Darfur refugees visit Yad Vashem

Sudanese refugees who escaped genocide in Darfur by crossing into Israel visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem on March 12. (Brian Hendler)

Sudanese refugees who escaped genocide in Darfur by crossing into Israel visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem on March 12. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — A group of refugees from Darfur on a visit to Yad
Vashem lingered next to a model of the crematorium at Auschwitz, taking
in the ghastly sight of bodies carried on cots and pushed into ovens.They
walked through the museum in silence, listening to the words of the
guide and trying to understand that the photographs of young boys in
sailor suits and girls with silk ribbons in their hair were the same
children whose names appeared on the list of those transported to
concentration camps and among those killed. “It’s such a sad history, tears fell from my eyes,” said G., 25, whose parents and two siblings were
killed by Arab militiamen when they raided his home village. “It made me remember things that happened in my own past.”His
visit to Israel’s Holocaust memorial was the first time he ever set
foot in a museum, and he left hoping that one day the victims of the
Darfur genocide might build a similar memorial. “I hope there
will be such a place in the future, but I don’t know when,” he said.
“Maybe in another generation far from our own.” G., who asked
that his name not be used, said he escaped on foot from his village the
day of the attack. He does not remember how or even where he first ran
before he began the long journey through Sudan and Egypt to Israel,
where he is seeking asylum.G. spent 15 months in an Israeli
jail because of his status as an enemy alien before being released to
Kibbutz Yotvata in southern Israel, where he works in the date fields. Yad
Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev addressed the group of 11 refugees, saying
they might take inspiration from the museum to one day record and
document their stories and the story of their people. Although the bloodshed continues in Darfur, Shalev urged them to think about commemoration even now. “It is important that you already begin to think about ways to remember the events and memorialize the victims,” he said. “As
Jews, who have the memory of the Shoah embedded within us, we cannot
stand by as refugees from genocide in Darfur are knocking on our
doors,” Shalev said. “The memory of the past, and the Jewish values
that underpin our existence, command us to humanitarian solidarity with
the persecuted.” He reached out to shake hands with the refugees, most of them recently released from prison.
Yad Vashem has been among the more outspoken elements in Israeli
society advocating for a swift and humane response to some 300 Sudanese
who have crossed into Israel in recent years via the Egyptian desert. About
a third of the migrants are from Darfur; others include Christians who
claim they also are victims of persecution. Since Sudan technically is
at war with Israel, most were put in prison. Some are being
released to kibbutzim and moshavim while they await word on which
country might give them political asylum. Israel has yet to officially
make such an offer. The Yad Vashem tour was initiated by the
Committee for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur, which works to
assist the Sudanese refugees in Israel. Robert Rozett,
director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, led the group on its tour,
explaining the ideology of the Nazis and how they executed their plan
to murder the Jews. The Sudanese leaned in to each other, occasionally
putting a hand on each other’s shoulders for comfort. Some could be
seen wiping away tears. Some images seemed to hit home
especially hard: a blurry photograph of an SS soldier aiming his rifle
at a mother who had wrapped her body protectively around her young
child, and a portrait of a young woman with sad, empty eyes gazing at a
globe and wondering if she would ever find refuge. The
Sudanese too live with uncertainty over what country might take them
in, and with the memories of relatives and friends killed before their
eyes. The parallels told in the museum felt cruel, including
the story of the St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees from Europe
that sailed to Cuba in 1939 only to be refused entry. After sailing to
the United States and Canada, where it also was refused entry, the ship
returned to Germany. Most of its passengers were killed in the
Holocaust. The Sudanese refugees also speak of no one wanting
them and of their fears of being deported back to their home country.
In Egypt, where many said they were abused and harassed by the
authorities, some say they were threatened with being sent back to
Sudan. As Rozett guided the group into a section of the museum
documenting roundups from the ghettos to concentration camps, he also
talked to them about commemoration.”You have photographs, you
have documents maybe, you have your stories,” he said. “It’s important
to know, so people in 50 years will also know” what’s happening.
At the Hall of Names, the repository for Yad Vashem’s collection of
“Pages of Testimony” — short biographies of each Holocaust victim — the
group gathered in a semi-circle and looked up at the photographs of
some victims.As they peered up at the faces, Rozett reminded them, “They don’t have a cemetery, but they do have a page.”
“It was very hard, I was shocked,” said M., 24, from Darfur. “It
reminded me of my own people, seeing the killings, the shootings … I
want to say that I am sorry that this happened to the Jews.” G. said it will take him a long time to digest what he saw at Yad Vashem.
“People were supposed to learn from history,” he said. “But still it
happens now. In 1994 in Rwanda, and now in Darfur. I thought the world
was supposed to learn.”

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