When reflection surprises you — a Cambodian Yom Hashoa

When reflection surprises you — a Cambodian Yom Hashoa

Each year on Yom Hashoa, we take time as individuals, and as a community, to remember the Shoa, to honor the survivors, to pay tribute to the victims and to recommit ourselves to having an active part in “never again.”
Since I was a child, I have attended and participated in Yom Hashoa events in Pittsburgh and, more recently, in Sydney, Australia. While the programs vary from year to year, I go into each one with a rough idea of what to expect: stories from survivors, candle lightings, poetry, songs, just to name a few. I have become accustomed to them and also to the feelings that they stir within me and I take comfort in the opportunity to have those feelings and to express them as part of a community.
This year, I had a remarkably different experience; I spent Yom Hashoa in Cambodia. My husband Tim and I happened to be there because we are on a year-long travel adventure, exploring places and communities in the world. So when April came around, we found ourselves in Cambodia. When we arrived, we knew that our experience of the Jewish festivals would be different this year as we would be away from our nearest and dearest and in lands foreign and unknown to us.
Earlier that month, we connected with a Jewish ex-pat community and enjoyed a wonderful Passover seder complete with matza ball soup. The seder itself went quickly with moments of communal remembrance of the Exodus, but I’d have to admit that it was not the most meaningful seder I ever attended. Nonetheless, I sat at the table with a deep appreciation both of freedom and of the process of becoming free. Days before, some people even obtained their Yom Hashoa yahrtzeit candles; I was already thinking deeply about how we pay tribute to those we’ve lost and how we’ve rebuilt ourselves as a community, both after the Exodus and after the Holocaust.
It might seem ironic that such intense thought and emotion came to me not while ensconced within the Jewish community, but in Cambodia — a country so different than anywhere I’ve ever called home. But the reason for such contemplation was that I found myself, for the first time, within a survivor community. In today’s Cambodia, every person age 30 or older is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge empire, a tyrannical and paranoid communist regime that wreaked havoc on Cambodian society between 1975 and 1979, killing nearly two million people, roughly 25 percent of the total population of the country. The small children that run around Cambodia today are the children of those survivors, people who lived through Pol Pot’s regime of mass killings, torture, starvation and labor camps only 30 years ago.
While in Cambodia, Tim and I learned about the Khmer Rouge. We visited historic sites, read stories, saw films and even attended the United Nations War Tribunal of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia (similar to the Nuremburg Trials) where we witnessed an afternoon of testimony in the case against Duch, a Khmer Rouge leader who is being tried for war crimes some 30 years after the war’s end. It conjured thoughts about reconciliation and healing and the challenges that they bring.
Nearly 10 years ago, I wrote an undergraduate honors thesis at Carnegie Mellon University entitled “The Holocaust: Did it Really End with Liberation?”
Through my travels, interviews and writings, I came to explore the questions of what it means to live as part of a post-genocide community and how we keep the legacy alive while allowing people to heal. What a shock it was for me to learn that these types of questions have not found a place in Cambodian society today. Tim and I went to Cambodia with interest in hearing from survivors and in learning how they are healing themselves. We simply assumed that we would find parallels between their community and ours and that there were bridges to be built with our shared experiences. We were shocked to learn that while there may be parallels, there seemed to be many more perpendiculars.
While we come from a community of sharing and teaching, the Cambodians are a quiet, accepting culture where “saving face” is the cultural norm that far outweighs dealing with emotions, let alone making sure that one’s story is known. Most Cambodians under 30 know there was a war, but they do not know the details of which their surviving parents and grandparents repressed at best or ashamed of at worst; they go quiet if asked about the past and will almost certainly never volunteer to share it.
Over the course of our time in Cambodia, we asked many questions, trying to make sense of the atrocities and to grapple both with how this happened so recently and with why we never learned about it in school. In my own quiet corner, I had to deal with my own conflicted feelings — when I saw the mass graves at Choeung Ek (one of the infamous “Killing Fields”), my stomach was tied in a knot identical to the one that I had when I visited Treblinka. And when we went to S-21, a high school-cum-torture center, my mind conjured up images both from Majdanek and from the displays in the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. My first instinct was one of ownership and betrayal — how could someone else’s genocide touch me as deeply as the Holocaust?
After an intensive day of learning and feeling, I kept turning the question over and over in my mind, both trying to reconcile it and also to figure out why it bothered me at all. Those few conversations that I’ve witnessed and participated in where genocides have been compared were tremendously uncomfortable. Questions of which was worse, how many more victims there were, who knew about it, who acted, who refused left me feeling like the winner of a contest that I’d have given anything not to have won.
All those years, I felt uncomfortable about the debates, feeling that I might be perceived as naïve or biased for viewing the Holocaust as so vastly unique or worse than history’s tragic list of other genocides. Somehow, and embarrassingly only now, did I realize that my discomfort had nothing to do with my defense of the Holocaust itself but rather the “ranking” of genocides to begin with — the very act minimizes the human suffering of those whose genocide is deemed to be “less horrific” than another. It was time for me to examine the meaning of the worlds “never again;” they don’t say “never again for the Jewish people,” they simply say “never again” — ever, to anyone.
Not that I don’t still believe that the Holocaust was a unique event and a defining force both in Jewish history and in world history. The Holocaust is responsible for much of my personal identity as a Jew and as a person, for my commitment to carrying on the legacy of the Shoa and also for my deep compassion for others. In fact, it is my understanding of the Holocaust and my experiences within the Jewish community that have allowed me to arrive at where I am today.
This year, I am a young Jewish woman who spent Yom Hashoa in Cambodia — a place where I was both far away from a formal Yom Hashoa commemoration and, at the same time, where I was newly confronted with issues of how to deal with the emotions that come along with being part of a genocide legacy. While I honor Yom Hashoa as a day that is set aside for remembrance of the Holocaust (and no other genocide), I couldn’t keep the Cambodian genocide from creeping into my thoughts, and my reflections surprised me. While the day was somber as usual, it was also inspiring, for I came to appreciate (even more) that I come from a community of sharing, where we value personal experience, we prize learning and teaching and, most of all, we honor each person who experienced the Shoa privately and publicly, thoughtfully and carefully.
While I strive not to judge Cambodian society’s way of reconciling its past, I feel sad when I see the resulting emotions of many of its citizens. They are dealing with the aftermath of the war in their own quiet ways, without the support of their community or even their families. In thinking about how we heal and what each person’s healing means to the world, I began to think about tikkun olam, the healing of the world, and my role in this mitzvah, which brings more love and better understanding into the world. For me, part of my role is to be an active part of the post-Holocaust Jewish community, to know what happened, hear and read the stories, share them with others, teach those who come after me.
This year, on Yom Hashoa, I recommitted myself to that role but I also committed myself to sharing what I have learned in Cambodia, to build bridges between communities of shared experiences, to be a listening ear, to be a stand for others’ freedom, to create love in the world where there might otherwise be none, to help keep the promise of “never again.”
I’ve come to learn about tragedy in the world and cannot ignore it. I admit I went to Cambodia expecting to have a different kind of Passover and a quiet, uneventful Yom Hashoa. What I saw when I looked in the mirror surprised me — it wasn’t my usual Yom Hashoa reflection; it was something quiet and meek yet confronting and illuminating, inviting me to give it a voice and to tell its story.

(Sarah Gross Fife, a former member of the Chronicle board of trustees, is traveling around the world with husband, Tim.)