A Bronx of Two Genocides: A Jew among the Cambodians. (the Shoah)

By Hirschfield, Robert | Midstream, April 2002 | Go to article overview

A Bronx of Two Genocides: A Jew among the Cambodians. (the Shoah)


Hirschfield, Robert, Midstream


Our rabbi, my mother had said, came to the Bronx from Shanghai after the war. It was as if she had said our rabbi had dropped from the moon.

Where Rabbi Gorelick had been before Shanghai was still off-limits to the fragile parameters of my child's mind. I tried to understand the Holocaust as a horror confined to the Jews of Europe. I did not want to think it could endure residually inside a black jacket that sometimes brushed against me in shul.

Vehicles now whiz eternally through the space that was once the pulpit where the rabbi railed against the softness of Jews in America. North of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, by Kingsbridge Road, I find myself walking with my 18-year-old friend, Rathanak Choun, whose shock of black hair is buried beneath his turned-around baseball cap.

I have returned to the Bronx to interview Cambodian emigres, most of whom, like Rathanak's mother, are survivors of Poi Pot's Killing Fields. Rathanak came to the Bronx from a Thai refugee camp as an infant.

He remembers hearing about the Holocaust in grade school. (He will soon be entering City College.) He remembers thinking, "That's a great atrocity, what happened to the Jews. My family never went through anything like that, forgetting that we came here because of the Khmer Rouge."

He laughs at himself for thinking such a thing, for such blatant denying.

The Cambodian patch of the Bronx is a kind of dislocating dream surface. Everything is familiar to me, but nothing is the same. The buildings are still dun-colored, bleak. The street names have not been changed to accommodate the shift in ethnicity. My feet plant themselves once again on Davidson Avenue, Walton Avenue, Andrews Avenue, names whose echoes collapse around absence, summon Jewish ghosts to keep me company.

The Cambodian Bronx can easily elude the visitor, as it consists of small pockets inside the vastness of the Hispanic Bronx. Roughly 2,000 Cambodians live here, the first of them arriving in 1981, two years after the end of the genocide that saw nearly two million people die.

I remove my shoes as I enter the Jotanaram Temple, a gray frame house on Marion Avenue. For the first few weeks I sat off to the side, invisibly, amidst the slow melting of collective suspicion. Was it like this for gentile journalists who may have wandered up this way in the late Forties looking for Holocaust survivors to interview?

Being Jewish here helps. It would help more if I spoke Khmer. Many older Cambodians wrestle spastically with English. Most were farmers in Cambodia. They don't relate well to the buzz of big city life. But they do relate to the Holocaust. Their eyes widen when the subject is raised. As a Jew, I am linked to a people like themselves, caught catastrophically in the crosshairs of history.

"Jews understand what Cambodians have been through," says Kulen Lang, president of the Khmer Buddhist Association. (The Cambodians are devout Buddhists.) Many of his contacts are with Jewish social workers, as his community is poor, with high levels of unemployment and mental illness. Lang himself, a man of sixty, works in the Medical Records Department of Montefiore Hospital.

In April of 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and herded people at gunpoint out of the cities (it was their goal to create a completely agrarian society), Lang was marched from the town of Batttambang to a rural labor camp in the Northwest.

He told me how the Khmer Rouge once brought into the camp some escaped prisoners. A soldier and the village leader beat them first with a bamboo stick. Then it was the prisoners' turn.

"Some just pretend to hit. But they want us all to hit. We are hundreds. Some prisoners are already dead. Still, they want us to keep hitting."

Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge made their victims moral accomplices in the extermination process. They put to death all those considered useless to, or enemies of, the new Cambodia--or those simply suctioned into oblivion by starvation. …

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