S-21 Security Prison

“Are you going to go?” he asked.

I nodded yes, and then warned him that I might cry. I was traveling through Cambodia with a Dutch couple I’d met in Laos.  The destination he was referring to was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and his girl friend had decided that, although she would go to the Killing Fields, she would pass on seeing this former “Security Prison”.

Before becoming Security Prison 21 (S-21), it had been a High School.  Under the Khmer Rouge, classrooms had been turned to torture chambers and thousands lost their lives in this otherwise unremarkable building.

Years earlier, I had visited Auschwitz.  Based on numbers alone, I would have to say that that was worse.  But my mind was able to put the Jewish Holocaust into a tidy category of “not in my life time”.  The Khmer Rouge was within my lifetime and even within my memory.  And only 30 years after the Holocaust in Europe – the world should have been on watch.

Visiting S-21 is a rough day.  Blood spatters stain the walls and floor.  Photos of victims, marked for death because they were literate, or because they wore glasses, or for no reason at all, fill the empty classrooms.

Paul Mannix's photo of victims of the Khmer Rouge

Victims at Security Prison 21. Photo by Paul Mannix.

Why Do We Go?

So given limited time and resources, why do so many of us choose to go to places which can only makes us feel bad?

I think many of us go out of a sense of obligation – the blind belief that by exposing ourselves to these horrors we help them to be remembered, and therefore, hopefully not be repeated.  This hope is vain.  We say, “Never again,” but a quick glance at history shows attempts at genocide to be a common pattern.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Edmund Burke

We go so that we will remember that human beings can and have and will be monsters.  Hitler and Pol Pot couldn’t have done what they did alone.  Thousands of others had to participate, or at least acquiesce.  My hope in visiting these horrible places is that it will make an imprint, so that if similar atrocities are happening in my place and time, I will recognize it for what it is and stand against it.

 Going Back for More…

The impulse to see these horrors is strong.  I had been in Israel for almost a year and had already visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, but I decided to go back.  On that previous visit, I had lingered before the flames – the eternal flame that burns in the Hall of Remembrance where the names of the most infamous death camps are engraved on the floor, and before the haunting flames of a few candles which are reflected a million times to commemorate the million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust.  But you can only take so much at a time and I left that day before going to the Hall of Names.  Feeling that it would be wrong to leave Israel without seeing that, I went back.

I am not Jewish.  I did not go to the Hall looking for a specific name. Rather, I was hoping to some how get my head around how many six million is. I had seen the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., where the names of the approximately 60,000 Americans who died in the war are carved.  Even that was inconceivable.  So what does it mean when we add two more zeros to a number like that? I would go to the Hall of Names and however much bigger the wall was, or however much smaller the print, would help me understand how many lives six million is.

Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem. Photo by Ricardo Tulio Gandelman.

Entering the room, I saw before me not a wall of names, but a wall of books of names – lined up in alphabetical order, like so many encyclopedias.  I started crying and left.

Later I learned that books contain testimony and biographical information as well as names.  But I had achieved my goal of understanding how horribly great was the number of victims.

And Backing Out 

Today, I am three years in to a 10-year break from the subject.  My last brush with the Holocaust was reading a novel – Schindler’s List.  I read it Spanish which means I probably didn’t pick up on 100% of what was happening.  But I cried and had nightmares.  So I decided to take a break.  No books.  No documentaries.  But if I have the chance to hear a survivor speak, or to the visit the actual scene of one of these atrocities, I take it.  After all, one of the reasons we travel is to bear witness.

1 reply
  1. Erika Awakening
    Erika Awakening says:

    Yea pretty rough, huh? My current frustration is that I see the same thing in people eating meat and fish. Where others see “animals who don’t matter,” I see Holocaust and Khmer Rouge victims. I see us being hypocrites and cut off from our natural compassion the same way those regimes had to be to commit such horrible atrocities. I wonder when we will wake up. Thanks for sharing so vulnerably.


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