Blog: Through Testimony

An innocent photo triggers an unexpected memory

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 11:45am -- rob.kuznia

Contributor: Josh Grossberg

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 11:45am

A friend and I recently enjoyed a lunch filled with laughter and gossip. It was, in other words, a perfectly normal work lunch. But when we were walking back to the USC campus from a nearby restaurant, something caught her eye that I didn’t notice.

“Look,” she said. “That man is holding a machete.”

She was staring at a banner in front of a restaurant that featured a photo of actor and owner Danny Trejo brandishing a giant knife.

I shrugged my shoulders and we kept walking. But a few seconds later, she stopped, turned around and walked back to study the sign again. It was as if she had to be sure that she really saw what she thought she saw.

She repeated the words she said to me only seconds earlier. “That man is holding a machete.”

Again, I shrugged.

She stared at it for a few more seconds and whispered, “It brings back my PTSD.”

And then, with a painful rush of understanding that felt like a stomach punch, I understood what I hadn’t understood a minute earlier. I began to see what she saw.

My young friend dresses in the latest fashions and can rarely be seen without a smile on her face. She has a wicked sense of humor, is quick to hug friends and always has something encouraging to say.

She’s also a survivor of a genocide. When she was a teenager, my friend lost many loved ones in the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis in Rwanda. Machetes were the weapon of choice for perpetrators in the three-month rampage that led to the butchering of up to a million people. Even now, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the genocide this month, the atrocities are still fresh in the minds of the victims.

What I saw as a silly advertisement, she saw as a menacing reminder of something she’d rather not have to think about.

This isn’t to point a finger at the restaurant or the poster out front. No doubt, the image was an homage to a character named “Machete” that Danny Trejo has played in many movies, including the family-friendly “Spy Kids” series. I’m sure it was meant to be amusing and should be taken that way. I wouldn’t expect someone from an advertising agency to look at the picture and wonder what would happen if a genocide survivor happened to walk past.

But it was just a jarring reminder that the trauma of genocide never leaves its victims. Even the happiest among them can hide lingering feelings of pain and loss decades after the fact. Even if there are no physical scars, there are lifelong psychological and emotional issues that always linger just beneath the surface.

It’s not that history repeats itself for the; it’s that it never leaves. In my work at USC Shoah Foundation, I’ve seen it in the 100-year-old survivor of the Armenian Genocide, who cried when she showed me the scar on her leg she got while escaping Turkish marauders.  I’ve seen it in the way Holocaust survivors hoard food. And I’ve seen it in the eyes of a young woman as she gazed at a seemingly innocuous poster on her way back from lunch.

Posts are contributed by individual authors. The opinions are solely the authors’ and are not necessarily a reflection of the views of USC Shoah Foundation.

About Josh Grossberg

An award-winning writer, Josh Grossberg joined the USC Shoah Foundation as public communications manager in August 2013. Prior to that, Josh was an editor and reporter for several newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a focus on ethnomusicology.

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