KIGALI — Daniel Gold, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor and microbiology professor, has shared his story of surviving a Lithuanian ghetto hundreds of times, with thousands of students around the world, from New Zealand to Israel. But the dozens of Rwandan students listening to his lecture in honor of the joint Israel-Rwandan commemoration of International Holocaust Day, on February 14, were probably the only ones to nod along in recognition to many parts of his story.
Gold was four years old in 1941 when the Germans and Ukrainians swept through Lithuania, rounding up Jews and executing them, and later herding others into ghettos where they lived in horrible conditions and worked at Nazi factories.
Like Gold, many of the students at the Holocaust memorial ceremony at the Kigali Genocide Museum, in Rwanda’s capital, were toddlers or babies in 1994. That was the year when between the rivalry between Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups resulted in the genocide of approximately one million people in three months.
Also like Gold, some of these students have snatches of memories colored by fear, flashbacks of hiding with desperate family members pleading with them to be silent for fear of discovery. Others were too young to remember, but have grown up in families ripped apart by the massacres.
Professor Daniel Gold, a Holocaust survivor, addresses the International Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in Kigali, Rwanda, on February 14, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
“Genocide is the same everywhere,” said Honore Gatera, the director of the Kigali Genocide Museum, who was at Yad Vashem in August to build partnerships between the two museums. “It may happen in a different era of time, it may happen with different circumstances, it may happen with different criminals or perpetrators, but genocide is the same everywhere.”
“One experience can teach others much more, even if we’ve gone through our own experience of genocide,” added Gatera, who also guided Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu through the museum in July. “These young people — many were one year old during genocide; they don’t physically know what it means to be a survivor, but they know it psychologically.”
“I consider it a mission to talk about the Holocaust in general and my fate during the Holocaust,” said Gold, speaking to Rwandan journalists after the ceremony. After three years in the crowded ghetto in Šiauliai (Shavli) Lithuania, Gold spent four months lying in a dark hole under a farmer’s house with two aunts and two cousins before the Russians liberated the area. His mother died in a concentration camp. Gold came to Israel in 1952 with his father, went to school in Tel Aviv, and eventually became a pilot with the Israeli Air Force and a professor at Tel Aviv University. He also volunteered as a traffic policeman. Today, “forced into retirement by age, not ability,” Gold spends his time taking motorcycle trips in the Alps and scuba diving with his family.
It was this message, of life after the Holocaust, that Israel most wants to impart to the youth of Rwanda, said Belaynesh Zevadia, the Israeli Ambassador to Ethoipia, Burundi, and Rwanda. “So many people here lost their families during the genocide, but his speech gives hope to so many children. He left the ghetto and became a professor; it gives them hope that they can do so much.” Although International Holocaust Memorial Day is generally observed around the world in January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Zevadia pushed off the ceremony in Kigali until Gold could attend. This is the fourth year that the Israeli Embassy and the Kigali Genocide Museum have marked International Holocaust Day with a joint ceremony.
Dignitaries lay roses on the mass graves at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in February 14, 2017 under a sign that reads “to remember and going forward.” The remains of 250,000 Tutsi victims of the genocide are buried on the museum grounds. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
“Remembering the Holocaust is the first instrument to fight against it,” said Vincent Karanganwa, a 24-year-old accounting student who attended the ceremony. “We hear this testimony and remember it every day so the ideology can never come again.”
As the ancient words of the mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer commemorating the dead, rolled over the 250,000 mass graves on the museum grounds, many Rwandans said they felt a deep connection with Israelis and their history.
“We have the same stories, we understand deeply what happened in the Shoah,” said Thierry Sebaganwa Ukobizaba, an educator who has been on numerous trips to Israel and Poland. “In 2004, I was in Yad Vashem for the first time, I met survivors of the Shoah. One of them, named Daniel, took my hand and said to me, ‘you can understand what I lived.’
“To remember the Shoah is in the soul of Rwanda,” Ukobizaba continued. “The tools they used in Germany to prepare the genocide are the same as the Hutus used to prepare our genocide — teaching hate, mobilizing this hate.” This is the hate that the country must ensure does not infect the young generation, he added.
The Kigali Genocide Museum hosts a room similar to the Hall of Names in Yad Vashem, but encourages families to hang their own pictures of victims, shown here on February 14, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Gold said he was heartened to see how quickly Rwanda had been able to rebuild itself after the genocide. “The next stage is education, because young people are very impressionable, and you can brainwash them for unification,” he said.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial has created a peace education curriculum that is required in first and second grades in all public and private schools in Rwanda, and next week it will launch the Education for Sustainable Peace in Rwanda initiative, which educates teachers who implement this peace education.
Gatera, in addition to touring Yad Vashem during his trip to Israel in August, also learned about Holocaust education in the Jewish state. He said that the Kigali Genocide Museum, which was founded in 2004, is facing many challenges that echo those faced by Yad Vashem in its early years.
From left to right: Honore Gatera, the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Rwandan President Paul Kagama, in Kigali, Rwanda, July 6, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
In Israel, it took almost two decades before Holocaust survivors really began sharing their stories. In Rwanda, the sharing process has looked quite different. “Here in Rwanda, perpetrators live next to survivors,” said Gatera. “We need to live as a community, live together, live the same life. And when you look also at the traditional justice, the ‘gacaca,’ it has helped people to speak, because perpetrators were telling about their crimes, they were apologizing, they were telling the truth.”
The “gacaca” or “grass courts,” which started in 2002, are widely hailed as one of the most successful instances of community justice. More then 12,000 community courts heard 1.9 million cases over a period of 10 years. Perpetrators who apologized received shortened prison terms combined with community service. Comparatively, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda heard 75 cases over 19 years, which led to 12 acquittals and 16 appeals.
A visitor at the Kigali Genocide Memorial on February 14, 2017. The museum hosts 92,500 visitors per year. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Gatera said the confessions at the gacaca courts also helped survivors to better understand their own experiences.
“The Holocaust happened in Europe, not in Israel, so you don’t see the people that did these things to you all the time,” said Zevadia. “It’s amazing that they live together with the people who killed their families… They live together, and this is what’s building the nation.”
“This genocide [in Rwanda] happened despite the Holocaust,” he continued, noting that the world did not head the call ‘Never Again.’ “We must fight not to see genocide in any part of the world, like what is happening now in Syria and Libya. We don’t want to see another genocide.”
Although Gold said the steps Rwanda has taken in both education and development impressed him, he warned that true healing takes time.
“It is a slow process, you need to be patient,” he said. “There’s no turning point to put your finger on to say, ‘Ah, now I am healed.’ You need patience to observe these advances, but you can’t expect it to be a revolution from one day to the next.”