Dieudonne Manirakiza, a refugee from Burundi, helps Kitty Williams, a Holocaust and Auschwitz survivor, onto the stage. Fatima, a Syrian refugee, follows closely behind them. They are seated, and smile at the audience in the Strauss Performing Arts Center.
Just by looking, you would never know that each of them survived the most horrible atrocities of humankind.
Dr. Lana Obradovic, assistant professor of UNO’s political science program and director of defense intelligence agencies intelligence scholars program, began the Voices of Survival event.
Obradovic explained her two reasons for planning this event: her role as intern director for UNO’s Sam and Frances Fried Holocaust and Genocide Studies and her own story as a refugee.
In 1992, Obradovic was forced to leave her home in Bosnia and Herzegovina at age sixteen.
“There are more displaced people today than after World War II,” Obradovic reminded the audience.
As the first speaker was introduced, the audience learned that Kitty Williams was born a Hungarian Jew and was only 19 years old when Nazi Germany invaded her country.
During the following year, Williams lived in ghettos, Auschwitz and a labor camp. She was eventually liberated and is now living in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
At 92 years old, Williams’ voice was soft and strained but powerful. She emphasized that the Ho-locaust should never be forgotten.
“History has a tendency of repeating itself, and it’s repeating itself right now,” Williams said.
Williams spent nine weeks in Auschwitz.
“We never saw a bird fly over, we never saw blade of grass….Auschwitz was the most desolate place on this Earth,” Williams said.
Death was everywhere: exhaustion, disease, starvation and electrocution by the surrounding fence. After weeks of “living hell,” Williams was placed in another camp built for German workers.
After working in a factory chiseling poison out of bombs, Williams’ hair turned purple and her skin yellow. Finally, after being relieved by their commander, Williams and other survivors waited to be found by American soldiers.
On April 1, 1944, Williams was liberated.
Manirakiza’s story began with a knock upon the door of his family home when he was living in Burundi at just three years old.
Four men had come covered in blood with machetes, and informed Manirakiza’s father if he didn’t kill his own wife, they would come back and kill his whole family.
“My dad said, ‘I will take care of it.’ As soon as he shut the door…my dad took me…got my mom, and we started running,” Manirakiza said.
Manirakiza had been hiding in bushes for three weeks before he and his family were found by the United Nations.
They were then taken to a refugee camp.
After a long process of resettlement to the United States, which took from 2000 from 2006, Manirakiza’s family finally got a letter of acceptance.
“That was the most joyful moment I had ever had in my life,” Manirakiza said.
When the family arrived at their new house in Omaha, Neb., Manirakiza remembered being afraid to go outside for days.
He is now a personal banker at Wells Fargo.
At the start of her speech, Fatima was overcome with emotion. After a tearful start, she began her story as a Syrian refugee.
Fatima spoke of the bomb that exploded at her children’s school, killing their classmates.
She spoke of the bomb that destroyed her dream of becoming a pharmacist, and finally, her decision to join her husband in the United States.
“The last straw for us…was when my husband was informed that he must join the military,” Fatima said.
In Omaha, the family began their new life battling financial and legal challenges.
Fatima concluded optimistically, “I feel confident that as long as my family and I are safe, we have the strength to take on any obstacles that come our way.”
The audience was overcome with emotion as each of Fatima’s children took the stage and presented their mother with flowers.
In the audience, political science major and Holocaust and genocide studies minor Ludivine Esther Mooh realized just how much help the world needs and was reminded that every individual should do their part.
“We often think we cannot change the world, but we can at least change one person’s life,” Mooh said.