Reflections

Earlier this year, Cambodia marked the 40th anniversary of the collapse of the Khmer Rouge and the end of the genocide that left an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people dead and countless Cambodians displaced. It made sense then for the largest academic group dedicated to the study of genocide, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), to host its biannual conference in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, this past July. The conference would provide an opportunity for the country to demonstrate its resiliency and give attendees (myself included) a chance to see the lingering effects of mass violence in a place where its impacts are still clearly visible and permeate nearly every aspect of society.

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Everybody has a family narrative or childhood story to tell. Elizabeth Warren’s is about her Native American ancestor; my mother’s about her German Jewish neighbor. And while Elizabeth Warren’s ancestor remains elusive, my mother’s neighbor and what I heard about him growing up has become more concrete over the years. It literally became concrete when in 2005 a Stolperstein (stumbling stone) bearing his name was installed in front of the house he had owned before he was deported and murdered in Theresienstadt.

Sally Cohen’s Stolperstein in Remscheid, North Rhine-Westphalia

Here is the story my mother told me. It was in late 1941 when she noted that Sally Cohen, an older gentleman and respected citizen (so she thought) had to wait in the corner of the neighborhood bakery store until everybody else was served. She also noted that he was now wearing a monstrous star-shaped yellow badge that said, “Jude.” My mother was 11 at the time and to this day hasn’t forgotten the sad and embarrassed look on Herr Cohen’s face. When she asked the adults why Herr Cohen was treated that way, she was told not to worry and that all of this was mandated by a new law.

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