A Days of Remembrance program, encompassing the Holocaust and other genocides, served as both a somber reflection and call to action against human rights violations.
The seventh annual Human Rights Forum showcased the importance of passing down the lessons learned in the face of atrocities from one generation to the next.
The event, hosted by the Edina Human Rights and Relations Commission, was held May 7 at Edina City Hall.
The keynote speakers Joni Sussman and Dr. Tea Rozman Clark shared their varied experiences and familial histories with genocides.
Sussman, former president of the Jewish Community Relationships Council of Minnesota & the Dakotas, as well as
founder of CHAIM (Children of Holocaust Survivors Association of Minnesota), is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors.
She shared the story of her mother, Hinda Kibort, who was imprisoned in the Stutthof concentration camp in northern Germany.
Kibort was living in Lithuania (in the same city as her future husband, although they met after the Holocaust) when Nazis took over in 1941.
The Jews – identified by their passports or from neighbors – were told to bring only what they could carry and were moved into the worst part of town, which became the Jewish ghetto.
Those ages 12-40 were considered workers and had to help with leather work and other labor for the German war effort.
Kibort was put into the working group that labored in a factory across the street from the ghetto. One day from the second story of the factory, workers noticed German trucks enter the ghetto and leave shortly afterward.
When they came home after the day of work, all the children were gone and had been taken to Auschwitz.
“Mom said that the ghetto was so sad without children,” Sussman said, adding that years later when her parents decided where they should move in Minnesota, they chose a house in Edina instead of senior living. “‘We never want to live in a place without children again,’ they said.”
Eventually, the men and women were separated and put on a train,
Sussman said that her mom wanted to share as many details as she could about the Holocaust so no one would forget, but the one exception was her three-day train ride to Stutthof, which she never talked about.
Kibort, along with her sister and mother, were put to work digging anti-tank ditches to try to stop the Allied forces from the west and the Russian forces from the east.
As they dug in groups of five, one woman said that when the war was over, the young women would have missed out on education, so they decided to have school in the trenches.
Each woman would take turns teaching something they knew.
Kibort, who was fluent in seven languages, taught French. Another, who was a pediatrician, taught medical facts, and a woman from Belgium shared recipes and cooking techniques that “drove them all crazy.”
“My mom was a wonderful baker – did she pick it up from that? Who knows,” Sussman said, adding that her mom also had a seemingly endless knowledge of medical information that could have come from the same education.
Eventually, as the war came to a close, the women were once again going to be put into groups.
The concentration camp commandant put them into two groups, left and right.
When Kibort’s mom was selected to go to the left group, she and her sister were given a choice: left with your mom, right without, but both futures uncertain.
They both chose to stay together as a family, and the group of roughly 90 women were marched out of the camp.
After a long trek through the January winter, including sleeping in a barn, they marched to a dirt road surrounded by forest.
Kibort’s mom dropped her daughter’s hands and instructed them to run. Then, she charged at the Nazi guards screaming “Don’t shoot my daughters!” They started shooting at all of the women, lined up in groups of five.
Kibort and her sister got away because of their mom’s sacrifice. Little by little, as they walked toward the next town, they encountered several other women who survived the attack, eventually waiting in a barn by the warmth of a cow for what would come next.
They were liberated by the Russians the following day.
Dr. Rozman Clark, founder of Green Card Voices, a nonprofit dedicated to telling stories of immigrants, had a much different experience with genocide.
Born in Yugoslavia, she saw war and tribulation first hand.
“I had a very happy childhood, unaware that the world would change forever,” Rozman Clark said.
Between the death of President Josip Broz Tito and the weakening of communism, there was a scramble for power throughout the 1980s that led to war in the early 90s.
Rozman Clark’s country was the first attacked, and a shocking memory of his was having to hide in the basement of their public housing complex every time the air raid sirens went off.
“It really forced me at young age to realize that world is not that kind,” Rozman Clark said.
The war in her region lasted 10 days, but it continued elsewhere for much longer.
People came from Croatia and Bosnia with nothing, and simply hopped on a train to get away.
“I had never seen so many people at the train station in my life,” Rozman Clark said.
It was the start of 10 years of conflict in the region and pushed Rozman Clark to define the path of her life.
“We cannot wait for wrongs to be undone,” she said. “We need to act.”
As conflicts raged on, the single-largest massacre in Europe since World War II was committed in Bosnia.
In July 1995, more than 8,000 Muslim Bosnians in the town of Srebrenica were killed in only five days.
“Those people looked like me,” Rozman Clark said. “I understood their language. They had the same dreams as me.”
The genocide is known to be one of the greatest United Nations failures, as the town was supposed to have been protected.
Despite taking place only 20 years ago, there remain plenty of genocide deniers, preventing closure for the survivors.
Rozman Clark received a scholarship to study at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and now lives in Linden Hills.
“Most people don’t think of their neighbors here as having experiences like this,” Rozman Clark said.
In the middle of graduate school, Rozman Clark traveled to Srebrenica. She ended up conducting her doctoral research on the Srebrenica Genocide and traveled there every year beginning in 2009 to interview survivors and victim’s family members to detail their stories.
“Survivors returned to the town that is still run by the enemies because they don’t want to be ethnically cleansed,” Rozman Clark said.
She said that this genocide is such a strange case, because many do acknowledge that it happened, but officially it did not.
“People have been convicted at The Hague, yet the UN cannot officially call it a genocide because of a Russian veto,” Rozman Clark said. “We want them to know we haven’t forgotten.”
During a question-and-answer session, the panel was asked what people in Edina can do to prevent steps toward heinous acts.
Rozman Clark said that people need to be aware that bad things can happen right at home.
“It was only a couple months ago that a Somalian restaurant was burned to the ground,” Rozman Clark said. “Things are happening right now.”
As Sussman pointed out, atrocities committed during the Holocaust weren’t only committed by Nazis.
“Governments asked for RFPs for concentration camps,” Sussman said. “Every day people went along with it and didn’t say no. People always ask me ‘Why didn’t they leave?’ They couldn’t just pick up and go. They had connections to communities. Also, where would you go?”
Rozman Clark said that once conflicts begin, it is too late to turn back.
“Those survivors think they have been wronged, and they pick up the gun,” Rozman Clark said. “Not all of them do, but you only need a few.”
She suggested that beginning with small comments and inclusionary steps can make a world of difference.
“Don’t ask, ‘Where are you from?’ – that constantly reminds you that you aren’t from here,” Rozman Clark said. “We are your neighbors. We work hard. We all have same needs. We all want joy and happiness. As humans, we share more than we don’t.”