Though I was raised Jewish in Philadelphia, went to synagogue, attended Jewish events, and lived in Israel, I’ve never met a concentration camp survivor. On the other hand, since I moved to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, early last year, I’ve met plenty of people who’ve been through hell.
Every couple of months I seem to read a story about the awkwardness that foreigners feel in these brushes. Mine happened last November when I took my parents to Tuol Sleng, a notorious former prison where thousands were tortured under Khmer Rouge rule in the late 1970s. We had toured most of the old prison cells and exhibits that now stand on the site, when we walked across the sunny square and passed an old man sitting behind a table of books. I recognized his photo as one of the few known survivors of the prison, Chum Mey, an 82-year-old man with small tufts of silver hair hanging on to a mostly bald head. Mey is one of the most visible survivors of the Khmer Rouge, making himself available to tourists and responding to developments at the tribunal when journalists call him on his cell phone. Mey, who survived because of his prized mechanical skills, is one of two former inmates who came back to the prison where they were tortured, to sell memoirs, take pictures, and talk to people about his past. (Imagine, if you can, Primo Levi selling copies of If This is a Man outside the gates at Auschwitz.) I learned he could make up to $200 a day.
“Sometimes,” he told me through a translator, “I cry following the tourists who react to my story. When they buy my books, they ask me about my life during Khmer Rouge, and their tears drop down when I tell them and show my photos when I was here at the time, and I also cry. It is really hurtful for me to sell at the place where I suffered, but from day to day, I can reduce it. It is not so painful today.”
Most tourists want to take their picture with him. I knew he had just published a memoir, so I asked for a copy. He leaned in and pointed to the cover, saying three words in English: “New. York. Times.” He must have been referring to Seth Mydans, the former Times correspondent in Cambodia who assisted with the text. I bought a copy, and while I waited for my change, he started to arrange chairs on either side of him.
“What’s he doing?” my dad asked.
“I think we’re supposed to take a picture with him,” I said.
“A picture?” my dad asked, holding the camera poised at chest level. “No, we can’t do that. Let the man have his dignity.”
We ended up not taking the photo, and instead moved on after some thank yous and smiles. When I thought about it later, I realized it was a moment that captured the chasm between tourists and Cambodians who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime. There’s the survivor, happy to sit with us and tell his story—not the first time he would do it that day, not the last. And then there’s us, the outsiders looking in, uncomprehending. We still don’t understand what the locals refer to simply as “the Pol Pot time.”
But as Jews, we do understand genocide, so there may be some way to comprehend the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is planning a small exhibit about the Cambodian genocide, as I reported today for Tablet. Read the full article here.
Joe Freeman is a Southeast Asia-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Phnom Penh Post, and the Nikkei Asian Review.