Author: Martha Braniff
Location: Tesuque, New Mexico
Martha Everhart Braniff's book of prose and poetry, Songs From The Bone Closet,
Stone River Press, 2004, was a Finalist in the Texas Writer's League Violet Crown Literary Award. Her novel, Step Over Rio,
won the 2005 Texas Writer's League Mystery/Action Novel Award. She was the featured poet in Muse Squared.
Her story, Resurrection,
published in Happy
literary journal, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her poems and short fiction have been published in over one hundred journals. In Martha's non-writing life, she works with abused and neglected children, and endeavors to pass laws ensuring their rights. She has a special affinity for all human rights.
A writing assignment that paid two hundred dollars! At first I was excited, but then I wondered if I could handle the pain. A dread swelled in my gut as I pondered my eager and much too hasty agreement with houston.sidewalk. All I had to do was write a review of Echoes of Childhood, a 1997 exhibit at the Holocaust Museum Houston that featured photographs of displaced Rwandan children and family portraits of French Jewish children who had perished in concentration camps.
As a longtime advocate for kids, I understood that childhood differs from country to country, culture to culture, family to family. But there are some things children should never experience: war, torture, sexual slavery, and all manner of heinous crimes. This show depicted child victims of political genocide who had received no protection from government, religious institution, or community.
When I first viewed the walls of the Josef and Edith Mincberg Gallery, covered with individual images of 6,631 orphaned Rwandan children, I attempted in some small way to absorb the magnitude of suffering. The curator who accompanied me seemed to be aware of my horror and began to explain this part of the exhibit, called Reunions: The Lost Children of Rwanda.
In 1994, the photojournalist Seamus Conlan came to realize that innumerable Rwandan children had been separated from their families by the civil war, followed by a massive exodus to Zaire. He gave up a news career and passionately undertook his mission to produce twenty thousand photos over a one-year period. Sometimes he took as many as five hundred a day. The pictures were posted in refugee camps, and as a result of his diligence, over two thousand children were reunified with their families.
I was unsettled, knocked off-kilter by over six thousand technicolor young faces and tiny hands gripping white boards printed with black numbers. At first I had the impression of mug shots, but on closer examination, the children’s eyes sparked glimmers of hope, and slight smiles curled their lips. The stark, seemingly inhuman numbers were used to identify each child, because many had the same name or were too young to know their names. With reverence, I contemplated the multitude of these little souls—until the curator gently moved me to the center of the gallery that was crowded with panels resembling room dividers. “French Children of the Holocaust is the title of this part of the exhibit,” she whispered.
At once, it was the most arresting and disturbing exhibition I have ever seen. The panels featured family portraits and candid shots of French Jewish children who had been turned over by the Vichy government to Nazi officials. Of the 11,500 children taken from Vichy, France, only 300 survived. Their wide-eyed, carefree smiles and delightful innocence didn’t indicate any awareness of the monstrous future awaiting them. Boisterous schoolboys posed with soccer balls. Girls giggled, hugging one another. Toddlers romped with puppies. A chubby baby peeked into a fish bowl.
And then the arrests. Convoys of children, Stars of David sewn on their clothes, were shipped out of France and buried behind barbed wire. All of them would have remained anonymous, had Serge Klarsfeld not spent years creating a book of their names, addresses, birth dates, and the convoys on which they were taken from France. He calls his book Their Collective Gravestone.
He and his wife, Beate, dedicated their lives to human rights and were responsible for the arrest of Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon.
Few people could view this exhibit without experiencing a sense of dread, a step into the very real world of ultimate terror. I was overwhelmed with sadness at the thousands of Rwandan orphans, victims of a cruel war, but the organized betrayal of the French children by their own countrymen has had the most impact on me. Their album photos so completely depicted what had been lost: safety of home, love of family, expectations for a vibrant life.
Echoes of Childhood. Ten years later, I still hear the children’s voices calling, wishing, pleading never, never again. And yet countries throughout the world and our own United States, where hundreds of thousands of children are abused each year, stand as evidence. The children’s wish can never be.