Writing to heal: Toronto survivors of Holocaust and Rwandan genocide tell their stories

Ryerson University held an event on Monday honouring both Holocaust Remembrance Day and Rwanda Genocide Memorial Day. Presented by the Azrieli Foundation, a Jewish philanthropy organization,”Write to Heal” brought survivors of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide to speak about their experiences, as well as how to find your voice in the aftermath of genocide.

Naomi Azrieli is the chair of the Azrieli Foudation. They support a wide range of initiatives including a Holocaust survivor memoirs publishing program. Azrieli then distributes testimonies from Holocaust survivors to libraries, schools, and Holocaust-education programs across Canada, free of charge. For Azrieli promoting the experiences of Jewish and Rwandan genocide survivors was important.

“Each person and each community that goes through trauma; the trauma of organized violence, does so in their unique way. And yet the act of sharing and learning and listening can lead to understanding and further learning that is so important to both communities and really to all those who have experienced genocide and indeed to those who haven’t,“ she said.

Regine Uwibereyeho King is a Tutsi survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Between 500,000 and a million people were killed during the country’s civil war. During the genocide she lost many family members, including two brothers. King survived by living in the brush. During a three month period of hiding she had only one pair of clothes.

In 1996 King joined World Vision Rwanda (WVR) where she worked for four years in the Trauma Healing Program. This program helped victims of the genocide deal with the emotional trauma, as well as encouraged mutual healing between Hutus and Tutsis.

As part of her job, King listened to stories from victims of the genocide. One particular conversation stood out for her.

“There was a women who had contracted AIDS. She never talked to her husband. She believes that she got it from [being raped] by a man who kept her captive for months. She told me that she wanted to become mute because she didn’t want to ever talk about what had happened to her,” King recalled.

King moved to Canada in 2000 and currently works at the University of Manitoba as an assistant professor of social work.

The event also had a Holocaust survivor. Rachel Shtibel, 77,  is a Polish-born Toronto grandmother, as well an author of The Violin. The memoir was a story of her experiences including the successful escape from the Kolomyja ghetto.

“My father said ‘I will put you into the sack’ as he had a sack of tools, ‘and I will carry you on my back and I will check at the gate where they will use their bayonets to poke. You cannot breathe as you will be shot on the spot’,” Shtibel recounted.

Although the escape attempt was successful, Shtibel’s suffering was not over. While hiding in a barn in Turka, Poland, with her family, young Rachel faced a new kind of oppression.

“One of the friends of my father was a medical doctor. He was lying across from where I was. During that time we were close to two years buried; hiding under the hay in the barn. There I had my own personal holocaust. He molested me, he abused me sexually. I was six years old.”

Azrieli is convinced how important it is for victims of genocide to share their suffering and experiences.

“The act of liberation is completed not only from the telling or the sharing, but also by the listening. The knowledge that someone is listening to you and will remember you is an integral part of the liberation,” she told the audience.

Toronto social worker Paula David is a specialist who has worked with issues related to Holocaust survivors, and the impact of early life trauma on aging.

David sums up what she had learned during her conversations with Holocaust survivors at Baycrest hospital.

“At the end of life your money doesn’t matter, your job title doesn’t matter. In the end in the face of old age we’re left with our story. And that’s who we are and who we choose to share or not to share, how to tell it. It gives us comfort at the other end of the journey,” David said.