Guatemala City candles and flowers used for Mayan invocation ceremonies
In Guatemala City, candles and flowers used for Mayan invocation ceremonies welcome Global Justice Fellows to a meeting with Autoridades Ancestrales, a coalition representing many indigenous and ethnic groups in Guatemala working to stop the injustices affecting their communities.

A recent trip to Guatemala gave Rabbi Whinston a sense of how to live a meaningful life after immense pain and loss

Photography by Christopher Dilts/AJWS

Few of us know what we would do in the face of genocide.

Since my early adolescence, I’ve had fantasies about what I would have done if I had been alive during the Shoah. In these daydreams, I imagine myself attacking Nazis. I see myself as a freedom fighter living in the forests of France or Ukraine. “I’d fight,” I tell myself. “I wouldn’t be a victim.”

And as much as I believe this — as much as many of us believe this about ourselves — the truth is: We have no idea what we would do.

It was with these fantasies that I boarded a plane to Guatemala on the last week of January as a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service (AJWS). We were going there to meet with organizations that AJWS supports to promote human rights and fight corruption in their country.

As we were landing, I saw lush green mountains with shanty homes sprawling down their sides and immense volcanoes rising to the heavens. Though I didn’t know it then, the contrast would perfectly foreshadow the beauty and pain I was about to encounter.

The entire week, we were surrounded by a beautiful land and people — a country full of life, its people greeting us with smiles and openness. But the individuals we met also invited us into their stories of pain.

A forensic anthropologist remembered crying when she uncovered her first mass grave: a remnant from the 36-year internal armed conflict and ensuing genocide lasting from 1960 to 1996, in which the military regime systematically murdered more than 200,000 indigenous Mayan people.

She told us the first victim she uncovered was an expectant mother, that tears came streaming down her face as she brushed away dirt from the bones of that unborn child, encircled by the bones of its mother. The anthropologist was so upset, she had to leave the excavation … but upon returning, she could hear joyous laughter coming from the site. It was the family of the victim laughing — celebrating that after decades of searching, they had finally found their loved one and could lay her bones to rest.

Our tour guide, tasked with getting us from place to place, had a story of his own. When he was just 8 years old and the internal armed conflict was raging, there was a knock on the door of his home early one morning. His father rose from the breakfast table and cracked the door open; he then turned to his family and said, “There are men outside who want to speak with me.” Then, looking directly at his eldest son — the 8-year-old boy who would one day become our tour guide — he instructed, “Listen to what your mother tells you; do what she says,” before stepping outside.

Moments later, the gunshots started. When that 8-year-old boy tried to run out to help his father, his mother held him back. But after the shooting ceased, the father was nowhere to be found. They never did find him. Our guide told us that, in his family’s heart, they buried their father long ago.

Of all the grantee partners we met, it was the young members of an artist cooperative who inspired me the most. They are taking trauma and pain and transforming it into art. They are gathering their strength as friends waste away in prison simply for defending the human rights of others. Armed only with courage and a dream for a better future, these artists influence their country to challenge the prevalent narrative of corruption, impunity and degradation. They use their art to inspire hope, change and justice.

Few of us know what we would do in the face of genocide. When the monsters come, when the gun is pointed at our head, when our town is scorched, few of us know what we would actually do. But if, God forbid, I ever find myself in a life or death situation, I hope I have the resilience to lead a life as meaningful as the ones I witnessed in Guatemala.

Josh Whinston is a rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor.


  1. Touching and heart breaking story. At least there are witnesses like Rabbi Whinston to keep these stories alive before the stories of these 200,000 Mayan people disappear into oblivion.


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