Children of the Holocaust, Children of the Killing Fields
Presented by the Cambodian Association of Illinois and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
The two speeches below were recorded on July 20, 2000, at the Spertus Museum of Judaica, Chicago, Illinois. We would like to thank Mr. Aaron Elster and Ms. Loung Ung for their permission to record the presentation for inclusion on this site. We also gratefully acknowledge the Cambodian Association of Illinois and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago for organizing the event.
Since the document below was transcribed from audio tape, the spellings of some names and places may be incorrect. There are also a handful of instances when a word or sentence fragment on the tape was unclear. These are marked in the text within angular brackets .
The first speaker was Mr. Aaron Elster.
I'd say I'm somewhat nervous, happy to be here, and I hope I can do what I'm supposed to do. I recently, within the last few years, wrote a story about my childhood, and because of time constraints I sort of shortened it to try and fit into a shorter period of time. What I'd like to do is read it to you, that portion of it, and I'd like you to come back with me to when I was a child, of about eight, nine, ten years of age in Poland.
My name is Aaron. It's 1940 and I'm eight years old. The German soldiers have taken over the town that I live in. It's called Sokolow, in Poland. I have two sisters. My oldest sister Irene is 11 years old, and my baby sister Sarah, who's 5. My parents own a meat market. Most of our business is done with the gentile population in and around the town that we live in. They are our friends and neighbors. My childhood memories go back to Thursday mornings. The farmers from the surrounding areas would come to the town square, and my memory is still filled with those sights, the bright hot sun, the sounds, the voices, the laughter, the smells of fresh food, even the smells of horse manure. All these separate impressions mingled together to create an atmosphere that I thought was just wonderful, and I thought it would last forever. But then life began to change, and everything is different now. The Germans say I can't go to school because I'm Jewish. Kids call me names... "dirty Jew," "Christ killer." I don't understand. I didn't do anything. I'm not even sure what these names mean. I go to religious school, which is taught by an uncle of mine. We go to the teacher's apartment, that's where the schoolroom is, and we sit around a long wooden table and repeat over and over what the rabbi reads to us. We're told if we don't follow the commandments that we won't ever get to heaven. And sometimes I have bad dreams at night. The things that the teacher tells me scare me. I'm afraid of not being able to go to heaven if I don't follow the commandments. This is the first time that I begin to think about death and dying, and it frightens me. In my dreams I never quite make it up to heaven. Every time I commit an infraction of my rabbi's teachings, a rung is taken out of an imaginary ladder that leads to heaven, and I fear that my soul will wander forever without finding peace.
The German soldiers really scare me with their uniforms... the high black boots, and their steel helmets. I see them grab old men off the streets and shear their beards off while their comrades watch and take pictures of these humiliated Jews. Jews can't walk on the sidewalk when a German is present. All Jews are forced to wear a yellow star. The gendarmes and the police are everywhere. They are mean and they beat the people of my town for no reason that I can understand except for the fact that these people are Jews. When they come into the area that they force us to live in - the ghetto - people try to run and hide. They grab people off the streets and they beat them, they take them away and we never see them again. Rumors are everywhere. People talk about the work camps. No one ever comes back from those work camps. Everyone is whispering that the people are being killed - not just killed, but burned, in ovens... that sometimes people are killed and dumped in mass graves. They saw we are being exterminiated. Like when you exterminate bugs in your pantry, and I don't understand.
Yes, everything is different now. Old people and children walk the streets with torn and dirty clothes, begging for food. Children are dying because there is not enough food for them to eat. And now there are dead children lying in the sidewalks and people just walk around them. It's a common sight. Eventually a crew comes and puts them in a wagon and they are dumped in a mass grave. We are surrounded by tall brick walls and sharp wire that'll cut you if you touch it. We are trapped. We cannot walk out of our area, the ghetto. Things are getting really scary, it's getting worse and worse. More and more people are being taken away to the death camp near our town. It's called Treblinka. One night my father is dragged out of the house by the German police. They beat him, they take him and put him with other people that are shipped to Treblinka. But my Dad escapes somehow and makes his way back home. But my uncle, who is only sixteen, he's only sixteen years old but he's caught in one of the roundups, and he's put with hundreds of other Jews on crowded cattle cars that goes to Treblinka. My uncle knows that when the train reaches Treblinka that they'll all be murdered. So, he finds a way to jump off the train while the train is still moving. But a guard sees him and shoots him. A bullet goes through his neck and into his arm, but he doesn't die. He makes his way back to the ghetto and sneaks back to our house, and we hear from him what has happened. I see the terrible infected wounds in his neck and his arm, and soon these wounds kill him. Now I'm so scared of what's going to happen. We know that we will probably be taken to Treblinka. The fear of death and the pain that comes with dying are always on my mind. Pain and death are all around me. I can't stop thinking about what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. I pray to God to save us... why do we have to die, what did we do? What terrible sins did we commit? Why do the Germans hate us so much, and why are so many other people helping them? What did I ever do? But my questions to God never get answered.
It's 1942 and I'm ten years old. This September the German Gestapo and the Ukranian soldiers plus the local police surround and invade the ghetto to start the final killings, the liquidation of the Jewish people that are still alive. They're searching the streets of the ghetto, trying to find any Jews that are hiding. Some of the Jews that they find are shot on the spot. Others are chased into the town marketplace. Guards are running back and forth, hitting people, cursing them. We know that all these people will be killed. We also know that the same fate will await us if we are discovered, and that's why we're hiding.
My family and neighbors are hiding inside a double wall in the attic. It's very scary and we're always afraid. It's morning after the day of atonement; there must be at least 40 or more people here with us. People are whispering and telling each other to keep quiet so we won't be discovered. One of the little children starts to cry... and I watch in disbelief as a mother's hand is placed on the child's face to stifle the noise and now it's quiet. Then silence... total silence. I dare not make a sound but my body is shaking because I'm afraid that I will die. I'm afraid that all of us will die. My parents are sitting next to me... they are making sure that my little six-year-old sister Sarah doesn't utter a sound. And now I hear footsteps and loud commands and soon the wall behind us that we are hiding [behind] is ripped away, and the SS start shooting into our hiding place. People are lying all around me, bleeding and dying. I know these people. They have done nothing wrong. They are like me... just like me. A bullet hits the wall next to where I'm sitting and a splinter of wood breaks off and gets embedded in my upper lip. The blood is running into my mouth. My parents are being forced to climb out of the hiding place. My father has my little sister Sarah in his arms. I crawl out behind them. My father's back shields me from the blows of the Ukranian guards. As we are chased down the stairs a guard with a club in his hand pulls my mother out of line and takes her away. Others are pushed and smashed against the wall of a building. My little sister and I are standing next to our father. Guards are screaming at us, "Dirty Jews!" Anyone who's near a guard gets hit with a club. I watch an SS man shoot one of the women. Blood is running from her head into the street. I know this woman. She was our neighbor.
I try not to look at them. My eyes are stuck to the ground. I'm convinced that if I don't look in their faces that they will not see me. But I can't control my fear, and my whole body shakes. I can't stop shaking. But I don't cry. I still don't make a sound. We are chased up to the main market place. While we're waiting, they make us sit in a square. A guard sits in the middle with a machine gun and keeps turning and pointing at everyone. Other guards are walking around and beating people if they are not lined up right. Sarah and I are sitting next to my dad. My sister is still too young to understand what's going on. She thinks we are going on a trip, and has brought some dried [...] food... that is wrapped in a handkerchief. I'm terrified of the pain that I imagine comes with death. I shake with fear. I don't want to die. I keep praying to God to spare me, but then I wonder, why would he spare me? There are other children who are better behaved than I am. There are other children that are much more pious. These are the ones that'll be saved, but not me.
We are sitting there, and I start to cry. Why is God allowing this to happen? I don't want to die. My father tells me that I should run and try to escape, maybe I could make my way to where my sister Irene has been hidden. You see, before the liquidation my parents had placed my older sister with a friendly Polish couple, Mr. And Mrs. Gursky, for safety. My sister was chosen because a girl was easier to disguise as a non-Jew. My parents paid them money, but I do know where my sister is hiding. So I crawl behind the people sitting next to me, and inch my way slowly on my stomach away from there and into the sewer that runs along the edge of the street. It seems like it takes forever. Will they see me? Will they shoot me? Perhaps I won't feel the pain if I'm shot in the back. Finally I stand up and run. No one sees me. No one notices me. No one is shooting at me. Why? I don't understand. I run into the cellar of one of the empty houses and I hide there that day and night. And the next morning I sneak out of the house and run over to where the walls with the barbed wire fence surround the ghetto, and crawl through those barbed wires. Now I'm free, I have escaped. I run, and keep running, until at last I come to a farm near our town. There are other survivors there. They tell me that my mother is still alive. She's part of a labor detail that's packing and shipping Jewish belongings to Germany. I sneak back to the ghetto and find my mother. She helps me hide while she is working and at night we are together. One evening we run away together to some other farms further away from my town, and during the day we hide in the forest and barns. At night we sneak out and ask farmers for food. Sometimes we are lucky and they give us a place to hide and some food. Other times they chase us away and they tell us that they are going to turn us over to the Germans. This goes on for many weeks. It's getting cold and I'm getting sick. My mother tells me that I must go back to the town to see if Mrs. Gursky will take me in. My mother gives me some jewelry that she has and tells me to give the jewelry to the Gurskys, or anyone else that'll help me. I'm deeply hurt because I don't understand her motives. I feel abandoned. I cry and yet later I realize that had we not separated I would surely not have survived. I try to live on my own and I hide in the woods and barns. I dig up potatoes and sugar beets that the farmers have buried to keep them from freezing, and those raw potatoes become my diet. One night in desperation I knock on a farmer's door and plead with him to help me. I give him the jewelry that my mother gave me. At first he agrees, and I'm taken down into the cellar of the farmhouse, and one of the members of his family brings me some soup and bread. This is the first food I've eaten, the first hot food I've eaten in a very long time. I'm overjoyed with the hope that they will hide me. But soon I'm asked to come up from the cellar and I'm told that they are in fear of their lives for helping Jews, that the Germans might discover me. So they return my mother's jewelry to me and tell me to give myself up because there is no more future for people like me. So I walk back to the ghetto, but everything is different now. There's nobody left. The streets are empty and eerie. The ghetto's completely dark and silent, it frightens me. I walk into one of the empty houses and go to sleep on the floor.
Next morning, early, so no one would see me, I start walking to the Gurskys. No one's in the street, but even so, I'm still worried that someone will see me and turn me over to the Germans. When Mrs. Gursky sees me she's angry and she yells at me for coming there. She tells me that I'm dangerous because if the Germans find out that they're helping Jews, they'll kill everyone. She tells me that my sister isn't there anymore, and she wants me to leave. I beg, and I cry. I plead for her to help me, to let me hide in her attic, even if only for a little while. She finally agrees to let me in the attic, but only for a few days, and after that I must leave and find my mother again. So Mrs. Gursky takes me up to the attic and gives me a pail to use as a toilet. A sack of straw is placed over in the corner where the roof and the floor meet. I crouch up with my knees against my chest like a little baby and try to keep warm. The floor of the attic is dry dirt; the roof is made of tin plates which are freezing to the touch. It's very cold. Though there are no windows, even so, some light shines through the separations of the roof. And in the morning, the inside of the roof is white with ice and frost that has formed during the night because of the freezing cold.
The Gurskys live upstairs. In their house, two other families live on the first floor, and next to their apartment is the attic. Mrs. Gursky doesn't come up to the attic again until the next day. She gives me some soup and bread, which I break up into small pieces and hide in my sock. She tells me that I'm a terrible burden and that I'm placing everyone in a very dangerous situation. A few days later my sister appears. She's allowed to come up to the attic with some hot water so that I can wash, but it's useless. I'm full of lice from head to toe, and the water doesn't do any good, and my sister leaves and I'm left alone. Mrs. Gursky tells me that she should never have taken me in. She's afraid that if she throws me out and the Germans catch me, that I will probably tell them that she and her husband had helped me, and they will kill everyone for helping Jews. Why did she listen to our mother?
The news about the war is always bad, it seems, getting worse. The Germans say that they're winning the war. They're going to conquer the whole world. What will happen if they do? Slowly those few days turn into weeks, and those weeks eventually turn into years. I live in that attic for nearly two years. I stay in one corner of the attic. I'm always cold. I'm always hungry. I never get to take a bath, brush my teeth, cut my hair. I stay in the same clothes which are full of lice. Hunger gives me terrible, wrenching pains in my stomach. Will the pain ever go away: When will Mrs. Gursky bring me some food. I always try to remember, what was it like to be full?
In the attic there's a place where the wooden walls meet the tin plates that form the roof, and I pry open a little spot between them so that I can look down at the yard behind the house. And there in the back yard I see a little girl -- the youngest daughter of one of the families that live below the place where I'm hiding. And the little girl is eating strawberries. And I'll never forget that little girl, or the strawberries. Down there, there's a child eating strawberries, and life is fairly normal. Up here, I'm hiding for my life. If I were not Jewish, my life would be like hers. And I'm beset with envy. Why was I born Jewish? Why couldn't I be like her? Mrs. Gursky made arrangements with our mother to hide only one child, but now there are two of us, and she's angry with our mother for sending me to the place where my sister is hiding. Mrs. Gursky accepted my sister. She thought my sister Irene could possibly pass as a Gentile, but I could not. I would be more readily recognized as a Jew because I was circumsized, and Polish boys were not in those days. And since my mother chose my sister as the one who could be saved, by my coming here I'm jeapordizing my sister's existence as well as theirs. So by being here, I'm creating an even more dangerous situation for all of them, and that is why everyone wants me to leave. I feel that everyone hates me; nobody at all even cares if I survive. No one but me. I want to live.
My days in the attic are spent in constant fear of being discovered. I always worry about being thrown out, being caught by the Germans. What if they catch me? Will they torture me? Will they force me to tell them who was hiding and helping me? Will they kill me? Why do I have to die? What did I do? What sins did I commit? Did I offend someone? Who? Why? So I sit in silence. My days and nights are very lonely. There are no friends for me to play with -- except -- except when it rains. Rain becomes my welcome friend, because when it rains the rain hits the tin plate that forms the roof and makes such a loud noise against the tin that I'm able to scream, even sing. This lets out whatever's pent up inside of me. I'm also filled with dreams. I try to imagine that this would soon be over, and that I would see my mother and father and sister again. I try to imagine that we will be together again, and that I'm not cold, or scared anymore, and I'm not hungry. No more hunger. No more pain in my stomach from not enough food. And finally, no more loneliness. But everything is different now. Out of 6000 Jewish people that lived in our town, only 29 survived. Only two children survived on their own: My sister Irene and I. My dad dies in the death camp of Treblinka. My mother... my mother survives in hiding, and then four months before liberation she's turned over to the Germans by a local farmer. She's tied to a wagon and brought into town for the German Gestapo and she's shot in the town cemetary. And my little sister Sarah... who's been breaking my heart for most of my adult life... dies... on the way to the gas chambers in Treblinka. Or perhaps she dies inside the gas chamber. Or maybe... maybe they've discovered some other unspeakable way to kill an innocent six-year-old who's alone with no one that loves her aside. No one knows. No one will ever know.
Yes, everything is different now. My name is Aaron.
Thank you for listening.
I don't know about you, but Aaron, thank you so much. As you were speaking, I just thought to myself: That's my story. Fifty years apart, but that's my story. That's my story. Same concept, fear, betrayal, hunger... always, there was hunger. Nonstop loneliness... it's hard. It's all so hard to hear about other people's stories, and yet it's all our story. Every one of us. It's the human story.
I don't know where to begin. I guess I'll begin, similar to Aaron, when I was a child. Our story is so parallel. I was also a child when the Khmer Rouge came into my country. A five-year-old child. At the time, I didn't know about the Vietnam War crossing into Cambodia. I didn't know about the metal killing birds that would zoom to Cambodia, drop bombs, and then disappear. I didn't know about the American bombs. I didn't know about politics. None of that mattered to me. All I knew was that at the time, the second-youngest of seven, a five-year-old child, I was my father's princess. I was my father's world. I had three very handsome brothers who were clever, smart, and three beautiful sisters who were all so nice and obedient. And then there was me. My mother thought I didn't just walk, but stomped around like a cow dying of thirst. She thought I talked too much. I talk to my sister last week and said, "Can you believe it? I speak for a living." She said, "Well... you've always done it. Now you're doing it in English."
My mother was so worried because instead of walking around, and learning how to walk quietly, speak quietly, I had a pet chicken that I carried around with me and put into chicken fights. I still have a scar to this day. And she's so worried that I was never going to grow up and be a proper lady, and find a proper husband. She didn't know I was gonna move to America. Proper husband is very hard to find here. A lady? No.
My childhood was very charmed. My parents adored me. I knew they didn't just love me, they were absolutely in love with me. And I wanna share this with you: that Cambodia is still a beautiful country. It's not only the land of genocide and war. It's still beautiful country, where the people are still very resilient, very eloquent, very beautiful. We're still part of the human race.
At the time -- I wanted to share this with you -- in Cambodia we lived right across from a theatre, a movie theatre. And my father, my mother -- my parents and I would just all, every weekend, we would go see the movies. And while my mother fusses over the fact that I didn't like my vegetables, my junk food of choice was fried crickets... much more interesting than popcorn at the movie theatres. And that my father, in the movie theatre, would sit at a certain way, even though I would have my own seat, when I would get bored, I would nudge him, and he would cross his leg in a certain way so that I could plop myself down... sort of just right on his leg, ... my bottom, and it's so comfortable, and with my crickets, my drink, when I get bored of holding it, I would nudge him, and his palms would automatically turn upward. And he became my seat... my cupholders... When I sit and I watch the movies, he was my cup holders. He was my everything.
When the war came into my country, it did not come in via the television screen, via the radio, via the newspaper. It came right into the streets. And then we were forced to evacuate. And my war did not end in three days. In the U.S., when we talk about war, when we... when we pay attention to it, we pay attention to it on the first day, when the troops invade a certain country. It might be on the front page of the Washington Post, the New York Times. On Day 5, it might be in a little corner on the first page, still. But on Day 30, it might be relegated to the fifth page. On day 60, it's in the little "World News" column in two paragraphs or something. My war lasted three years, eight months, and twenty-one days. And every single day was a fight for survival. Every single day.
When the Khmer Rouge forced us to leave, we knew we were in danger. My father was a politician. We knew we were in danger. We were able to hide our identities. When we were stopped at checkpoints along the way we would just lie. And I knew as a child that I had to become silent to stay alive. I had to lose my voice.
I want to read a few specific sections in my book.
At this point, in this section in my book, I [had] just come to the next village where we would stay, after being evacuated from one place to another. And the kids, the kids in the community, we were evacuated -- and let's still see now -- this is a fact: Cambodia at that time was prison. Albeit we didn't have walls it was very much a prison. We were all forced to live in countryside villages that were more like labor camps than villages. And at the labor camps, we worked every day, twelve hours a day. Every day was a Monday. Every day was a work day. There was no Wednesday, there were no Fridays, there were no weekends. My life consisted of Mondays, over and over again. And every day we were just banned music, banned television, banned newspapers, banned radios, banned meetings like this. This is why it's so important to communicate and describe information. That's why it's important to me. Because if we gathered like this in Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge, I wouldn't last this long. I would be dead. And when you leave, you'd be targeted.
When I first came to the village, as we were gathering around, the Khmer Rouge were starting to tell us what our life would be like in the world of the village.
There were about five hundred of us coming to this new village.
Before the soldier even approachs, Ma has gathered all our bags and put them in a small pile in front of our family. A soldier picks up our bags and begins to throw our clothes onto the pile. His hand reaches into one bag and pulls out something red -- my breath quickens. A little girl's dress. He scowls as if the sight of such a thing turns his stomach, then balls up the dress in his hand and throws it on top of the pile. I follow the dress with my eyes, focusing all my energy on it, wanting desperately to rescue it from the pile. My first red dress, the one Ma made for me for the New Year's celebration. I remember Ma taking my measurements, holding the soft chiffon cloth to my body, asking me if I liked it. "The color looks so pretty on you," she said, "The material will keep you cool." She gave one to me; three identical red dresses for Chou, Geak, and me. All have puffy sleeves and skirts that flare above the knee.
I do not know when the soldier finishes dumping the clothes onto the pile. I cannot take my eyes off my dress. I stand there, with Ma and Pa on either side of me. "Please help me!" I scream in my head. "I don't know if I can take it anymore! I don't understand why you hate me so much!" My hands and fists clench; I continue to stare at my dress. I do not see when the soldier's hand reach into his pocket and retrieve from it a box of matches. I do not hear the fingers strike a match against the side of the box. But the next thing I know the pile of clothes bursts into flames and my red dress melts like plastic in the fire.
I was six years old.
And that's so memorable to me: For the first time I realized that my parents could no longer protect me. They were standing on either side of me. And I knew they could not protect me. I knew I had to be quiet, I had to keep quiet, I had to hold myself together. If I had [tried] protesting [about] my dress, the soldiers could grab me, raped me, kill me. My parents could do nothing about it. Imagine back when you were six years old, when you know, when you know there's no one to protect you. And that you have to protect others... that if you make a mistake, it [would] not only be your life, but theirs, as well.
From then on, my family and I weren't all to survive. I went on to lose a sister who died of starvation. And then we continued to live in hiding and tried to hide from Khmer Rouge soldiers, living under different names. We went from one village to another. But we knew we could not hide forever. We knew we couldn't. And then one day it happened. Our worst fear.
I remember that day, when two soldiers... two soldiers walked into my village, asking for my father. Asking for my father to go and help them remove their oxcart that was stuck in the road, in the mud. With their guns and grenades. And they casually speak as they took him.
When he left, what my eyes didn't see, my mind made up. And in writing the book, I was only able to view it through my imagination, through fantasy sequence. Because even twenty years later, I cannot accept fully what happened, what might have happened to him.
A soldier leads another man to a hole -- my heart howls with agony. "It's Pa! No!" The soldier pushes Pa's shoulders, making him kneel like the others. Tears stream out of my eyes as I whisper thanks to the gods that the soldier has blindfolded him. He is spared from having to see the executions of many others. "Don't cry, Pa. I know you're afraid." I feel his body tense up, hear his heart race, see tears flowing out from under the blindfold. Pa fights the urge to scream.The body falls on top of each other, silenced by the hammer. The other fathers around Pa cry and beg for mercy but to no avail. One by one each man is silenced by the hammer. Pa silently, silently prays for the gods to take care of us. He focuses his mind on us, bringing up our faces one by one. He wants our faces to be the last thing he sees as he leaves the earth.
"Oh Pa, I love you. I will always miss you." My spirit cries and hovers above him. I wrap my invisible arms around him, making him cry even more. "I will always love you. I will never let you go."
But I have to let you go. I couldn't stay with you there and survive.
Years later, when I was growing up in Vermont, when I was climbing Mount Mansfield, when I was swimming in the streams, friends and I would go and see any one of these scenic places where we could watch beautiful sunsets. As the sun set, I would always make an excuse to go find a place... to go use the bathroom... get a bug in my eye... "I'm not feeling well"... I would always find excuses to turn my back to the sunset. Because I couldn't see it. On the day the soldiers came for my father, there was a glorious sunset. And I couldn't see that, either. I question how God could make something so beautiful when my heart was so... so full of pain.
My life went on. And it went on... I eventually was separated from my mother. She knew the Khmer Rouge were coming after not just the fathers, not just the intelligentsia, not just the soldiers, but whole families. She knew the Khmer Rouge were gonna come after the children of the parents they killed because we were a threat to them. So she had to separate us.
I was eight. My sister was eleven, my brother was twelve. And she sent us off into different directions, telling us each to go east, north, west, south. Separate, take different names when we get to working camps, and don't come back. Leave her.
I remember reaching my hands out to her, begging her to let me stay. To let me stay with her, because I felt abandoned. I didn't wanna leave her. She swatted my hands around with anger in her eyes. She turns me around by my shoulders, swatted me on the bottom and said "Get out. I don't want you. I can't take care of you. Leave. Don't come back to me."
I was heartbroken. How could she be so weak to send me away? That's what I thought she was: weak. After all, we were told by the Khmer Rouge that women were weak and dispensible. And after all, my father had succeeded in keeping us together. And three months after he was killed, my mother was sending me away. She was weak.
It wasn't until writing the book that I can stand here and say: I'm proud to be my mother's daughter. That that wasn't an act of weakness she did: that was an act of incredible strength. For how could a woman send off three children into the war zone? Not knowing if they would live and die, and be a weak woman. She was very strong. And it's because of her strength that I survive today.
In writing the book, I thought it was the anger, the anger that kept me alive. I thought it was the anger that kept me safe, kept me looking for food, forced me to go on and live for that next day. I was a very angry kid. I was so angry the supervisor at one of the orphanage camps picked my out of many other children to go and be trained as a child soldier. When instead of like other kids in different parts of the world at age nine, when they were given baseball bats to hit balls, I was given a stick to hit people. When instead of running in the fields, playing soccer, I was taught to run in a zigzag line in the fields, so if people were trying to shoot me, it'd be harder for them to hit me. Instead of learning about compassion and joy and kindness, I was taught to hate. I was taught to kill. I was taught that people wanted to hurt me. That every one of you out there wanted to kill me. And if you had come across my path, I better take you out first. Save myself. Because the children of the Khmer Rouge were the saviors of the future, and you all wanted us dead. And I grew up with that... I grew up thinking you all gonna kill me.
Thankfully, my war ended in 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, and eventually I was able to reunite with my brother. And eventually we were able to come to America. Escape the Thailand refugee camp, and came to America, and resettled in Essex Junction, Vermont. Of course, when we were at a refugee camp, we didn't know anything about America. I just knew it was a place very far away. And I knew of the missionary people who would come to the camps, and would try to tell us what our new home was gonna be like. And they would try to share this with us by showing us movies. And as you can imagine, movies that make its way to Southeast Asia has to be big budget movies. And so the movies would take place in San Francisco, New York, LA -- definitely not Vermont. In the movies there were people of different colors, races, different languages.
And then I arrived in Vermont. The whitest state in America.
Years later, for more diversity, I moved to Maine. The second whitest state in America.
And I remember worrying whether or not we were gonna make it in America. And I asked my brother, and he said it's OK, that it would be fine. But he didn't understand what I was asking.
That night the air is hot and humid, as it always is in June in Thailand -- the night before we're supposed to leave Thailand for America. Lightening and thunderstorms accompany the moist air. I shiver hearing the storm clouds rumble in the distance. I hate electrical storms; they sound as if the sky is at war with itself. The explosion makes me feel as if death is chasing after me again. After what feels like an eternity, the thunder finally moves on and rain came in its place. As I drift off to sleep, I think if Pa. I know his spirit can travel over land to be with me, but worry if he can cross the ocean to America. Then, in my dream, Pa is sitting next to me, his fingers caress my cheeks and face. The light touch tickles and makes me smile.
"I miss you," I whisper.
He grins. His round face wrinkles around his mouth and eyes.
"Pa, I'm leaving for America tomorrow. Eldest brother say America is very far from Cambodia, very far from you." The words linger in the air. So afraid I was of his answer that even in my dream I cannot tell Pa my fear.
"Don't worry. Wherever you go, I will find you."
And he has. I believe my father's spirit's with me. Always. Not only with me, but around me. With all of us.
When I wrote my book, it was a journey. I did it for me. I was so sick and tired of being afraid. I was so sick and tired of having to have eyes in the back of my head. I was so sick and tired of worrying whether you who come across my path were thinking about hurting me. When I wrote my book, it was as if all the monsters, all the evils of the Khmer Rouge became a reality once again to me. Because as a child, what we were told, what I was afraid of about the Khmer Rouge, wasn't only the genocide, the war, it was all in my head. I was often told that they were monsters, that they weren't human beings. That if you caught a Khmer Rouge, and you killed them, their blood weren't normal blood like us. Their blood was thick and black. Blood of monsters and the devils. And that when they killed you, they didn't just kill you, they decapitate you, they throw your head to another another place so that your soul is doomed to wander the Earth forever. And then they mutilate you and take out your livers and eat it to give them to give them infinite strength. And if you look in their eyes, you see the eyes of the devil and you'd be possessed.
And all of this hovers in my head, like some thunderous cloud that was just always there, following me around wherever I went and I could not shake it. And when I was writing about them, and I researched them, and I put my eyes, my faith, my heart, my soul into who they were, I found out one incredible thing. I found out one amazing thing that changed my life. As much as it broke my heart, and it shattered my world, it saved me. I found out that the Khmer Rouge were human beings. Just like us. They are human beings.
It broke my heart.
I went through a period of trying to kill myself. Human beings can do this to each other. Then are we intrinsically evil? Then when I wrote the book I realized that people like my mother and father could not be evil. We realized that if we as human beings, if capable of committing such genocide, such cruel, cruel crimes against human natures and crimes in humanity, then it's also up to us: it's up to human beings to do good. It's up to human beings to reverse things. It's up to us, each and every one of us to change it. We are capable of great evil. But we are capable as well of great good. And I'm so thankful that you're all here today. Because it is in all of you that we're capable of great good.
My story is a love story. It's a story of war, but it's a story about love. And I didn't realize that until Publisher's Weekly wrote about it in one of its reviews, in its review. It said that my story, what made it intriguing, was the fact that throughout all the genocide, love was spread throughout. And then I realized it was not hatred and anger that kept me alive. It did keep me physically alive. But without love, I'd be in a straitjacket in some mental illness hospital right now. Without love I wouldn't be here as I am today. And it's not love -- the grand love that we see in movies like Titanic -- no offense to any of you guys, but that was a horrible movie. The English Patient -- no offense to other people, but I almost threw up. I left fifteen minutes before it ended. Real love, in life, love is universal. Love of a mother sending a child into the war zone. Love of a father sacrificing his life for a child. Love of all of us who survived. Love of all of us who are here, that made us here together. And it's that love that kept us alive. And it's my parents' love today that keeps me going. One day after another, one state after another, I'm just trying to remember which state I'm in right now. Chicago. That's right... great state, windy state of Chicago.
My parents are with me. They're always with me.
A few years ago I remember driving to Maine -- I lived in Vermont -- and I was driving to Maine, and I was so overwhelmed with the sadness, and with this pain, and I was hurting. And I said to them, please help me. I don't know if I can take this anymore. Sometimes I just wanna go to sleep. The war's always with me. And I asked them specifically for two things to help me go on. I said, "You must show me there are angels. You must show me that you are angels, are out there watching out for me. And you must show me people, specifically the holocaust survivors. That was before I started speaking out about Cambodians, saw us, saw the Cambodians as survivors ourselves. You must show us the holocaust survivors and show me people who are not only surviving, but thriving. And then I drove four hours home, I got to my apartment, I opened my mailbox, and what do you know: there was a catalog on angels in my mailbox. No kidding.
My mind went... (hums the theme from "The Twilight Zone"). After all, I am a child of American pop culture. That's how I learned to speak English. And then I went home, and in my apartment, and turned on the TV: Oprah was doing a show on holocaust survivors.
They were there. We're capable of great kindness.
As I was coming here today, very nervous, I thought to myself, please, please, don't let it be that I'm alone up here, by myself, talking to me yet again. Please bring people. And in all of you, he's with me. He brought all of you. And do not worry -- those of you who've come, won't be haunted for the next twenty years. My father's very good at keeping his word.
So as much as the story [...] might not be uplifting, we are very uplifting. I think very inspired, my spirit very much lifted being in a room with people who do care. Who know, and who let us know, who let me know, that... the sideshow war for many, many years -- war that was forgotten, a war that no one knows about -- by you being here, you're telling all the Cambodians in the audience, that for this night, we take center stage.
Editor's Note: A review of Loung Ung's book, First They Killed My Father, is available on this site.
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