“We carry our people in our bones” B’shallach 5780/2020

This d’var Torah was written after Cantor Broekhuysen’s trip to Guatemala as part of the Global Justice Fellowship of American Jewish World Service and was delivered at Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill on February 8th 2020.

At the beginning of today’s reading, just before the Israelites set out, Moshe takes up Joseph’s bones – Joseph, who long years before had made his descendants swear to bring his bones back up into Canaan when they finally left Egypt. Moshe lifts them on his shoulders, the first model of an aron – a coffin or an ark, the contents of each equally holy – and Joseph’s remains get carried by the B’nei Yisra’eil in their first steps towards freedom.

I wonder if the bones, for all their dry age, sat heavy on those humble shoulders.

Bones are weighted with memory.

Rafael Herrarte, director of CAFCA in Guatemala City, Guatemala on Tuesday January 28, 2020. Photographer: Christopher Dilts / AJWS

In Guatemala last week, I and the other Global Justice Fellows of American Jewish World Service stepped past an unassuming housefront in Guatemala City, and into a crowded but beautiful indoor space. One central well brought light all the way down to the first floor where we waited, murmuring at the posters on the walls (at least half of them decried “Impunity!”). We were ushered upstairs into a boardroom barely big enough for the twenty or so of us Fellows and AJWS staff, and we met a thin, stooped, softspoken man named Rafael, who told us of his work in the gentlest of tones.

This building is the home of CAFCA – Centro de Análisis Forense y Ciencias Aplicadas. It’s a forensic anthropology lab.

That means: they dig up bones.

Specifically, they dig up, and analyze, bones from mass graves and other murder sites – bones buried, sometimes, decades earlier, during the 36 terrible years of the internal armed conflict in Guatemala. This genocide was perpetrated by the Guatemalan military against Guatemala’s indigenous population to crush any thought of demanding land reform. Over 200,000 people were killed before a peace accord got signed in 1996. Tens of thousands more “disappeared,” like the father of our group’s tour guide. At breakfast one morning, when he was eight years old, a knock came on our guide’s door. His father poked his head outside, looked back in at his son and said “I’ll see you soon – take care of our family.” Then he stepped out of the door. A hail of bullets descended on the house. When it stopped, the man was nowhere to be seen. We asked our guide if he knew why his family was a target. He said that his father had owned a small store; and the day before the attack, some guerrillas had come to the store and stolen food. Maybe the military thought his dad was aiding the guerrillas. The son, now in his 40s, never found out what happened to him – he even joined the military that may have killed his father, to find his father. Nothing.

The government of Guatemala takes little part in helping the country regrow from this genocide. Bills surface periodically in the Guatemalan congress, granting amnesty to former military accused of atrocious war crimes. High officials mostly come from the ranks of the same 8 families whose powerful hold over the country’s economy comes from their land rewards for military service in the genocide. Officials say, “why live in the past? The future, progress, are what’s important.”

Without the closure of knowledge, however – without the release of knowing who killed your loved ones, nor where those bones lie – the internal armed conflict remains a bleeding example of “ambiguous loss.” Never finished, never healed. The Guatemalan government is deluding itself – or trying to delude and disenfranchise its people. New beginnings can’t grow from open wounds.

Burned skeleton of a young woman from Trinitaria, exhumed by CAFCA, in Guatemala City, Guatemala on Tuesday January 28, 2020. Photographer: Christopher Dilts / AJWS

There is a village in Guatemala once called Trinitaria. In 1982, that village was razed to the ground by the military, who tried to eviscerate any local support for land reform activists. Trinitaria’s residents were forced to dig a deep trench. Then they were forced into it – maybe dead, maybe not. Gasoline was poured on and the trench was lit.

Yes, well we should shudder. The day before I heard this story was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The story was shocking and horrible but our group knew, we knew as Jews, in our kishkes, some of the feeling of what these people had endured. The Guatemalans we met referenced this too. Their airwaves had been full of the Sho’ah and they said, you lost six million, so many – how are you feeling? We thanked each other and recognized one another’s losses.

As modern Jews, we also are familiar with people claiming that a genocide never happened.

There were very few survivors from Trinitaria, who had happened to be away from home when the military arrived. They left, quickly. The forest grew; the stones of ruined houses became mossy. Some years later, a new town, Nuevo (New) Trinitaria, was built and new families moved in. The elementary school rose over the ground under which children had burned. The schoolkids knew. They talked among themselves of ghosts. Finally, in the fall of 2018, working quickly to be done by the next school term, excavation of the graves and identification of the bodies began.

New beginnings need better foundations. They need truth, and solid ground on which to stand.

The hands of a forensic anthropologist of CAFCA in Guatemala City, Guatemala on Tuesday January 28, 2020. Photographer: Christopher Dilts / AJWS

One of CAFCA’s forensic anthropologists told us a story, over the burned bones of a young woman from Trinitaria. At this anthropologist’s first reunification of a skeleton with its family, she had been emotional, had to leave the room to cry. When she returned, she was amazed and a little confused to see the family celebrating heartily. She asked, weren’t they sad? Yes, came the reply. Of course we are sad, but don’t you see? Now we know where she is. Thirty years later, now we know where she is.

Why did Joseph make his sons, and his son’s daughters, and their sons on down through the ages, swear to bring his bones with them on the flight out of Egypt? We usually read these verses and talk about how important it is to be reunited with one’s land, buried in one’s own place, connected to one’s spiritual home. All of these are true. But I think that Joseph gave a different gift to his children with his demand.

With his bones, he gave them the gift of memory. That they might be able to remember the events that brought them from the past to the present; that they might be able to touch and carry and bury and visit their beloved ancestor. That they might know where he is, and therefore, where they are.

In Guatemala City, there is a museum called “Casa de la Memoria:” house of memory. In its spare, dappled rooms, violent oppression and genocide against indigenous Guatemalans, ever since Europeans landed, is given shape and texture. I found it overwhelming – but it also helped me to better understand the testimony we heard there later, from lawyers who prosecute modern human rights crimes. It helped me know where these cycles of trauma began, and where within them the courtroom battles the lawyers fight every day are located, and what it means when they win those fights.

In the words of Herminia, our guide at Casa de la Memoria: “It is…a[n human] right to remember, and to talk about what happened…we remember because memory is what allows us to move forward and build our future.”

We do not forget. And we are not alone. As Jews, we are well-placed to understand and support others’ human rights – to remember, and to survive. Their bones mix with ours. Together, we can carry them both. Together, touching our past, we can change our present.

“We have not come here alone
We carry our people in our bones
We have not come here alone
If you listen, you can hear them in our souls.” – Peace Poets