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Special Seminar at Yad Vashem for Survivors of the Rwandan Genocide

October 31, 2005

Survivors of the Rwandan genocide are taken on a guided tour of Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum Survivors of the Rwandan genocide are taken on a guided tour of Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum
Yolande Mukagasana wipes away a tear during a tour of the new Museum at Yad Vashem Yolande Mukagasana wipes away a tear during a tour of the new Museum at Yad Vashem
Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev, and Director of Nyamirambo Yolande Mukagasana, in a special session during the seminar Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev, and Director of Nyamirambo Yolande Mukagasana, in a special session during the seminar
Meeting between Holocaust survivors and survivors of the Rwandan genocide Meeting between Holocaust survivors and survivors of the Rwandan genocide
Holocaust survivor Zvi Michaeli and Rwandan genocide survivor Esperesa Motiysa at the joint survivors session held at Yad Vashem Holocaust survivor Zvi Michaeli and Rwandan genocide survivor Esperesa Motiysa at the joint survivors session held at Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies has recently hosted a group of Tutsi survivors of the Rwandan genocide for an eight-day seminar on the Holocaust, the shaping of remembrance and the return to life.

The seminar took place in partnership with Nyamirambo, a Tutsi NGO based in Belgium and Rwanda, headed by Yolande Mukagasana, and the French Memorial of the Shoah Organization. The seminar included lectures about the Holocaust and the preservation of memory, talks with the staff of the International School for Holocaust Studies, meetings with Holocaust survivors, tours around the country, and more. Among the participants from Rwanda were spiritual and social leaders, judges, journalists, academics and parliamentarians – all Tutsi survivors of the genocide that took place in Rwanda a decade ago, and all of whom are active in commemorating the victims of the massacre as well as in the rehabilitation of Rwandan society.

The seminar was initiated by the author Yolande Mukagasana, herself a survivor of the Rwandan massacre. She lives today in the west, where she wrote her autobiography, which was published in French in 1997 and recently translated into Hebrew. After the massacre, she began to take an interest in the Holocaust. She visited Auschwitz and met with Holocaust survivors in Europe.

Mukagasana said meeting with Jewish Holocaust survivors helped her above all to cope with the trauma she experienced. Her request to hold the seminar at Yad Vashem came from the desire learn how the Jewish people deals with commemoration and Holocaust remembrance. Participants learned firsthand about the educational activities carried out at Yad Vashem as well as different approaches to Holocaust remembrance. Tutsi survivors told how most of the survivors in their country are ashamed to speak out about their experiences, especially women who were raped by Hutu men. They heard from Yad Vashem staff that Holocaust survivors too did not receive an attentive ear in the initial years, but they turned their efforts into rebuilding their lives and creative works, and later on were able to tell their stories.

Yad Vashem staff encouraged the Tutsis to document the horrors they went through in every way possible, and not allow survivors to be silenced. One of the main difficulties encountered by the Tutsis is that they still live among their neighbors, the Hutus, some of whom killed the Tutsis’ loved ones with their own hands.

During the seminar, a special session was held in cooperation with the Open University called: ‘The Genocide in Rwanda - Have we learned anything from the Holocaust?’ The session included testimony from a Tutsi survivor, and a clip from the French film, “Kill Them All.” Participating in the session were: Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev, Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem Prof. Yehuda Bauer, Director of Nyamirambo Yolande Mukagasana, and Prof. Benjamin Neuberger and Prof. Yair Oron of the Open University.

The highlight of the seminar was, without a shadow of a doubt, the emotional meeting between participants and Holocaust survivors. The Rwandans expected to get answers to difficult questions such as “Why did I remain alive?” and “What is the point in living at all?” Jean Busco Owimana, 24, who lost his entire family in the massacre, told “Ha’aretz” newspaper how he asked, with great emotion, Eliezer Sharon, a Holocaust survivor 50 years his senior, if he ever succeeded in freeing himself from the trauma. “You will have to fight against it all the time, for the rest your life,” was his answer.

Dr Alan Michel, organizer of the seminar, summed up the meeting: “The seminar was unique and exciting. Meeting with Tutsi survivors was for Yad Vashem and the wider community an opportunity to learn more and know more about what happened in Rwanda. The highlight of the seminar was, of course, the meeting between Holocaust survivors and seminar participants. The participants turned to Yad Vashem during the seminar to receive help from the vast experience that Yad Vashem has in the fields of remembrance and documenting evidence of genocide.

“The International School for Holocaust Studies plans to live up to these expectations and answer the many requests arising from the seminar. Cooperation with Tutsi survivors has already begun, and it will deepen further in the foreseeable future.”