Saputara, is a 19 year old woman currently living in the Kalindi Kunj camp in New Delhi, India. I spoke with her on the telephone via her husband Halal, a 23 year old Rohingya man whom she met at the camp. They have two children together. The only word we could directly exchange,sans translation,was Namaste, a common greeting in Hindi language.
She was just 10 when she left her village, Bondu near Mangdau, Northern Rakhine, for good. She fondly remembers the spot near the pond where she would play, often with friends. She lived in a crowded household of eight members including herself. When a house close to hers had been attacked,the family knew they had to leave. . Several families including hers ran towards ‘Moora,’a big hill. They left barely with any possessions, merely the clothes on their back and a couple bottles of water to satisfy the entire family. They hid behind the hill for a while, watching their back and then eventually decided to take the boat to Bangladesh.
I asked her if she had ever been on a boat.She chuckled sheepishly told me that was the first moment she felt like she might die. Although the sea was close to her village, she had never been on a boat so massive. She and her family were dropped somewhere along the Bangladeshi coast before walking towards their first camp.
They reached Cox Bazar and settled in Kutupalong Refugee Camp. They met others from their community there. Saputara and other children played at the camp. She told me about her dreams of studying and making something of herself. Saputara saw other children going to school and thought that one day she would too. Things were deteriorating at the camp; they lived in make-shift tents and had to stand in long lines for drinking water or to go to the toilet. There weren’t many employment opportunities for her ageing father.
The family therefore decided to migrate to India in hopes of getting a job and securing a better and stable life. They traveled in a truck, walked to the border and reached Kolkata in the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal. From Kolkata, they took a train to New Delhi where she is currently settled.
Saputara’s loss is fresh; it isn’t a distant memory. In addition to her home, she lost two of her siblings on the journey.
I asked Saputara if she understood why they had to leave their home.
“They were killing us because we are Muslims,” she said, unable to elaborate on who ‘they’ are. “[India] is not my country. If I go back, they will kill me.” The only thing that matters, she says, is that she now feels safe.
Nazi Germany and modern-day Myanmar may seem worlds apart, but the notion of ethnic and racial superiority, which underscores genocidal violence, is the same. Whether a survivor speaks Yiddish or Rohingya, they suffered by the orders of governments that could only charge them with the crime of existing. To explore the shared survivor experiences, we spoke with 58-year old Alex Kor, a child of two European Jewish Holocaust survivors and Saputara, a 19-year old Rohingya Muslim woman, who escaped Myanmar and currently lives in India.
Picture 1: Saputara, a Rohingya refugee woman who fled her village at the age of 10 and now lives in a refugee settlement in Delhi | Picture 2: Eva Kor, a Romanian-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. She was subjected to human experimentation under the direction of SS Doctor Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during World War II., Picture courtesy – CANDLES Holocaust and Education Center, Terre Haute, IN | Picture 3: Mickey Kor, Eva’s husband, survived life in the Jewish ghettos, two concentration camps, and lost family to the Rumbula Massacre, where Nazis killed over 25,000 people in two days. Mickey lives in Indiana where he receives daily visits from his son, Alex.
For Alex, there seems to be an ease of recounting his mother’s story. She was after all a world famous activist and survivor of Dr. Josef Mengele’s twin experiments at Auschwitz Camp in Poland. Even as a young girl, Eva could recount the rising tide of antisemitism in Romania in the late 1930s. Eva’s father and uncle scouted places to live in Israel, but the family ultimately decided it would be too difficult to leave with young children. Alex’s father, Mickey Kor, lived in Latvia before he was caught by Nazis and sent to Stutthof and Buchenwald Camps in Poland. Eva and Mickey were both forced by the German government to flee their homes and ultimately move to concentration camps as the German army made gains throughout Europe. It’s estimated that over the course of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler killed around two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, or roughly six million men, women, and children. Although Mickey and Eva survived, both lost numerous family members to Nazi Germany’s insidious eradication efforts.
Similar to Eva and Mickey, Saputara’s story starts when she was a girl. At age 10, Saputara was forced to leave her village of Bondu near Mangdau city in Myanmar along with seven of her family members. A nearby home was attacked and her family was forced to leave the village. This was well before the ramped up efforts of the Myanmar government to force Rohingyas to move, but reflective of the longer term abuse the Rohingya have suffered. As they escaped their village, Saputara recalls that her family was unable to bring anything but the clothes on their back and a few liters of drinking water for the journey. They made it to a hill and were able to hide from their attackers. Eventually, they secured passage on a boat. At the time Saputara didn’t know where they were going and she was so scared she believed she was going to die. When she got off the boat, her family stepped onto land in Bangladesh. Just like that, she was in a new country.
Eva and Mickey Kor were also forced to leave their homes as they were taken to camps in different countries, with different languages. Ultimately, they both relocated to new countries again after the war. Eva eventually made her way to Israel as a teenager and Mickey, after a few years in Europe and, with assistance from a US soldier that aided in his liberation, was brought to the United States. A common thread of survivorship is the debilitating task of learning to communicate in unfamiliar countries with unfamiliar languages after having your home stripped away from you.
Genocides are atrocities that are often understood only in context of scale or proximity to our own culture. In the West, we learn about Nazi Germany’s determination to eradicate European Jews during the Holocaust and we learn about the casual slaughter of multitudes of Indigenous people spread across continental North America. We rarely learn about more recent efforts, like in Myanmar, that result in intentional extermination efforts of marginalized peoples in faraway places from cultures that aren’t uniquely intertwined with our own. Using the Holocaust as a point for comparison, we can draw parallels between the experiences of survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, and the Guatemalan slaughter of Mayan peoples. These genocides occurred fairly recent in our history, yet we still consider genocides as atrocities of the past. We often overlook the people experiencing displacement and violent attacks in more remote corners of the planet as we go about our daily lives.
The Rohingya crisis reveals uncomfortable patterns of targeted extermination as in the Holocaust. The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority living in the West Rakhine state of Myanmar. They speak ‘Rohingya’ which is a different language than the majority of Buddhist Burmese speak and they are currently the targets of mass and extreme violence by the Myanmar government. The current human rights catastrophe began on August 25, 2017, following an attack on the Myanmar security forces by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, but the systematic eradication of the Rohingya community had started long before.
In 1982, Myanmar introduced the 1982 Citizenship Act of Myanmar to effectively strip the Rohingya of their citizenship. The law was similar to the 1935 Reich Citizenship law enacted in Germany in 1935, which stripped German Jews of citizenship. The Citizenship Act excluded Rohingyas from citizenship by virtue of their ethnicity and created a system designed to abuse ethnic minorities. The 1982 law rendered the Rohingya stateless, unable to escape their tormentors through international immigration. The 2017 incident or ‘the Second Exodus’ exacerbated existing violence by the Burmese Army. What culminated was a series of attacks on the community including mass attacks, property destruction, rape, and governmental confiscation of property. According to a UN fact finding mission the attacks were indeed planned and coordinated to eradicate the community. Similarities between the governmental approach of the Third Reich and Myanmar don’t end with citizenship policy:the violence survivors from both eras endured serves as a reminder that hatred is not bound by geography or culture.
When asked if he was concerned about the lessons of World War II and the European Jewish Holocaust fading as the last of the survivors pass, Alex highlighted recent studies that show that a distressing percentage of young people in the United States do not know what the Holocaust was nor do they understand its significance. With an alarming lack of knowledge about arguably the best understood genocide in modern history, it would stand to reason that lesser known massacres fall off the radar of public consciousness entirely.
It may seem like the lessons are fading and that the world is falling into despair, but we can be heartened that people like Alex, his parents, and Saputara are willing to share their stories. These narratives are vital resources in laying an educational foundation for us to combat hate. If we don’t remember the past, we’re doomed to repeat it.