Genocide was first

Genocide was the first post-it on the board.

My friend G. had invited me to co-teach a workshop with him to students taking his class on international business and culture. They were from many African countries, a bunch from India, some from Spain and a few from other places (Turkey, Portugal and Thailand, to name a few).

Before I spoke about my family’s Holocaust history, G. invited the students to write on a post-it what difficult histories their countries or regions had had to confront. Then he asked them to approach the front and affix their post-its to the board.

At first there was a pause. And then a young man got up and stuck his post-it on the board. There was one word on it: Genocide. I felt the air go out of my lungs.

One by one these young people put their traumas, their difficult histories, on the board. Some perhaps were not so difficult on a day-to day basis, but most certainly were.

Usually I speak to groups who either know quite little about the Holocaust and so are fascinated by my family story, or to people who share a Holocaust legacy or have a familiarity with the subject matter. In this room I was faced with something different–people who could relate to my mother’s story because they too had difficult, painful histories in their lives, past or present. I told them that it was important not to compare suffering. And that I honored their experiences.

Later I asked the soft-spoken young man who had bravely been the first to put his pain in front of the class where he was from.

“Rwanda,” he answered quietly.

Originally I ended my blog post here. But then I wondered if the young man from Rwanda were to read it, would he feel exploited? And I wanted to explain more what I felt in that moment.

When he said “Rwanda” it was so huge. How do you answer, “Rwanda?” If I had said, “Sorry,” or “I see,” it would be so inadequate. And also, I don’t see. I wasn’t there I don’t know. The closest I get is seeing “Hotel Rwanda” and being the child of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to maybe hug him, to make him know that I didn’t think saying Rwanda was the same as saying Norway or Canada, for the average person from there. I wanted him to know that I acknowledged his pain. But I was silent. I hope, still, that he knows.