More than 200 people filled the Lory Student Center Theater on Tuesday night to hear Holocaust survivor David Gewirtzman and Rwandan genocide survivor Eugenie Mukeshimana share their testimonies of survival.
“It’s an important topic,” said Laura Castellano, an open-option freshman. “A depressing topic, but it sparked my curiosity. I think it’s important to hear their stories from a firsthand perspective.”
Many students and community members were moved to tears as Mukeshimana described her experience during the Rwandan genocide, hiding under a bed for several weeks without food, fresh water or clothing. Mukeshimana was also pregnant at the time.
After colonialism peaked in Africa in the 1950s, there was a stronger sense of division between the Hutus and Tutsis, different social groups based on prestige and status. Mukeshimana was classified as a Tutsi, the group that was targeted and killed in the genocide.
“Old, young, poor rich – it didn’t matter,” Mukeshimana said. “In this time, your only crime was being born a Tutsi. You couldn’t switch or convert. There was nothing we could do.”
The only measure of control some Tutsis felt was in how they would die.
“During the genocide you had to buy a bullet,” Mukeshimana said. “Because it wasn’t a matter of that you would die, only how. A bullet would have been better than torture with a machete.”
Gewirtzman felt a similar sense of helplessness and terror years earlier during the Holocaust. A native of Losice, Poland, Gewirtzman survived a labor camp and also lived in an earthen hole in a pig sty for two years with eight people waiting for liberation.
“How do you teach people how to hate?” Gewirtzman asked the crowd. “The Nazis were certainly good at it. First, they isolated us, forcing us to wear armbands showing that we were Jews. Then they dehumanized us and confiscated Jewish properties and businesses. Then came violence.”
After Jewish children were banned from school, Gewirtzman remembers attending clandestine classes held by candlelight to continue his education for sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
“Education was very dear to us,” he said.
It is because of this that Gewirtzman and Mukeshimana have chosen to travel the country, speaking to audiences and educating them through their first-hand experiences.
“Diversity does not have to create adversity,” Gewirtzman said. “Together, we can and should make a difference. We chose life over hate. Instead of weapons of mass destruction, we have chosen weapons of mass instruction: books, literature, speeches and lectures. Our weapons do not kill, they heal.”
“I am still here, and I will survive,” Mukeshimana said. “Every day is a blessing and I will not spoil it with hate.”
Staff writer Hilary Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org