Another Rivka: from oral history of Holocaust to Rwanda

Gabrielle Spear


Spear (left) with her host sister. (Photo: Gabrielle Spear)

“Sorry,” my host mom said when I found out she survived the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis. The word is a reflex born of a language barrier. Rwandans apologize for nearly everything, but this “sorry” held weight and meaning.
If I could speak Kinyarwanda, I would tell her that I’m sorry. I’m sorry my country ignored your peoples’ cries for help. I’m sorry my country still views you as a burden. I’m sorry this moment would not exist if your first husband was still alive.
Her “sorry” reminded me of another apology- from Rivka, the Holocaust survivor I interviewed for Goucher’s Oral Histories of Holocaust Survivors class last year. “You are good girls, beautiful girls. And you shouldn’t have to hear my story,” she had said to us. When I found out my host family survived the genocide, I was surprised by how much my body ached. I thought it would be like talking to Rivka – hard but bearable. I realized I felt sick because these people were not introduced to me as “genocide survivors.” They were introduced to me as “my family.”
I chose to study post-genocide restoration in Rwanda largely because of my semester spent with Rivka. The class divides the interview process into three parts: pre-war, war, and post-war. My conceptions of conflict were radically changed because of the pre-war and post-war interviews. They were reminders that Rivka’s life story had a prologue and an epilogue, and those are arguably the most important part of a survivor’s story.

Bottom: Rwandan dance performance at traditional Rwandan wedding (Photo: Gabrielle Spear)

Bottom: Rwandan dance performance at traditional Rwandan wedding (Photo: Gabrielle Spear)

In another place and time, Mama and her first husband live a relatively content life with their daughters Rosine and Michou, and maybe some other children. Mimi and Christian, born after Mama remarried, remain only a possibility in her universe. They are all her afterthoughts and misplaced memories, moments that remain at the back of her mind but are too difficult to recall, a word too complex to translate. It’s a simple life.  But it’s life. I feel a twinge of sadness knowing Mimi and Christian were only conceivable because of the genocide. It feels cruel to dwell on this imaginary world built out of illegitimate recollections. But because I am alive, and all my family members have died of natural causes, I get to lay awake at night endlessly wondering.
As I sat across from her at the table, I could already feel the oceans between us. The words we will never exchange. The memories I will never hear. The stories I will not be able to share with others. Like Rivka did, every day my host mom provides food without fail. It’s humble meals, just as Rivka’s tea and popcorn were small offerings, symbols of all she has accomplished in life.  Underneath the monotony of the starch diet, I am always thankful. “You do not need to hear Mama’s genocide story because you have the privilege of being apart of her post-genocide story,” I remind myself. And that has to be enough.



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