Monday, April 7, 2014

Everyday Life and Genocide

  What is normal everyday life for people in a city, community, or neighborhood? At its core, it is family and community life activities: cooking, cleaning, caring for family members, going to work, going to school, or attending events such as weddings, graduations, births, and other ceremonies. Scenes of family life occur daily, such as going to church, synagogue, or temple, or some other place of religious, or spiritual, worship. These are the normal activities of people in a society. Ironically, stories of genocide often begin with normal everyday life. As a part of normal life, people in a community interact, and businesses, large and small, operate. These normal community activities stop when genocide starts.
     Night, by Elie Wiesel, and Left to Tell, by Immaculate Ilibagiza, are both true stories about genocides, one that occurred during World War II and one that occurred in 1994. Both books start with families living their normal lives in their vibrant communities. Yet, the outcomes of these true stories are that each story ends with hundreds of thousands, and millions, of people being murdered as a result of genocide.
     I visited the Holocaust Memorial soon after it first opened in Washington, D.C. I remember that a part of the exhibit contained artifacts which consisted of the personal belongings of genocide victims. These items ranged from toys to shoes, clothing, furniture, photographs, and many other household items, all as old as one would expect, 60 years later. These items showed evidence of the owners’ previously normal lives, before the genocide started.  So, it is clear that genocide happens to normal people who live normal lives. It is important to remember that genocide can happen to normal everyday people.
     Another question is do the victims of genocide see the genocide coming? Years, months, or weeks before genocide happens, victims often suspect something very bad is going to happen. Yet, they are hopeful that what they suspect won’t actually happen. They may even attribute their fears to paranoia and decide to just not think about it. This happened in the books Night and Left to Tell.  In, Night, there was a sequence of fearsome signs that something very bad would happen to Elie and his family and community. For example, the first sign came from the quiet, poor neighbor of Elie’s family, Moshe the Beadle, who warned his neighbors continually of the eventual fate of the members of his community. He told them repeatedly that he saw people taken from their community and killed by Nazis. Yet, no one believed him. Then, Elie’s family, along with all the members of their community were forced from their homes and forced to walk to a crowded ghetto, with only as much as each family could carry. There, the families set up a temporary community structure, and tried to live within it. The community people adapted to the poor living conditions and remained hopeful. Another opportunity to escape presented itself when their former housekeeper found them and pleaded with them to come with her so she could hide them from the Nazis.  The offer was declined, and they remained in the ghetto, hoping for the best. Their hope was that the allied forces of World War II would stop Adolf Hitler’s army. Then, the ghetto social structure they’d constructed was very quickly dismantled, and, Elie and his family and community were loaded into an overcrowded cattle train car and taken a Nazi concentration camp where the children were the first to die.  Elie's parents and siblings would not survive the concentration camp. In Left to Tell, the author’s parents chose not to flee their home days before the genocide started. It may have been that the presence of so many U.N. soldiers prior to the genocide that made the people feel safer, yet when the genocide started the U.N. soldiers did not take action to stop genocide.  Immaculate's parents, and most of her siblings, except for one who’d travelled out of Rwanda, were brutally murdered.
     Elie’s parents had a grocery store and were respected members of their community, and this happened to them and other people in their community. Likewise, Immaculate’s parents were teachers who were beloved and industrious people who were respected by members of their community, and they were murdered during the genocide. Genocide destroyed the lives of these families. It's sobering to know that genocide happens to normal and good people.
     In both stories, there was a similar theme that the victims had hoped that somehow the genocide would be stopped, or that reason would prevail. The books Night by Elie Wiesel and Left to Tell by Immaculate Ilibagiza depict this phenomenon of the victims' being hopeful in spite of signs of something extremely bad to come. In both stories, the help comes only after the genocide had almost run its course. 
By Angeline Bandon-Bibum

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