Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission Awareness - Education - Inspiration

Resisting Evil: Women Upstanders in the Genocides


By THGC Admin

This blog post is a collaboration between Education Specialist Robin Lane and Program Specialist Cheyanne Perkins.

Part of our goal at the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission is to empower all Texans to be upstanders, not bystanders.  This means speaking out and acting on what is right, instead of staying silent in the face of evil—no matter how difficult it may be.  For Women’s History Month, the THGC would like to encourage our blog readers to reflect on the stories of a few of the many women who have resisted against genocide in deep and moving ways.  This is the first of two posts that will focus on the experiences of women in each of the five genocides recognized by the United States.  We will begin with the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, and the Darfur genocide.

Hannah Senesh: The Holocaust

  Blessed is the match consumed in the kindling flame.

  Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

  Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.

  Blessed is the match consumed in the kindling flame.

  – Hannah Senesh


Hannah Senesh in her army uniform.
Via Wikimedia Commons.

Seventy-two years ago this week, Hannah Senesh, a 22-year-old Hungarian Jew who had immigrated to the British Mandate for Palestine, parachuted into Yugoslavia as part of a clandestine British/Zionist military operation.  She then handed the above poem to her companions before attempting to cross the border into Hungary, determined to rescue her mother and fellow Jews.  This mission would be her first and last.  Senesh was detained at the border, jailed, and tortured.  However, she was never broken, even when her mother was tortured in front of her.  After eight months of imprisonment, Senesh was convicted on false charges of espionage. She refused to ask for clemency, and instead used her moment on the stand to warn her captors of what they would have to answer for after the war. Senesh was executed by a Hungarian firing squad on November 7, 1944.

Because of her heroism, strength, power, and resistance, Senesh achieved legendary status.  Today, the kibbutz where she lived is a site of remembrance to her.  Her published diary is a great resource for anyone wishing to learn more about her extraordinary story.  Many people have found inspiration in her poems, some of which have been set to music.

Socheata Poeuv and her family: The Cambodian Genocide

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh.
By Clay Gilliland from Chandler, U.S.A. (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Socheata Poeuv was born in a refugee camp in Thailand on the Cambodian New Year, the daughter of parents who survived the Cambodian genocide but did not speak about it for years.  Their story is unraveled in Poeuv’s poignant documentary, New Year Baby.

Poeuv’s parents spent years living in a forced labor camp, prisoners of the Khmer Rouge.  Life in the labor camp was brutal, and Poeuv’s mother, Houng, had to steal food just to survive.  Houng lost 30 members of her family to the genocide.

Despite the horrible conditions of the camp, where starvation, disease, and death were constant, Houng remained strong for her family.  When Poeuv asked her mother what it was like to live under the Khmer Rouge, Houng replied, “Like every day when I woke up still alive, thanks (sic) God that I’m still alive.”

Halima Bashir: The Darfur Genocide

Map of Sudan, 2000.
Via Wikimedia Commons.

In her memoir, Tears of the Desert, Halima Bashir details a life filled with both joy and strife. A proud member of the Zaghawa tribe, she grew up with her parents, siblings, and grandmother, and always had aspirations to be a medical doctor and give back to her community. While at medical school in Khartoum, she experienced the happiness and excitement of following her dreams and studying with other young people. When war came to the capital, she was initially hesitant to involve herself in anything political, preferring to keep to herself and focus on her studies.

After graduating medical school, Bashir began practicing medicine in a small village, where she thought she would be removed from the war raging in her country; however, the Janjaweed soon attacked a local girls’ school.  Young students and their teachers were viciously raped, and given instructions to show everyone what had been done to them.  Raping women has traditionally been used as a weapon in genocide, as it often carries consequences such as deep shame in many cultures.

Bashir skillfully treated those victims in her clinic, and word of her bravery and talent as a doctor spread.  Soon, she was secretly treating the bullet wounds of soldiers who were fighting the Janjaweed.   For Bashir, taking care of her people was a way to stand up against genocide.  This resistance was not without consequence.  Bashir became a target, and was herself brutally raped.  Still, she remained committed to being an upstander.

Eventually, Bashir escaped to the UK as a refugee, which brought new difficulties. She and her husband struggled to provide for their young son, and faced constant threats of deportation. Government officials insisted that it was safe for their family and others to return to Sudan, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  However, Bashir and her family were ultimately permitted to stay.  Despite risks to her personal safety, she continues to speak bravely to the world about events in Darfur, and her book also presents her moving testimony.

The above women showed the utmost courage in horrible circumstances, and their stories are reminders that we can all be upstanders in our own way.  In our second installment, we will meet women of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and learn how they fought for what was right in the face of terror.

Edited: Cheyanne Perkins, March 16th, 2016, 9:10 AM.

Tags: holocaust cambodia darfur hannah senesh socheata poeuv halima bashir upstander women genocide


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