Young survivors of the worst horror

Ellen J. Kennedy
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is interim director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Photo Courtesy of Ellen J. Kennedy

When most people think of genocide, if they think of it at all, their image may be of Holocaust survivors in their 80s, with numbers tattooed on their forearms, telling stories about a war we didn't live through and an experience we can't understand.

We don't realize that when these survivors lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, they were children.

Children are the real casualties of genocide, children who survive with trauma stamped into their psyches, children who lost their homes, their cultures, their families and friends -- and their innocence.

What must it do to a child to live through genocide? To see the deliberate extermination of people, of their own people, based only on who they are -- extermination because of their race, religion, ethnicity or national origin?

The organization I lead, World Without Genocide, and Twin Cities Public Television explore this topic in a new documentary. "Children of Genocide: Five Who Survived," features a conversation with five people who were children or young adults when genocide happened in their countries. They are survivors of the Holocaust; Cambodia; Bosnia; Rwanda, and Sudan.

Children in places of terrible conflict witness mass violence. They often are victims of rape or other brutality. Children are sometimes forced to participate in military operations. They may become orphans. Thousands and thousands become heads of households, caring for other orphaned children. They might live in refugee camps on meager rations and with little hope for education or the future.

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Yet children of genocide endure, many with deep physical and psychological wounds. Many survivors never speak of their torment because it is truly unspeakable. Their own words can make them relive the horror. Some find their voices to encourage us to take a stand against genocide and mass atrocity.

The five people in this film survived,and they ask us to take action. The words uttered after the Holocaust, "never again," became "over and over again" in the tragedies that followed: Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, and now the crisis in Sudan. These survivors want "never again" to mean "never," and they ask all of us, ordinary citizens, to create a world without genocide. They are calling to our conscience -- those of us whose lives are blessed with peace but also, too often, with apathy and indifference.

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Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is executive director of World Without Genocide, which says its mission, in part, is to prevent genocide by fighting racism and prejudice. The film "Children of Genocide: Five Who Survived" will have a public premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. The event is free and open to the public.