Exhibit Links Shoah, Cambodia Genocide
Midway through Roland Joffé’s 1984 film, “The Killing Fields,” journalist Sidney Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, visits the family of his friend, Dith Pran, who has been captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The scene takes place in New York City, where Schanberg tries to comfort Pran’s wife. As the action unfolds, the camera allows us to see in the background graffiti spray-painted on a wall — there is a Star of David and underneath it what appear to be the words, “I suck.”
The juxtaposition of a Jew (Schanberg) and a Cambodian with the defaced Star of David subtly links the Holocaust, a genocide of the past, to the more recent Cambodian tragedy.
It is the synchronicity between peoples who have been massacred that inspired the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to exhibit “Encountering the Cambodian Genocide.” The exhibit features the photographs of Chantal Prunier, who visited Cambodia in the past year and came back with haunting images of mass graves, torture devices and survivors.
The 48-year-old Prunier, a native of France who has always been fascinated with Southeast Asia, devotes a number of photos to Tuol Seng, the infamous former prison. One image, a low-angle shot, is taken from beneath barbed wire that to this day surrounds the building. The low angle accentuates the menace of the spiked spirals.
The Tuol Seng photos also reveal a dilapidated structure whose interior and exterior brick and plaster walls have taken on faded pink and brown hues, earth-tone colors that blend in with the red traces of the land in other shots.
Beneath these color photos are black-and-white images, primarily archived photographs, accompanied by Prunier’s text. She uses the photos to narrate a brief history of the Cambodian people, quickly moving on to the genocide engineered by Pol Pot.
Pol Pot seized power in April 1975 and then liquidated more than 20 percent of his country, somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million people, according to most accounts. Prunier estimates that the number may have been even higher if one factors in those who died of famine. She writes that “official sources indicate” more than 3 million people died from 1975 to 1979.
In an interview with The Journal, she noted that the Cambodian government claims the number of victims as 3.3 million. Even if that figure is inflated, the massacre approaches the unparalleled depravity of the Shoah.
Pol Pot especially targeted city dwellers and the educated, whom he believed had been corrupted by Western colonialists and imperialists. But he also targeted ethnic Vietnamese, exterminating thousands of them living as civilians in Cambodia, something Prunier does not mention other than in passing.
The exhibit’s thoughtful touches include floor lights surrounded with long twigs to evoke the Cambodian jungle, where so much of the suffering occurred. Dictator Pol Pot emptied cities to reshape his country through a forced agrarian revolution.
What was behind Pol Pot’s murderous madness?
A definitive answer is as unreachable as any attempted decoding of Hitler. One extreme view is that Pol Pot was provoked into his radicalism by the Nixon administration’s secret (to the American public) bombing of Cambodia beginning in 1969. The bombing was an outgrowth of the Vietnam War.
Cambodia was a neutral country, but its territory was being used for supply routes by the North Vietnamese. Prunier dismisses this blame-the-U.S. theory as the product of “some very devious people,” though she accepts that the bombing campaigns helped to energize Pol Pot.
Visitors to the museum might be shocked by photos of articles of clothing worn by the murdered that still float to the surface, some 30 years later, where water gathers after rainfall.
With some photos, the captions are curiously understated or even unnecessary. In one print, two Cambodians sit on a bench at Cheoung Ek, where many victims perished. More than the caption, their melancholy gaze tells the story.
Also on display is an iconic 1970s black-and-white photo, not taken by Prunier, of an unknown Cambodian woman with a disfiguring spot on her forehead and a tag with the number “27” clipped by baby pins to her black shirt. The numbered tags, the unmarked piles of skeletons, the unidentified clothes on the ground — all mirror the Holocaust and speak to the uniformly impersonal and dehumanizing nature of genocide.
Pol Pot was never brought to justice for these crimes against humanity. Just as the facts of his birth are disputed (some reports say he was born in 1925, others in 1928), his death in 1998 also remains shrouded in mystery. Reportedly, he suffered a fatal heart attack, even as he was being sought to stand trial at The Hague.
The Cambodian exhibit keeps with the museum’s mission, said Rachel Jagoda, the museum’s executive director. Jagoda, 32, has sought to broaden the scope of the Holocaust Museum since being hired three years ago. Her first major exhibit focused not on Jews, but on the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany.
Under Jagoda, the museum, which she says has the largest primary source archive of any Holocaust museum on the West Coast, has begun raising significant funds, more than $500,000 in the last year, compared to roughly $20,000 annually in the past.
She and board member Manfred Kuhnert also report that they have obtained more than $3 million in capital for a new permanent facility designed by architect Hagy Belzberg, which would be located in Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax District. The new museum would be partially underground to simulate walking into a cemetery.
The current museum space on Wilshire Boulevard would never be confused with the Getty. The Cambodian genocide exhibit is small, shoehorned into the back of the first-floor museum, but the photos are powerful.
The most salient image may be the opening shot of the ruins of an Angkor temple. Superficially, it has nothing to do with the genocide. But flowing over the ruins are the multiple trunks of an ancient banyan tree whose roots, from a distance, resemble the bones of victims — of this genocide or any other. The people have vanished like the Easter Islanders, but the roots of their tragedy remain.
“Encountering the Cambodian Genocide” is at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Los Angeles. Free. Exhibit runs through Nov. 15. For information, call (323) 651-3704.