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Memorializing Mass Atrocities: Teachings from Survivors’ Testimony
By Samantha Lakin

December 27th, 2012

The Meaning Behind Memorialization Efforts

There is a current effort from the African Union (AU) to memorialize mass atrocities and persecution including the Rwandan genocide, Ethiopian Red Terror, Apartheid, the slave trade, and other mass atrocities that have occurred in Africa. At the core of these efforts is the collection of survivors’ testimonies.  The African Union Human Rights Memorial in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in conjunction with the AU, has employed research teams to try and create the space for survivors to provide honest and accurate testimonies to inform processes of memorialization. This is made more difficult when the wounds are still fresh and whilst the perpetrators are neighbours. In addition, the politicized nature of ongoing violent conflict can make collecting survivors’ testimonies a truly difficult and daunting task.  However, it is insights from the experiences of survivors of mass atrocities that allow leaders, policymakers, and individuals to understand the elements that are at the core of memorialization, especially individual healing processes and communal recognition of suffering. It is important to note that the process of memorializing is not necessarily the same in Western and non-Western communities, and there is a necessity for more research focusing on non-Western practices of memorialization.

My personal experience has been working with survivors of the Holocaust. According Raul Hilberg, one of the foremost Holocaust historians, “the phrase ‘Never Again’ first appeared on handmade signs put up by inmates at Buchenwald in April, 1945, shortly after the camp had been liberated by U.S. forces. Since then, ‘Never Again’ has become kind of shorthand for the remembrance of the Shoah.” [1]  If you search for “Never again” on Google, you will find op-ed articles, official speeches, and local news reports that use this phrase to speak about issues ranging from genocide to drunk driving.  Since the Holocaust, terms like these have become widely associated with genocide and mass atrocities. They serve as a call to action for the international community, including states, multilateral organizations, and individual global citizens. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, it is difficult to ignore what is occurring in one area, and to retain the naïve view that it won’t affect “us”, “over here.” Campaigns to raise awareness can be an effective form of public resistance.

Importance for Healing and Rebuilding

Personal stories and connections are at the core of action. I discovered this over the past 14 months that I spent immersed in Holocaust survivor testimony. I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study the rescue of Jewish children into Switzerland during World War II, a subject that has not been widely documented.  As part of my research, I conducted a series of over 60 oral history testimonies with child survivors of the Holocaust who had the experience of being smuggled clandestinely into Switzerland, to escape Nazi persecution. I found support from scholars and gained the skills to successfully record testimonies, as speaking with victims who lived through the inexplicable experience of the Holocaust is a difficult task.  After each interview, I reflected on the value of documenting these testimonies, and how narratives can be used in the international sphere to affect change. The stories I heard were powerful.  Although the interviews had clear themes and similarities, it was the tiny details, individual stories, and personal connections that make testimonies such a profound tool for learning, teaching, and even policy making.

Individuals, communities and states uniquely interplay in the process of memorialization. It begins informally, when individuals first recognize their suffering.  They seek legitimization and support from their own community, of which many members have experienced similar persecution. This creates a distinct narrative within the community, which becomes the story they tell about their collective suffering. Then, as a group with an identified purpose, the community approaches the state, which serves to formalize their claims through, for example,  the creation of memorials. The formalization that occurs is closely linked to survivor testimonies, during which witnesses are the key actors in both the documenting and memorializing processes.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “to memorialize,” means to address or petition by a memorial.  Research shows that when the memorialization process occurs, it formalizes the loss and suffering communities and individuals feel. The psychological damage and trauma endured by survivors have the opportunity to shift to a healing process through recognition, which in turn fosters the creation of a communal identity narrative.

In France, Holocaust memorials were established as early as 1962, paving the way for the creation of other formal memorials throughout Europe.  Walking through Paris, the streets are lined with plaques and dedications in memory of those deported from the city. The plaques have not only created broader outreach and education surrounding the history of persecution, but they have also served as a model for memorialization to take place in other cities.

Importance for Education

What are the reasons we record survivor testimonies?  They range from documentation of mass atrocities and violence, therapy for survivors in allowing them to share their experiences, informing legal processes and trials, restitution and retribution, recognition and the legitimization of a group’s suffering, promoting minority rights, and preventing societies from committing further crimes against humanity. “Never again” has been used broadly because leaders did not just mean “Never again” for one group, at one place in time.  “Never again” should apply to all persecution, at all points in time, until humanity can “get it right”.  This view is not new.  Criticism exists that the international community has invested widely in global education surrounding the Holocaust yet ignores current mass atrocities, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Darfur and other African countries.  It is difficult to record accurate survivor testimonies, for reasons including the risk of re-traumatization and resistance of survivors to speak to research teams, because of the negative consequences they might face in their communities.  However, the knowledge that comes from documenting survivors’ testimonies helps us understand the relationships between survivors and memorials, to allow memorials to aid in the individual and communal healing process. This education is essential not only for documentation purposes, to figure the impact of such atrocities, but also to provide education surrounding the issue, and to create global advocates and agents of change.

The discussion of memorialization relates to how survivor testimonies can be used to create appropriate memorial sites. In Rwanda, the Kigali Memorial Centre was built in 2004 to commemorate the Rwandan genocide.  Built and maintained by AegisTrust, “The Centre is built on a site where over 250,000 people are buried. These graves are a clear reminder of the cost of ignorance.”[2] The Centre serves as an institution of education, documentation and remembrance. They partner closely with the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, California, the current home of the Steven Spielberg archive of nearly 52,000 video testimonies with survivors, recorded in the 1990s. For persecuted communities, education and validation are key components of creating formal memorial sites.  For the state, protecting the interests of their citizens by formalizing their suffering, including the suffering of minority and marginalized groups, should be at the core of creating memorials

New research is being conducted on burial sites and mass graves in Africa, especially in Uganda, Ethiopia and South Sudan, to try and determine the relationship of survivors to the dead, especially when bodies and graves are not able to be found. Speaking with survivors, community leaders, educators and others to attempt to understand their unique relationship to the dead, to shed light unto their grieving and healing processes, can inform what memorials should look like, what forms they should take, and what purposes they should serve.

Importance for Policymaking

Testimonies cannot serve all purposes, yet they provide a strong basis for leaders and policy makers to understand mass atrocities that they may not have experienced themselves. According to professor Michael Birenbaum in his article What the Survivor and Historian Know, “Survivors ‘know’ something that we who were not there may never quite know: what it was like to be there — the anguish, the cold, the brutality, the hunger, the fear, the lice, the degradation, the humiliation and the assault on even elemental humanity. But if we listen attentively, respectfully and cautiously, we can use the survivors as our guide to enter the portals of this evil.”[3]  His words serve as a universal recommendation when recording testimony from any persecuted group; the knowledge we acquire through testimonies is a privilege the survivor gives us.

There may be a tipping point in leadership that can occur if enough policymakers are moved and gain knowledge through education and awareness of survivors testimony, so future policies will take into account human security.  Of course, creating memorials to fill the roles of healing and recognition is not as simple as I present. Some questions that remain include: who are the potential spoilers in policymaking, what are the differences between appropriate Western and non-Western memorials, and what systems need to be in place for future policies to protect minority and persecuted communities?  Despite these challenges, I feel that researchers, policy makers and country leaders cannot take the knowledge that comes from survivor testimonies lightly.  These testimonies are the driving force that requires us to act.


[1] David Rieff, “The Persistence of Genocide”, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, February 1, 2011. http://www.hoover.org/publications/policy-review/article/64261

[2] “Kigali Memorial Centre Website”, last modified 2012. http://www.kigalimemorialcentre.org/old/index.html

[3] Michael Birenbaum, “What the Survivor and Historian Know” The Daily Jewish Forward, May 11, 2012. http://forward.com/articles/155681/what-the-survivor-and-historian-know/?p=2

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