January 7, 2005
By AVIYA KUSHNER
CHICAGO - As its name suggests, the recently opened Cambodian AmericanHeritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial is aimed at memorializing themore than 2 million Cambodians who were murdered during the brutal reign ofthe Khmer Rouge - and documents the stories of those who fled to America.
Established by Cambodian refugees, the new institution memorializes agenocide perpetrated three decades after the Holocaust and a continent awayfrom the gas chambers of Europe. But most of the funding for the $1.5million project - the first such memorial in the United States - came fromJewish donors in Chicago, where the museum and memorial are located.
"I would say that about 70% of the dollars for the museum came from theJewish community," said Kompha Seth, executive director of the CambodianAssociation of Illinois.
Located on West Lawrence Avenue near Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, near aGreek bakery, a Lebanese restaurant and a slew of burrito shops, the museumis housed in a building that was purchased with a kick-off grant from aJewish donor.
"I said I only had $300 in the bank," Seth said. "And a Jewish donor gaveme a $5,000 challenge grant that started the building fund, and within twoweeks, we had $30,000. And then we bought the building.
"At the museum, which opened this past October, there is a plaque thatrecognizes the contributions of several Jewish family foundations,including the Polk Brothers Foundation, the Crown Family, the Richard H.Driehaus Foundation, the Pritzker-Cousins Foundation, the LohengrinFoundation and the Alvin H. Baum Foundation.
Museum officials describe Jewish support for the institution as theoutgrowth of a longtime relationship between the two communities in Chicagoand the ability of Jewish donors and foundations to relate to the sufferingof the Cambodians.
"In the Jewish community, we need to be supportive in any way we can oforganizations and peoples who have suffered in ways similar to theHolocaust, who suffered as our people suffered," said Nikki Will Stein,executive director of the Polk Brothers Foundation, which has given$250,000 to the memorial and museum. The Polks were Jewish immigrants toChicago, and the foundation has been funding Cambodian family programssince 1995.
The board of the Polk Brothers Foundation was attracted in part by theopportunity to help build the first such memorial in America to Cambodianvictims, Stein said. "People like the notion that they're helping to createa first in this country." A second memorial has since opened in Seattle.
Much of the support from Jewish individuals has been anonymous, accordingto Seth.
"Some of the Jewish people want to keep a low profile," he said. "Theydon't want to show thir names. It's amazing."
"They say, "Don't give me awards.' They don't want to be recognized."
What the Jewish donors have recognized, though, is the horror of genocideand the importance of rebuilding a community in its aftermath.
From 1975 to 1979, about 2.5 million Cambodians - out of a population ofslightly more than 7 million - were murdered by the Communist Khmer Rougeregime. Half of the dead were children, and about half were involved ineducation as teachers, students and clergy.
"Millions of people were forced to move from the cities to the fields, aspart of the Communist idea of an agrarian utopia," said Savouth Chhorm, anemployee at the museum who came to the United States as a child refugee.Starvation in Cambodia was common. For four years, most people went withoutmedical care or schooling. In the aftermath, Cambodian refugees were leftwith nothing - no homes, no identity papers and very little hope.
Like the Jewish community after the Holocaust, the Cambodian community hadto rebuild its cultural and educational structures. It continues tostruggle in its efforts to teach Cambodian language, music and dance to theyoung. So, officials said, the new museum attempts to balance the need toremember the dead with a commitment to rebuilding a people and educatingthe next generation. It is a difficult mission, reflected in the sight ofrecent photos of Cambodian children displayed just feet away from torturedevices and photographs of hundreds of skulls piled next to thousands ofbones.
In a separate room, 80 glass panels stand near one another. Each represents25,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge.Until this year, there was no Cambodian genocide memorial in the
UnitedStates. "This project is controversial because some want to forget," Sethsaid. "They don't want to share the pain. And others want to express it."
The museum is an early success. "Right now there are so many visitors thatwe are overwhelmed," Seth said.
Among those who understand the need for the project, according to Seth, areJewish donors and organizations. "I say, the Cambodians lost so much - andit left a big hole and a scar in the heart," he said. "When we say 2.5million lives lost - mostly children, educators, and clergy - theyunderstand. They've been through it."
The relationship has been going on "for about 30 years" and "it keepsgrowing," Seth said.
The two communities have worked together on events like "Children of theHolocaust, Children of the Killing Fields," held in the year 2000 andco-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and theCambodian Association of Illinois.
The relationship began with immigration assistance, leaders of both groupssaid.
"Most of the Cambodians in Chicago," Stein said, "were resettled herethrough the Jewish Federation, which had learned resettling skills throughits work with Soviet Jews. I'm very proud that what the Jewish Federationhas learned with Soviet Jews can be replayed with other groups,
"For Cambodian leaders, the ties to the Jewish community are long lastingand deeply moving, even if not widely known.
To demonstrate the point, during a recent interview at Chicago's Cambodiancenter, Seth produced a yellowed document from 1980 - the first form theHebrew Immigrant Aid Society filed on behalf of the Cambodians living inthe city.
The Jewish community in Chicago "coordinated relief efforts" and laterhelped Cambodians establish their first mutual assistance society, Sethsaid. Today, organizations in the two communities approach each othereasily and frequently.
"Like most of our relationships, the Cambodian Association reached out tous," said Brian Gladstein, director of community initiatives at the JewishCouncil on Urban Affairs, also in Chicago.
"Cambodians are the poorest Asian community in Chicago," Gladstein said."So there are a substantial group of folks feeling the effects of povertyand the effects of genocide." He added: "We help them think through theirstrategies. We helped them build a phone book, get the memorial up and themuseum up, and we're helping with affordable housing and immigrant housing."
Other sources of support include Jewish politicians who have spokenpublicly about the importance of a memorial, Seth said, and ordinarycitizens who participated in the Walk to Remember, which re-createdCambodian refugees' arduous walk to freedom.
In a video of the event, a young Jewish woman says she is walking becauseas a Jew, she feels an obligation to learn about genocide that took placein her lifetime.
"It's amazing," Seth said of the Jewish support for the Cambodians inChicago and their causes. "And I don't know how to say thank you, but I'mso grateful."