Memories of the Shoah on the Killing Fields



Tibor Krausz

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency


As someone who lost most of his family to the Holocaust, I came to regard the Shoah as the ultimate benchmark for mass murder. Any subsequent 20th-century genocides seemed merely sad reminders that the post-Holocaust pledge “Never again” was just an empty promise.

Then I went to Tuol Sleng, Cambodia’s version of a mini Auschwitz in Phnom Penh, the impoverished Southeast Asian nation’s capital. Outside Tuol Sleng, or “Poison Tree Hill,” ragged children chase a football while a small girl savors a vanilla ice cream. Like more than half of Cambodians, they were born after the Khmer Rouge genocide and probably don’t know why this former school has been turned into a museum.

The nondescript three-story building with its open-air corridors arranged in a horse-shoe shape resembles any high school in the country. Once, though, it was anything but a benign place of learning. Here, even courtyard trees take on sinister connotations: Perhaps people were spread-eagled to branches and flayed alive.

Skulls of murdered Cambodians provide a gruesome reminder of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge at a Killing Fields memorial outside Phnom Penh (photo: Tibor Krausz)

A former Khmer Rouge prison, the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes was once known as Prison S-21. A stroll around the premises helps me get to grips with a formerly abstract tragedy — someone else’s pain and loss.

In a room left as Vietnamese troops found it in 1979 after driving Pol Pot and his thugs back into the jungles, stains still blacken the walls around a metal bed hooked up to electric prods under a large photograph of a burnt victim, the last to die here after no doubt “confessing” to being an “imperialist stooge” recruited by the CIA to undermine Cambodia’s new people’s paradise. Rule No. 6 of the Security Regulations displayed at the door declares: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”

While their end results were similar, the Holocaust and Cambodia’s Killing Fields were motivated by different ideologies. One was the industrialized, systematic mass murder of a people purely for ethnic reasons with a concomitant attempt to erase an entire, millennia-old religious culture from the face of the earth; the other saw an estimated 3 million helpless Cambodians clobbered and starved to death at whim by their indoctrinated compatriots who often came from the same village on trumped-up charges of being “enemies of the revolution.”

Yet the Holocaust and the Killing Fields had this much in common: Not only did both the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge genocide obliterate the lives of the murdered, but they have also irretrievably destroyed two peoples’ past and blighted their future.

The Nazis’ mass murder of Jews is singular among modern genocides in that beyond exterminating 6 million Jews with industrial efficiency, it destroyed a distinct civilization in the process — that of Eastern European Jewry.

Cambodia’s own holocaust came close. In his zeal to “restore” Cambodians to a half-baked notion of an agrarian utopia, Pol Pot set about eradicating all traces of culture and urbanity from Khmer society. Monks, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and intellectuals — or anyone who happened to be wearing glasses — were systematically eliminated. This, in a nation that was the proud heir of the renowned Angkor Wat temple complex dating from the Middle Ages.

It was no accident that a school, in the form of Toul Sleng, should have been turned into the regime’s most notorious slaughterhouse. Covering the walls in two ground-floor rooms are snapshots. With Gestapo-like efficiency, Khmer Rouge guards took pictures of their victims, men, women, even children — often whole “enemy” families — before sending them to their deaths.

Most stare back frightened, many dumbstruck, some resigned, a few defiant. The photos’ original purpose was to document and humiliate. Yet with their help, the victims, individually and collectively, have defied their murderers. Although they went to their death nameless, they haven’t remained faceless.

Former classrooms were turned into torture chambers honeycombed with makeshift brick coops containing iron shackles. A gruesome gallery of oil paintings provides an eyewitness account of how inmates met their ends. Left behind by Vann Nath, one of seven survivors out of some 16,000 prisoners, the paintings’ childish perspectives make them all the more poignant.

Vann Nath has done for the Killing Fields what Art Spiegelman, in his comic book “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” has done for the Holocaust: show horror through the eyes of an innocent. In one painting, guards in the Khmer Rouge’s trademark black pajamas and checkered scarves wrench the fingernails of their captive with pliers. In another, they cudgel a man to death with bamboo sticks. In a third, they drown a prisoner in an oil drum filled with water.

Mounted on a wall in another room is a large map of Cambodia fashioned from human skulls and dissected diagonally by a stylized Mekong painted blood red. Nothing could better encapsulate the Killing Fields. Between 1975 and 1979 — or Year Zero to Year Four in their reckoning — Pol Pot, aka Brother No. 1, and his illiterate goons, recruited from among indoctrinated young peasants, transformed the country into a nationwide concentration camp.

Whoever takes one life is as if he destroyed a whole world, the Mishnah insists. Khmer Rouge executioners did their work well. They killed between 1.7 and 3 million Cambodians, or nearly a quarter of the population. It was a national disaster that approached the Holocaust in its quantitative magnitude.

Though Pol Pot died in 1998, his bloody handprints continue to bedevil Cambodia in the country’s enduring poverty and lawlessness. Outside the museum, maimed beggars plead for loose change. While several Khmer Rouge stalwarts laze about in retirement in baronial mansions, landmines littering the countryside continue to claim daily victims from among the downtrodden.

Yet life goes on. A comparatively upscale neighborhood encroaches on the museum’s barbed-wire perimeters. A guesthouse has sprouted opposite the museum’s gate.

A handful of Khmer Rouge leaders are at last facing trial for their crimes at a UN-sponsored tribunal. Comrade Duch, as Kang Kek Iew, a former math teacher and commandant of Tuol Sleng, came to be known, has been sentenced to life imprisonment.

But survivors and relatives can exact their own measure of justice through remembrance of the victims and public testimonials. Cambodian scholars and nonprofits have turned to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and Holocaust museums in the United States for inspiration in creating their own memorials.

Yet perhaps, in one of the world’s poorest countries any funds collected for a new genocide museum could be better spent on improving the lives of Cambodians, survivors and their offspring alike. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis before them, may have killed the past and blighted the present for millions of people, but Cambodians, like Jews now prospering again, must be allowed to reclaim the future.


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