Goodrich Travels to the "Killing Fields'

Robert Goodrich (History) has immersed himself in the study of genocide, but a recent trip to Cambodia proved that his scholarly research has hardly desensitized him to the atrocities associated with the systematic extermination of a targeted population.

Like many visitors, he was stunned by the sight of 8,000 human skulls in a glass shrine, or memorial stupa (pictured). It was built in the middle of the "killing fields" of Choeung Ek one of many sites where Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers murdered an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians in the mid- to late '70s.


"When you tour the killing fields, you literally walk right over these sunken areas that served as mass graves," he said. "You can see exposed human remains all around you. It was a gory sight to the point that I actually felt nauseous while I was there."


Goodrich also visited the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in the capital city Phnom Penh. It was once a school, but the Khmer Rouge regime used it as a prison and torture camp.


"Thousands of prisoners went in to Tuol Sleng and only seven survived," Goodrich said. "It's not a menacing place from the outside; it looks like any other school. But on the inside, there are photos of Cambodians who were murdered, instruments used for torture, visible blood stains and more skulls."


While in Phnom Penh, Goodrich gave a presentation at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Funded through a grant to Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Program and directed by a survivor of the "killing fields," the center's mission is two-fold: to record and preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge regime for future generations; and to compile information that can serve as potential evidence in a legal accounting for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.


Goodrich presented "The Ethical, Pedagogical and Scholarly Considerations of Placing the Holocaust in a Comparative, Global Perspective." It was relevant to a Cambodian audience because Goodrich contends the Nazis' persecution of the Jews under Hitler can be used as a comparative framework to help understand other genocides, from the "killing fields" to Kosovo, and from Rwanda to most recently the Darfur region of Sudan.


Goodrich said his stance is controversial, even among some of his Jewish friends who know that he is actively involved in Holocaust awareness activities and concerned with human rights issues.

"One of the key debates in Holocaust studies is its uniqueness; whether you can compare it to anything else," he added. "Every historical event has unique parameters, but I argue that it is possible to look at the Holocaust comparatively with other genocides. That's not a popular position because of the political implications for Israel. My mentor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, George Mosse, was a Holocaust survivor. He said to me, 'Of course we think comparatively we're historians.' I think you can only make sense of history if you compare it, and I believe there are lessons to be learned back and forth between instances of genocide."

Curiosity about Cambodia's past has led to an increase in tourism, but another lure is the country's thriving sex trade. Goodrich also used his two-week visit as an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the complexities surrounding the issue through a contact at the U.S. Embassy.


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Updated: October 26, 2005

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