On a Visit to Yad Vashem, Darfur Refugees Find Echoes of Home

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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