Surviving Genocide: Memoirs of the Unthinkable | The Reader’s Shelf, April 15, 2013

The men and women who survived genocide and helped others to survive deserve our everlasting admiration. Their heroic, suspenseful, and inspirational accounts are harrowing but vitally important reading.

Margaret Ajemian Ahnert explores the 1915 Turkish massacre of Armenian Christians in The Knock at the Door: A Journey Through the Darkness of the Armenian Genocide (Beaufort, dist. by Midpoint Trade. 2012. ISBN 9780825306839. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780825305535). Through alternating perspectives, Ahnert relates the story of her mother, Ester, a survivor of the forced evacuations and slaughter, as well as her own experience of trying to connect to her mother’s past. This dramatic, violent, and insightful dual memoir brings an intimate focus to an often overlooked period of history.

In Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land (Univ. of North Carolina. 1986. ISBN 9780807841600. pap. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780807898826), Sara ­Nomberg-Przytyk depicts life in a Nazi concentration camp. A Polish Jew, the author  was transported to Auschwitz in 1944. Through the compassion and resourcefulness of others she received extra food and warm clothes and was admitted as a patient to the camp hospital even though she was not sick. Ultimately, she was given a job in the infirmary, and though the position helped her to survive the horrors of the camp, it put her in proximity to the infamous Dr. Mengele. Her bleak, dark, and authentic account provides a frank description of Nazi atrocities.

Chanrithy Him, an expert on the post-traumatic stress disorder that Cambodian refugees suffer, draws on her own nightmarish trauma in When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (Norton. 2001. ISBN 9780393322101. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393076165). The Khmer Rouge took over the Cambodian government in 1975, and Him’s father was killed as an antirevolutionist shortly thereafter. By the end of the war, 28 members of her family had been killed or had died of starvation and illness. Through hard work and the support of what remained of her family, Him survived and escaped. She now works with the Khmer Adolescent Project in Oregon.

FaX from Sarajevo: a Story of Survival (Dark Horse, 1998; o.p. but widely held) is Joe Kubert’s candid and explicit account of the Serbian-Bosnian conflict of the 1990s. This graphic novel juxtaposes real faxes exchanged between Ervin Rustemagic, an artist living in Sarajevo, and his colleagues in other countries—including Kubert—with vibrant action-filled panels and photographs. The mix of media and words creatively brings to life the wrenching violence of the Serbian war and the resulting genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Trapped in Sarajevo, Rustemagic was witness to the horrors of snipers, ethnic cleansing, and bombings. His account, masterfully brought to life by Kubert’s fine hand, illuminates a world turned upside down.

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina with Tom Zoellner (Penguin. 2007. ISBN 9780143038603. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781101201312) served as inspiration for the movie ­Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle. Rusesabagina was a manager of Hôtel des Mille Collines when the violence between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes broke out in Rwanda in 1994. During the worst of the Rwandan genocide, people flocked to the hotel for aid. Defying the militants, who demanded entry and camped outside the hotel with machetes waiting to kill those hiding inside, Rusesabagina’s diplomacy, guts, and sheer nerve eventually paid off, and the hotel was safely evacuated. He ultimately helped to save the lives of more than a thousand people. This violent, gritty, and bleak story builds in intensity and suspense and traces not only Rusesabagina’s heroic actions but also his childhood and life as a refugee after his remarkable stand.

Written with coauthor Damien Lewis, Halima Bashir’s Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur (One World: Ballantine. 2009. ISBN 9780345510464. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780345509901) is an inspiring and thought-provoking personal account of the 2003–04 genocide carried out by Janjaweed Arab militias and abetted by the Arab-dominated Sudanese government. Born in an impoverished region of Sudan, Bashir overcame many odds to become her village’s first doctor. As attacks worsened in her region, Bashir aided the traumatized victims even though she lacked supplies and government support. Many of Bashir’s own friends and family members were killed, and she was beaten and gang-raped by military officers.

This column was contributed by Rachel K. Fischer, a student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University, River Forest, IL

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at