Reflections

Two weeks ago I met with a community leader whose own community was devastated by a genocide that happened decades ago in a place halfway around the world. We talked about how his community marks the event, the pain its survivors continue to experience and the challenge of getting his new neighbors to care about something so foreign to them. One of the things he mentioned struck a chord with me: “Recognition is about completing the fabric of our wider community.” To him, recognizing genocide was not simply about recognizing the painful past of his people, but recognizing the shared humanity that ties us all together.

Two weeks ago the Armenian community finally had their story recognized. Following three weeks of White House-backed challenges, the Senate joined the House in calling the mass killings of Armenians a century ago genocide. The resolution officially calls for remembrance and to combat “denial of the Armenian Genocide or any other genocide” and “to encourage education and public understanding of the facts of the Armenian Genocide, including the role of the United States in humanitarian relief efforts, and the relevance of the Armenian Genocide to modern-day crimes against humanity.” 

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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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