Through studying the Holocaust, Cambodians deal with own genocide

In a meeting of minds, a small town Indiana teacher and a Cambodian scholar documenting the Khmer Rogue atrocities create a workshop for comparative genocide education in Battambang

'The history that precipitated the Holocaust carries lessons for every human being regardless of culture, religion, or circumstance'

Kelly Watson from the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights sits in a classroom of Cambodian history teachers she is teaching the Holocaust to in October 2016. (courtesy Ouch Makara/Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives)

NOBLESVILLE, Indiana — Neighbor turned against neighbor. Family members disappeared. Faced with ostracism or even death, youth pledged allegiance to a cause they hadn’t necessarily sought — and committed unspeakable crimes against their countrymen.

There are still landmines in Cambodia, where an estimated 1.7 million people died between 1975 to 1979 under the extremist Khmer Rouge government. Today, however, many of these landmines are not physical, rather unspoken tragedy that looms from the past into the nation’s future.

Some 70% of Cambodians were born after the notorious Killing Fields, but mandatory education about the genocides only began in 2009. And while the Khmer Rouge government ostensibly fell in 1979, in a pragmatic attempt to unify and stabilize a nation reeling from murder and betrayal, Cambodian politicians quickly formed alliances with Khmer Rouge members: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the longest-serving leaders in the world, is himself a former member.

Cambodia is now facing a turning point, said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the world’s largest archive of photography and documents relating to the Khmer Rouge.

A talk about Khmer Rouge regime by Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, to the Digital Traveler Group from the Remote Year. (courtesy DC-Cam)

“On the one hand, Cambodians run a real risk of losing a firm grip on understanding, memorializing and ultimately accepting a difficult past. On the other hand, a rapidly globalizing Cambodia must take on new challenges of sustainable growth, democratic integrity and human rights,” said Chhang, who was named Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” of 2007.

‘Cambodians run a real risk of losing a firm grip on understanding, memorializing and ultimately accepting a difficult past’

DC-Cam was founded in 1994 through a grant to Yale University from the United States Congress’ Cambodian Genocide Justice Act. Today an NGO, the organization addresses the country’s genocidal past while working to preserve memory and justice.

Chhang told The Times of Israel that one way to deepen the understanding of the Cambodian tragedy is through the study of other global genocides.

Enter Kelly Watson, an eighth grade English teacher from Noblesville, Indiana, who recently spent a week in Battambang, Cambodia, teaching about the Holocaust.

Sound like the wrong cue for this post-genocide Cambodian stage play? That’s because Watson wasn’t exactly typecast.

The long windy road to Battambang

Meeting with The Times of Israel a day after running a marathon — not her first or last for this year — Watson said she was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The small city near the Ohio border has, among its quaint nicknames, the moniker “The City of Churches.”

In a cute coffee shop chosen to show off the historic Noblesville town square, Watson said that in her first gig as an English teacher back in the mid-1990s in Lebanon, Indiana, she wasn’t what one could call an expert in the Holocaust when her department chair handed her a rummage sale copy of Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to teach the class.

Holocaust educator Kelly Watson at a downtown Nobleville, Indiana, cafe on November 6, 2016. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Watson laughed and said at that point in her life the sum-total of her Holocaust education was a vague memory of watching Meryl Streep’s “Holocaust” mini-series in 1978 and a supposition she’d probably once read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Reading the Wiesel masterpiece memoir set in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, she quickly understood she just didn’t have the professional background or tools to do the topic justice. But she couldn’t find the appropriate resources in Indiana.

The early 1990s, however, was a tipping point for Holocaust awareness in the United States. With “Schindler’s List” and the much publicized opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 1993, the topic was becoming more accessible to a growing audience.

And so, although she’d never before left the state of Indiana on her own, Watson applied and was accepted to the Washington, DC, museum’s Belfer National Conference for Educators. That conference led to a subsequent fellowship at USHMM, and eventually Watson became a part of the museum’s Regional Education Corps.

Cambodia exhibition reception and program for the May 27, 2015, opening of the two new Cambodia special exhibitions at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Exhibition curator Greg Naranjo speaks to His Excellency Hab Touch and guests about the Museum’s new exhibition. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

In between her day job as an eighth grade English teacher (now at Fishers Junior High) and parenting, Watson began to lecture, among other places, at Indiana’s Bureau of Jewish Education, which today supports the Holocaust Education Center of Indiana. She had become the resource she herself had sought.

While acquiring the skills to be an expert Holocaust educator at USHMM, Watson met a number of like-minded teachers who wanted to apply the lessons learned from the genocide against the Jews in other conflict zones. Independently, these friends organized trips to teach in Rwanda and Bosnia, before eventually founding a non-profit in 2011 called the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights.

Watson is currently an educational program director for EIHR. The project, she said, teaches the best practices of Holocaust and comparative genocide education to teachers, who bring them into the classroom.

Two years ago, with the Rwandan and Bosnian programs ongoing since 2011, EIHR was ready to expand to other conflict zones. Watson chose Cambodia and said she “blindly emailed” DC-Cam’s Youk Chhang, whom she calls “a force.” He immediately responded and the past two years were spent in planning.

In October, Watson was the first EIHR emissary to Cambodia, where she presented on the Holocaust to 100 Cambodian history teachers.

Searching for Anne Frank of the Killing Fields

With enough troubles of their own in their recent past, why should Cambodians want to learn about the Holocaust?

“The history that precipitated the Holocaust carries lessons for every human being regardless of culture, religion, or circumstance,” Chhang explained to The Times of Israel.