The first picture you notice—the first picture I notice, anyway—is that of a wiry young Rwandan man, his eyes wide, his left hand clutching his throat, exposing for the camera the right side of his face, the right side of his face marked with deep scars. The scars—three deep, long lines bisecting the young man’s visage—came from a machete, the young man in the picture is a Tutsi, the survivor of a Hutu assault. Tutsi survivors of machete attacks are rare—the Rwandan genocide lasted approximately 100 days, from April to July 1994, and during that time, more than 500,000 people were butchered and left to rot.
The reason the picture jumps out, I think, is because it is in bright, vivid color, unlike so much of the museum—because, of course, the Holocaust occurred in a time before color photography, and thus, in a time many of us consider to be deep in our past, a time we have moved beyond, an element of our history, our collective recesses, our nightmares.
But this picture, and those surrounding it, render that notion false.
This is the museum’s sixth gallery—the final piece of its chronological timeline—split into two halves, with two very different stories, two sides of one coin. On one side are images of genocide that has occurred since 1945, in the wake of the Holocaust: genocide like that in Rwanda, like that in Cambodia, like that in Iraq, like that in Bosnia, like that in Sudan, like that in Myanmar. Genocide that is occurring right now. Today. On the other are portraits of the ordinary heroes who have stood up to intolerance in its many forms, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Harvey Milk to One Is Greater Than None—eight teenage girls from Long Island who have come together to help rescue enslaved children in Ghana, Africa.
Dave Gewirtzman is featured on the wall of heroes, facing the wall of atrocities. He knows both sides all too well.
“I’ve watched the occurrences in the 1960s in Birmingham, Ala., bodies floating down the river in Rwanda, the killing fields in Southeast Asia, in Cambodia,” says Gewirtzman. “And I remember each time stopping and saying, ‘My God, this thing is happening all over again.’”
Gewirtzman survived the Holocaust by living underground—literally underground, beneath a pigsty, on a farm, in a space so crowded, so small, that he could not stand up straight—for 20 months. Nearly two years. Two years. Before the killing began, he was one of 8,000 Jews living in the small Polish town of Losice. By the time it was over, he was one of 16. Today, he teaches tolerance—going from state to state, country to country, talking about his own horrific experiences.
At one of these presentations, at a high school in Queens, he spoke in front of a classroom containing a teenager named Jacqueline Murekatete, who was born in a small village in southern Rwanda in 1984. When Murekatete heard Gewirtzman speak, she recognized a kindred soul. Murekatete wrote a letter to Gewirtzman, thanking him for sharing his story, and sharing her own with him.
“When she told me that both her parents and six of her brothers and sisters were massacred with machetes during the Rwandan genocide, I invited her to come to my house,” says Gewirtzman. “Within a very short time, we started going out together to speak.”
And together, they have given more than 300 presentations, at dozens of universities, hundreds of high schools, in churches and synagogues, in 20 different states, in Italy, Germany, Israel, Bosnia. They have been honored by the United Nations and the Kennedy Center in Washington. Today, Murekatete, 25, is an NYU graduate and a law school student. She, however, like the young man in the picture on the wall, is one of very few to have survived at all. Like Gewirtzman, her life has been dedicated to spreading tolerance. Both of them know that while the Holocaust may be in black and white, in the past, the killing continues, around the world, in color.
Murekatete was not even 10 years old in 1994, when she heard the news, over the radio, that the Hutu president had been killed, followed by Hutu men and boys descending upon villages, murdering Tutsis with machetes and clubs. Murekatete was visiting her grandmother, in a nearby village, when the men and boys arrived to kill her mother and father and brothers and neighbors. Her grandmother saved Murekatete by taking her to an orphanage. Her grandmother, too, would eventually be slaughtered in the genocide. This was 1994. Bill Clinton was president. The Cowboys beat the Bills in the Super Bowl. Forrest Gump was a hit at the box office. And Murekatete was not even 10 years old.
Here in the sixth gallery, on a large flat-screen TV, a video plays on a loop, a video of Gewirtzman and Murakatete sitting side by side, sharing their stories.
“The two of us have committed ourselves,” says Gewirtzman. “We said, ‘As long as we’re alive, we’re never going to give up. We’re going to speak to young people, to adults, wherever possible, to try to convince them to turn around and to teach others.’”
To Gewirtzman, education is paramount in moving humankind past genocide. Education and unity.
“Only by raising the voices of everybody, getting a chorus of voices, all over the country, all over the world, screaming together, ‘No more, we cannot allow this,’ only then will this stop,” says Gewirtzman. “If we want to remain as human beings, we cannot allow this.”