Sarah Stricker

Sarah Stricker and Odile Gakire Katese
© Goethe-Institut Kigali/Lena Wassermeier

German author Sarah Stricker, who is living and working in Tel Aviv, Isreal, visited Kigali for one week in the beginning of 2018 on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Together with Rwandan artist Odile Gakire Katese, she developed texts on memory and commemoration.

How was it for you to work artistically in Rwanda? 

I took a lot from this week, especially from my writing partner. Odile has been dealing with the topic of the Genocide in Rwanda for about 20 years. In contrast to many others, she doesn’t focus on death though, but rather on life, tries to give a face to the people who were killed during these 100 days from April to July 1994, to take them out of their ‘victim box’, as she puts it. In one of her projects, she asked for example survivors to write letters to their family members they lost during the Genocide; what emerged from that were extremely moving texts which don’t just make these people come back to live for a brief moment, but also make you feel the loss in a way facts and numbers never could. What I learned from Odile is that you can only mourn someone’s death, if you also know about his or her life. This initiated a thought process in me about how we, as Germans, deal with our own past. Yes, theoretically we all know that, until Hitler seized power, non-Jewish and Jewish Germans were neighbors, that Jews were an inherent part of German society and left traces in all areas of public life, be it in literature, music, science, or politics. But the sad truth is: when we hear the word ‘Jew’ today, most of us don’t think of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Heine, Einstein, or Rathenau. Instead, our collective memory is very much shaped by the images the Third Reich produced: images of Jews in ghettos, in cattle cars, in concentration camps, gaunt, emaciated, and disfigured to dehumanization -- images that come pretty close to those the Nazis wanted us to have in mind. Odile showed me, how it is possible to widen the scope.

During your stay in Kigali you also met and discussed with students from the University of Rwanda in Huye. How did you perceive this encounter?

First of all I have to say that I have never had such a nice location for a discussion as we did in Huye. DAAD-lecturer Dr. Rainer Schmidt chose a glade in a small piece of woodlands at the edge of the University campus, amidst the trees, which made for a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. During the discussion we talked among other things about how important it is to give the young generation in Rwanda a voice, for example through writing. I had the feeling though that a lot of the students are reluctant to bring their thoughts on paper, not least because teachers and professors often seem to convey the impression that the Genocide is the only topic worth talking about – but in 1994, most of the students were only children or not even born yet.

What touched you especially and stayed in your mind?

After the discussion, one of the students came up to me and asked very straightforward, how one ought to write stories, if he doesn’t even know his own. He was three years old during the Genocide, the only survivor in his family; he said there was no one he could ask what was there before him.
I was very touched by that, especially by the way he told it: very matter-of-fact, without any kind of self-pity, as if this was a completely normal life story.
I tried to encourage him to tackle exactly this topic, to write about how it is not to know anything about your ancestors, to start at point zero, like so many Rwandans from his generation had and still have to. But his forlornness was obvious – a forlornness I had until then only experienced in stories from Holocaust survivors. There is a sentence by a later-born I read once in Israel: ‘How shall I explain to my children that my wife and I are not Adam and Eve’. Only during this conversation with this young man in Huye I realized what the sentence really means.

As an author you developed an expertise on the topic of the Holocaust and the German-Israeli relations. How was it for you to discuss with people, who also lived through a Genocide/share it in their collective memory?

At first glance, the parallels stand out. In both cases, for years one group deliberately worked on dehumanizing the other: in Germany Jews were portrayed as parasites, in Rwanda Tutsi as cockroaches. In Rwanda, Hutu-women who got involved with Tutsi-men were threatened; in Germany we all know the ‘I am a racial defilement’-signs people had to carry on the street… this list could be continued endlessly. In parts, it almost seems as if someone took a national socialist manual and simply replaced the word ‘Jew’ with ‘Tutsi’.
However, the dealing with the past is completely different. While Germany as the nation of perpetrators and Israel as refuge to a lot of Holocaust victims didn’t have any contact for the first decades after the War (until 1952 there was even a note in every Israeli passport: valid for all countries, except Germany), Rwandans are both: perpetrators and victims. In one of our conversations I asked Odile, if it had never been considered to divide the country after the Genocide. But she said this would only have manifested the hatred. Instead there is a long tradition of reconciliation in Rwanda, reinforced by the Gacaca-courts. These courts allowed for a mitigated punishment if they perpetrators agreed to confess and ask for forgiveness. But more importantly: in most cases the survivors did in fact forgive. Today, 24 years after the Genocide, perpetrators and victims live again door to door – which is of course impressive. Nonetheless I have a hard time to wrap my mind around how it is possible to forgive after such short time. ‘Because we didn’t have another choice’ Odile would say – and yes, most probably the lack of alternatives is sometimes the only thing that reunites people.

How did you perceive people’s reactions towards the topic of the Holocaust, respectively Germany and Israel? 

Germany has a pretty good reputation, but this is something I experienced also in other African countries. What surprised me much more was, how well most people reacted when they heard that I am living in Israel. Most Rwandans seem to relate to the history of Israel, are looking at the last years of development in Israel as a model they are striving towards. Both societies share the experience of a Genocide; both are taking an exceptional position in their respective region, both are safer and economically more successful compared to many of their neighboring states and are investing a lot into education, especially in the field of IT. Above all, both societies have one thing in common: the conviction that, if worst comes to worst, they are on their own. ‘Never again’ we said after the Holocaust which, for the longest time, the international community had watched inactively. But in Rwanda, it didn’t even do that. Instead it actively looked away. When the violence erupted in 1994, the UN-troops were not enlarged, but nearly completely removed, the Westerners were evacuated, while the Rwandans were abandoned to their fate. In both countries, this lead to a deep distrust towards international promises. At the same time tough, it also sets free a great energy, the feeling that you have to take your fate into your own hands which bears a huge creative potential.

What is your next project?

I am working on my second novel in which the topics of memory, identity, past, and recommencement will also play a crucial role – but I can’t reveal more yet ;)