I grew up in a strong Jewish community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although I was never particularly religious, I always felt a strong identity as a Jew. There was a history that was intrinsically part of me. So when my husband and I went to Europe as newlyweds, thirty years ago, we visited the Dachau concentration camp where many of my relatives were murdered. Tens of thousands of visitors of all faiths, from around the world, visit this impressive museum every year. They visit to grieve, to connect with their past, to remember. Visiting Dachau did make me feel part of a grief much larger than the experience of my own people. It gave me faith in the words, “Never again.”
I went to Rwanda in 2006 as a journalist, twelve years after the genocide that wiped out over a million people, to explore the connections between forgiveness, grief and reconciliation. I spent a month traveling in the 10,000 hills, interviewing genocide survivors at the small churches and schools where there were still bloodstains on the walls and the bones of anonymous victims carefully stacked on shelves. It struck me that I was always the only one at these memorials. The guides were genocide survivors, usually women, whose families and friends had been murdered at the site.We talked about our shared history, and I felt a deep connection with them — not just as a Jew but also a human being whose soul ached for humanity. It wasn’t that I had gone through the horror they experienced, but we shared a common bond of compassion.
It struck me that the common human bond, the thing that ties us all together regardless of religion, culture, and geographic location, is a kind of grace formed by love, grief and empathy. My quest in Rwanda became about finding this grace when there can be no forgiveness — both in personal relationships and when there are large-scale atrocities.
There is a greeting in Rwanda: amahoro. The word literally means “peace” but like the Hebrew word shalom, it means so much more: Sorrow for the past. Hope for the future. Shared compassion for all that has been lost. This is the core theme of the novel I worked on for eleven years.
Now, more than ever, I believe the world needs amahoro.