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There are so many forms of courage in our lives. It starts when we are very young, for instance: taking that first step as a little child. Lifting one foot and standing on the other foot, putting the lifted foot forward and down to the floor, all the time trusting the foot and leg; will it hold me until the other foot helps support me again? Will I fall, or will it work out?

I would like to talk about a kind of courage I saw on our visit to Cambodia in February 2010. I had wanted to visit Cambodia for many years before going. After reading about it, I felt a connection, although I was not quite sure why. I had seen photographs of the temple complex at Angkor Wat. It happens sometimes that you feel attracted to something without a specific reason. 

My dad had loved Khmer art and collected ancient pottery. He had many books about Khmer art and people. I used to see the books during every visit to my parents in Holland, and I was fascinated by my dad’s stories, always illustrated by pictures in his books. I learned about the genocide in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot in the late ’70s. Not so much was published about that time; the United States was coping with the post-Vietnam era. 

Making a trip to Southeast Asia took a lot of planning. We started by buying guidebooks. We read for many months and decided where to travel in the region. We needed many vaccinations, and the medications we had to take took a good part of our luggage space. We were not used to the insects, the water, or the climate.

I had heard about a young Cambodian woman who had translated The Diary of Anne Frank from Dutch into the Khmer language. Her name is Sayana. I contacted her and asked her why she had done this work. She explained that she uses the diary when she speaks to Khmer children. She teaches them to stand up against hatred and prejudice and to think before they act. Again I felt a connection because that is what survivors who volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum do. Sayana works at the Center for Accountability in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and she travels all over the country for her work. The institute promotes accountability for the abuses committed during the Cambodian genocide.

It is very courageous work, since so many perpetrators are still alive and living in freedom. Many have never been punished for the atrocities they committed. During the genocide years, three million of Cambodia’s population of eight million people were brutally murdered. Professionals, teachers, professors, and everybody wearing eyeglasses were presumed educated and a threat to the regime. Every family misses relatives. Buildings, houses, books, and utensils were destroyed. It was even forbidden to own a spoon to eat with.

At the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the Khmer people decided to rebuild. The country is so poor, and rebuilding will take a very long time. Children have to be educated; farmers need to be taught how to work the fields again. Tourism will, of course, be a great source of income for the country. It is so remarkable that the Khmer people are so friendly and seem so happy. They lived in fear for so many years but are so grateful to be free now, and they have the courage to start over.

I see clearly the parallels between “our” Holocaust and the holocaust of the Khmer people; they’re very apparent to me.

© 2016 Louise Lawrence-Israëls. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   louise lawrence-israëlslouise lawrence israëlsechoes of memory, volume 9racismvolunteering at the museum


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