How My Rwandan Family Helps Me Remember the Holocaust

I look back on my childhood at the many different remembrance services I attended for the survivors and victims of the Holocaust. The anniversary of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), when Nazi Germany conducted a massive pogrom against its Jewish community on November 9, 1938, stands out to me the most. Each time I hear the word Kristallnacht, the name produces an acceptance of it being the main remembrance day for the Holocaust despite memorial days such as Yom HaShoah (May 5).

The significance of Kristallnacht stems from when I was ten years old. I had the honor to light a memorial candle at the New Jersey Statehouse during New Jersey’s Kristallnacht commemoration. As I walked down the room to light the candle, I tried to grapple with how the Holocaust impacted me. I was quite aware of my mother’s research and teaching of the subject. Additionally, I knew of the semi-distant family members who were killed during the Holocaust. Despite this understanding, it was extremely difficult for me to truly connect with the horrors of the genocide. Even when I performed Holocaust research a few years later, it was still difficult. The concentration and death camps alongside the ghettos were monuments of the horrors of a distant history. While only little more than half a century old, there seemed to always be a distance between myself and what occurred. My knowledge and experience did not elevate the Holocaust from being a subject of study to shifting my basic fundamentals.

My connection to the Holocaust changed over time. This change did not stem from growing older or learning more about the horrors. Instead, it grew from my work in Rwanda. Listening to the testimonies, visiting genocide locations, and talking to people about how the genocide impacted themselves and the nation, enhanced my perception of the horrors that my own family experienced during the Holocaust.

The 1994 Rwandan Genocide (also known as the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi) plays a bigger role in my life than the Holocaust. A large cause of this is my academic and professional work on Rwanda. However, my studies are not the primary reason for this unique relationship. Rather, the 1994 genocide plays an important role in my life as many people who I consider my brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers are survivors of the genocide. In past articles, I wrote of my favoritism towards the staff of the Kigali Memorial Centre. Nearly all of them are survivors of the genocide.

To cope with their horrific experiences, they find comfort in the fact that their careers can help educate people about the past in order to prevent its repetition in the future. The Regional Director of the non-government organization which operates the Kigali Memorial Centre, Aegis Trust, is someone whom I adore and love. I consider his entire family as a part of me. When he traveled to London for a visit recently, our eyes lit up when we saw each other in the massive crowd. Despite our different ethnic heritages, we only saw in the other what we consider a brother. There are about a dozen other people working for either the Memorial or for the overarching institution (as administrators or researchers) who I consider my blood relatives. Their responsibility is to prevent history from being forgotten.

There are others, whom I consider to be part of my family, who work within the Rwandan government and civil society. I met these people when previously performing genocide research, but what makes them unique is how the genocide plays a role in their duties and responsibilities. While they may not be directly involved in remembrance of the genocide, it does not mean that they are excluded from this important task. Their horrific experiences provide them strength and energy to help build the nation (whether in the fields of economic growth, social unity, protection of the nation from genocide forces, agricultural development and so on), so it no longer contains the poverty, divisionism and strife that led to the 1994 genocide. The responsibility they hold is to help create a positive future.

Then there are others who are outside these two realms. One particular person is a man who I consider a Father. His story can be found here. Despite some not considering him a genocide survivor, I have seen how the genocide impacted his life and how the nightmares continue to impact his daily life. When I am with friends or meet with colleagues, I proudly show a picture of the two of us at his home. The pride and love I have for this man generates my greatest sense of pride. Not only do I call this man ‘Father,’ he also calls me ‘Son.’

As the commemoration and mourning period for the Rwandan genocide approaches (April 7), my thoughts are with these people, for the horrors they experienced and the desire they have to build a nation that will never again go down the path of hatred and divisionism. While the international community might not agree on the mechanisms for rebuilding Rwanda there can be no doubt how Rwandans view their role in crafting a new society. It is their nation and they will remember and rebuild it how they see best. It is just a blessing that I have been able to witness the ongoing transformation. More importantly, it has been an honor for so many to consider me their brother or son.

These relationships have unintentionally given me a different level of understanding of the horrors that my own family faced during the Holocaust. They have helped provide a much clearer human face to the family names who unfortunately did not survive the horrors of the Nazis. This might be a reason why I love my Rwandan family members so much. They help me connect to my own family’s history in the Holocaust.

About the Author
Jonathan Beloff is a current PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies and is performing his research on Rwandan foreign policy titled, "The Evolution of Rwandan Foreign Policy from Genocide to Globalisation”. His academic focus is on economic development and international relations in the African Great Lakes Region. He previously worked for the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (Kigali, Rwanda), the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Vad Vashem.