Celebrating Survival: Harvard Pays Tribute to Survivors Of Holocaust, as Well as Armenian And Rwandan Genocides
By Alin K. Gregorian
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A program at Harvard University on April 27 commemorated the painful legacies of the Armenian, Rwandan and Jewish people, as it celebrated their survival and resurrection.
The program, organized by the Harvard Foundation and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of the Harvard Kennedy School, took place on Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the university’s Science Center.
The speakers representing the three communities linked their common histories of pain, but stressed the need for education as the means for preventing such tragedies. The stories were harrowing, but so were the demonstrations of personal strength and integrity.
The program included scholars as well as survivors from each nation.
As there are few Armenian Genocide survivors now, Artyom Geghamyan, a fellow at the Carr Center, read a brief excerpt from Kerop Bedoukian’s memoirs, The Urchin: An Armenian’s Escape. The words wove frightful images of death and cruelty, which caused most of the listeners, as well as the reader, to wince: the images of a child trying to nurse at the breast of his mother already dead from starvation in the desert; the rape of young girls as well as the decision of many to choose certain death rather than indignity.
Carla Garapedian, the director of the Armenian Genocide documentary “Screamers” and several other films, spoke about United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power’s book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. “Power’s book broke the paradigm in the way we think about genocide — because it talked about all the genocides in the 20th century, as one repeating problem, one repeating crime. Genocides recur because the international community has allowed them to recur,” Garapedian said.
She credited the book with inspiring “Screamers,” and said the book not only sought out what happened in so many countries in the 20th century, but “what didn’t happen. No one stopped those genocides. No one stopped the mass murder.”
The Ottoman process of finding just the right pretext for ordering the extermination of the Armenians under the cover of World War I, Garapedian said, set the tone for the Nazi government in Germany doing the very same to its Jewish population during World War II.
The organized killings were done fairly openly, to the point that the New York Times frequently covered the stories of the deaths or the tales of the survivors of the desert crossings. President Woodrow Wilson, she noted, spearheaded raising $117 million in the US and around the world to help the survivors, in the process funding Near East Relief.
The crimes were recognized at the time and as punishment Turkey was to give up part of its land.
“The intention of the United States and the international community was clear. We would not stand idly by. We would punish a nation – Turkey — for its crimes against humanity. The fact that this resolve slowly melted away — that, too, is the story of the 20th century,” Garapedian said.
She also explained why many Armenians were disappointed with President Obama for not using the word “genocide” in his April 24 message, instead opting for “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.” “Both descriptions are true. But one takes us down the road towards justice and retribution. One of those words leads us towards international law, the Genocide Convention, reparations and the true path towards healing and forgiveness. The crime with no name. We know what to call it now. You know what that word is. Turkey knows. And the president knows, too.”
Speaking as a survivor of the Holocaust was Dr. Anna Ornstein, the author of Holocaust Memories of a Young Girl. The 87-year-old renowned psychiatrist was born in Hungary and eventually was deported to Auschwitz along with her mother.
“Young Jewish men were taken to labor camps to help the German war effort,” she said. That was the fate of her two bothers, who at ages 20 and 22 were sent to such camps and never seen again.
Ornstein spoke about living in a small village, in a house filled with books and music. With the rise of the Nazis, the Jews were soon gathered in temporary ghettos. “My mom, dad, 96-year-old grandmother and members of my extended family were sent to Auschwitz. My mother held my hand for a year practically at the camp,” she said.
She spoke about losing her father, “a very gentle, kind and sweet man who died in a shower that poured poison gas on him instead of water.”
She and her mother were rescued by Russian troops in May 1945. Anna’s boyfriend — and future husband — had also survived though he had lost his entire family, and the two married after she finished high school in Hungary. Eventually she and her husband made their way to the US, where they had three children and thriving careers.
She concluded her talk by speaking about the need for Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase which means healing the world.
Aliza Loft, a PhD candidate in sociology, next spoke about her grandparents, all four of whom were Holocaust survivors. She spoke of how strongly it affected her to see pictures of people “with faces that look like mine,” endure such tragedies. “I feel a personal responsibility for keeping their stories alive. I try to learn from the past to make the future as humane as possible,” she said.
Tying into the theme of the evening linking the commonalities of the horrors endured by the Jews, Rwandans and Armenians in different parts of the world with very similar experiences, she recited Hitler’s famous quote, in which he justified starting the Holocaust by saying, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Chantel Kayiesi, a Rwandan genocide survivor, spoke about her horrific experiences, but one single statistic sent a shock through the hall: “It is still a shock to know that more than 1 million died in 100 days.”
Her husband was “killed by someone he considered a friend,” and her mother’s arms and legs were bound before a grenade was thrown into her house. Her father experienced a more merciful death by paying for a bullet. “At least he had a clean shot,” she said.
“We lost faith in humanity and in our fellow Rwandans. We gained fear,” she said. “The same people who killed our families were released from jail and became our neighbors again,” she said, highlighting the incredible logistics in the aftermath of the Hutu majority’s attempted extermination of the Tutsi minority.
“We smiled and said things were OK,” she expressed. “It is the price for peace and harmony.”
She added, “Sometimes you want to put down the burden that is in our hearts. We get tired of being stoic.”
Adding on a more positive note, she said, “To you all, to our friends, let us continue to advocate for our survivors. Let us pledge never again and mean it.”
Francis K. Gatare, a master’s student at the Harvard Kennedy School, spoke about family members who were killed and suggested that the plan to exterminate the Tutsi people through genocide was not an abrupt occurrence, after the death of President Juvénal Habyarimana as many have suggested. The process, he said, had taken time. For example, there had been government-issued identity cards that showed the ethnicity of the cardholder or markings on the homes of minorities. In the wake of his death, the process was hastened, with certain radio stations broadcasting the names of Tutsis and some broadcasts even suggested that Tutsis were not quite human, had tails or were cannibals.
He did end on an upbeat note, suggesting, “Rwanda is on a course to normalcy. Its biggest asset: our traditional values.” The country, he noted, is “playing its rightful part in the society of nations.”
An abridged version of the documentary, “Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War” was shown. Dr. Charlie Clements, co-executive producer of the film, as well as the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, presented an overview. The film documents the lives of the young Unitarian minister, Waitstill Sharp, and his wife, Martha, who undertook the mission of helping refugees in Prague starting in 1939, at the outset of World War II. The two young Wellesley residents eventually performed deeds of incredible daring and courage, rescuing Jewish children and adults from France, Germany and Czechoslovakia, eventually receiving the title of Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem. The film captured the incredible sense of integrity of these young parents as they left their children behind in the safety of the US to help save children facing certain death in Europe. The pictures of the young rescued children were contrasted with their present selves and their feelings were still as raw as when they were children.
The director of the film — the Sharps’ grandson — Artemis Joukowsky, was present, as was (through Skype) documentarian Ken Burns, who served as the film’s executive producer.
Burns said, “The film is a wonderful example of how one person can make a difference. We cannot wait around for others to take charge.”
He added, “I am always amazed at the human condition. I don’t know what makes a Waitstill Sharp or a Martha Sharp rearrange their molecules.”
Joukowsky said, “They were humanists. They viewed all of humanity as their friends. It comes from their Unitarian background.”
The film, available on the website of Facing History and Ourselves, is used for educational purposes.
The final speaker, Dr. Zachary D. Kaufman, a lecturer at Yale’s Department of Political Science, said Hitler was “one of the first comparative genocide commentators drawing lessons from the past.”
He had encouraging words about the future of Rwanda, from where he said he had recently returned. Among the positive changes are its high GDP growth rate of 8 percent, reduction in infant mortality and having the highest percentage of women parliamentarians. In addition, he said that the Rwanda tribunals were the first to get guilty pleas with regard to genocide and that it was the first time that a head of state had been found guilty of rape and murder.
“We often neglect to pay sufficient attention to ‘upstanders,’ as Samantha Power calls them,” Kaufman said. “Each of us can play a role in raising awareness. We should demand more from our media and religious institutions. We should be upstanders. Today we are all Armenians, Jews and Tutsis.”
Dr. S. Allen Counter, the director of the Harvard Foundation and a professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School made introductory remarks.
To view the film, “Two Who Dared,” visit www.twowhodared.com or the website of Facing History and Ourselves, https://www.facinghistory.org/