Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Rwandan Survivor Unbelievable story: Emanuel Habiemma

I have heard many Holocaust survivors and the first story I heard from a survivor was 30 years ago.  Even 30 years ago Holocaust survivors were not only old but older than my parents.  I was thinking about this as I watched Emanuel Habiemma speak at Lakeside Congregation to tell us his story.  Emanuel is 29 years old and a survivor of the Hutu and Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.

To review Tutsi and Hutu history(from Wikipedia):
The origins of the Tutsi and Hutu peoples is a major issue in the history of Burundi and Rwanda, as well as the greater Great Lakes region ofAfrica. While the Hutu are generally recognized as the ethnic majority of Rwanda, in racialist ideology the Tutsi were identified as a foreign race, as opposed to an indigenous minority. The relationship between the two is thus, in many ways, derived from the perceived origins and claim to "Rwandan-ness". The largest conflicts related to this question were the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the 1972 Burundian Genocide, and the First and Second Congo Wars.

Emanuel was 9 years old when the the genocide began in Rwanda.  He saw his father first bullied and then killed by the Hutus.  He ran away after seeing his father dead on the floor and was found by Hutus.  He had such presence of mind to lie and say he was from Northern Rwanda and he was a Hutu. I can't imagine many 9 year olds today who would be able to take care of themselves the way Emanuel did.   He was eventually sent to a camp in the Congo which unlike Rwanda is in the savannah and there was no water available; because of the unsanitary conditions Emanuel then caught cholera at this camp and was very malnourished.  We could have listened to his story all night;  by the time he had come to Lakeside at 7:00 pm at night we were his 5th speaking engagement of the day. The Spungen Family Foundation sponsored Emanuel's visit to Lakeside and we hosted a dinner for our participants.

Emanuel told us about the 10 Commandments of the Hutus which after you see them you will see why I am sure they are crafted after the Nuremberg laws.  I never knew how much the genocide in Rwanda reminded me of the Holocaust. The Hutu's also tried to show that the Tutsi's were physically different.  We saw pictures of a Tutsi man's nose being measured to show he was Tutsi and not a Hutu.  It looked like this picture came from 1940 Germany and not 1990 Rwanda.  It is hard to believe in an era of technology and 24 hour news services that 1 million Tutsi's were killed within 100 days.  It deeply saddens me that the world stood by.  It reminds me that we must always act; even if acting is not an easy task.

Emanuel was taken with our sanctuary and although he has spoken with Holocaust survivors, visited Holocaust museums and related his experiences to the Holocaust he had never been in a sanctuary.  He is a Catholic and was taken with the Torah.  I invited him into our sanctuary and out of respect he put on a Kipah and a tallit.  When we walked into the sanctuary I saw that we had left out a Torah for our B'nai Mitzvah students to practice reading.  I invited Emanuel to look at the Torah and unrolled the Torah for him to see what was inside.  

After the evening was over and I had heard Emanuel's story I am glad he was also able to take something away from this visit; that he could see a Torah and see  a Jewish community in the States that is committed to practicing their religion as well as hearing his story. He gave so freely of himself and admitted that telling his personal story daily is not easy, but it is necessary.  He told us he is not sure why he is here, but reminded us to have hope and to make sure the next generation studies and learns from history.  I cried during the evening but felt at the same time uplifted by his words.  There is hope in this world.