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By Paige Sutherland/MEDILL

Carl Wilkens, the only American who stayed in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, speaks at the Illinois Holocaust Museum  Sunday.

Illinois Holocaust Museum connects the dots of genocide

by Paige Sutherland
Jan 29, 2013

By Paige Sutherland/MEDILL

Carl Wilkens describes the experiences of two girls at the Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kigali.

Rather than dwelling on history, the Illinois Holocaust Museum honored the 68th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation by focusing on a more recent genocide -- in the Central African nation of Rwanda.

“It’s important to connect the dots between genocides past and present so we don’t forget why it’s important to remember,” said Lillian Gerstner, director of special projects at the Holocaust Museum, in Skokie.

Carl Wilkens, a missionary and the only American to stay in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, spoke at the Illinois Holocaust Museum on Sunday. While all other Americans --  including 250,000 United Nations’ soldiers -- fled, Wilkens stayed.

By passionately pleading to the Prime Minister of Rwanda, Wilkens prevented a massacre at the Gisimba Orphanage, saving an estimated 400 children and 50 adults.

Genocides grow from the seed of this idea of “us” and “them,” Wilkens said. With this separation comes animosity and prejudice, removing people from their shared humanity, he said.

“Thinking is the first step in feeling, which then leads to action,” Wilkens said.

In 1994, an estimated 500,000 Rwandan lives were lost to this idea of “us” and “them.” If people change how they think, they will realize that humanity is all one race, Wilkens said.

After returning from Rwanda, Wilkens founded the educational nonprofit organization, World Outside My Shoes. In early June, this organization will join Students Rebuild in displaying a million hand-crafted bones across the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The bones honor the millions of lives lost in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Burma.

In the Sudan genocide alone, an estimated 400,000 lives were lost and more than 2.5 milliion people were displaced from 2003 to 2010.

“What we don’t realize is that our prejudices and stereotyping are the threads and seeds of genocide,” Wilkens said.

David Embrick, an expert in racial studies at Loyola University, agrees that people’s words crystalize into everyday actions.

“Discourse conditions how people think about and interact with others,” Embrick wrote in an essay called “Symbolic Interaction.”

Our words have meaning and create negative consequences toward those we consider to be “the other,” Embrick said.

Wilkens is living proof that everyone can make a difference, said Cecilia Litovsky, a Skokie resident who attended Wilkens’ presentation.

“The message is what are we doing next?” Litovsky said. “Each of us needs to do something.”

Kelley Szany, director of educational outreach and genocide initiatives at the museum, said people should start seeing themselves in one another.

“We must understand that our commonalities are greater than our differences,” Kelley said. “We must change ‘never again’ from a promise to an action.”