hope is one of the only ways in Canada where those not from the Jewish community can participate in a program like this. It’s key if we really want to help and understand the experiences of other people, their values and outlook, and build a stronger community around us all.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. His website is, and he can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster

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