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By Michelle Sigiel, 2012 AJC Fellow

During the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program, I had the pleasure of listening to participants in both interfaith dialogue, and dialogue between descendants of perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust. Our group met with Uwe and Gabi van Seltmann, who described confronting their family histories as grandchildren of perpetrators and victims. This session brought up the issues of confrontation, healing, and memory after the Holocaust. By confronting the past, this couple sought to better understand the “other.” The more I listened, the more I thought of dialogue and restorative justice sessions (gacaca) held among survivors of the Rwandan genocide, where members from the perpetrator and victim groups sought to confront one another in the aftermath of a devastating genocide. Although the particular circumstances of each of these cases differ, they also bear striking similarities, such as the relationship between dialogue, healing, and memory.

In the case of the van Seltmanns, it was a matter of trying to come to terms with their divergent family histories in Poland. Uwe’s grandfather was in the SS in Poland during the war, while Gabi descended from Holocaust survivors. They struggled to confront this history together. In the discussion session, Uwe, originally from Austria, described how he began the process of confronting his feelings of guilt by traveling to Poland and studying the SS. This attempt to better understand their histories forced the van Seltmanns to confront not only the past, but each other as descendants of perpetrators and victims, thereby allowing them a more refined sensitivity and understanding toward each other’s experiences as members of those groups.

The themes of confrontation, healing, and memory also appear in conversations between Rwandans after the 1994 genocide, which took the lives of nearly 1 in 8 Rwandans in a population of 8 million. Rwandans were murdered in the hundreds-of-thousands by militias known as the Interhamwe. While the perpetrator-victim dichotomy is sometimes reduced to Hutu versus Tutsi, the reality was more complex. Radio propaganda called upon Rwandan Hutus to “kill the Tutsi cockroaches” and Hutus who were considered sympathetic or related to Tutsis were also targeted. Ethnic identification of the Tutsis as a separate racial group began in the colonial period, and continued after Rwanda became independent of the European powers in the middle of the 20th century.

Confrontation and healing through dialogue became an important part of justice in Rwanda—perhaps partially because the topographical memory of the crimes lingered. Bullet holes and slashes from the genocide scarred the sides of schools, churches, and houses. The physicality of the crime was preserved in technical schools converted into memorials, where the bones of thousands of murdered schoolchildren were set on display. These physical remains of the violence left an imprint on the already scarred society. In an effort to free up the court system for those involved in planning and orchestrating the genocide, the Rwandan government re-introduced an older form of traditional courts called the gacaca. These village-green courts sought reconciliation and closure for victims of the genocide. The gacaca courts utilized the process of “truth-telling” or the notion of coming clean and admitting to one’s crimes.

The concept behind gacaca sought communal repair, and emphasized how the accused one’s actions harmed the community and individuals within it.

The accused, if determined to be guilty by a council of village elders, would have to perform community service, usually in the form of rebuilding schools or other damaged communal structures. This system could be very traumatic for victims and sometimes shameful for the family of perpetrators. Sometimes, confrontation caused healing, and other times more trauma—the process was wholly complex.

These cases illustrate that although the possibility of healing exists in confrontation and dialogue, it does not always manifest itself positively. The failures of gacaca are many, and include negative results in the realm of closure and healing. The van Seltmanns acknowledged that dialogue has to be desired by both parties, otherwise it will not work. This humble approach is necessary for dialogue, confrontation, and healing after genocide.

Michelle Sigiel graduated from Keene State College in 2010 with three Bachelor’s degrees in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, European History, and Political Science. She was the President and founder of Zeta Chi Rho, Honor Society for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and the President of Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Club from 2008-2010. She is a two-time recipient of the F. Burton Nelson Award for Holocaust Studies, and received the Susan J. Herman Leadership Award for Holocaust and Genocide Awareness. Michelle is currently a Master’s student in history at the University of Vermont, writing her thesis on the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (Jewish Community Vienna) from 1938-1942.

The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Spring 2013 newsletter articles are found here.