Seeing the Face of Our Neighbor
by Alfred Munzer
This January, I was invited to speak at Scotland’s observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day. I was born in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, and over the past 30 years I have shared the story of my family and of the family that rescued me countless times. But speaking at the observance in Scotland turned out to be an entirely new and an especially meaningful experience because I shared the podium with Arn Chorn-Pond, a child survivor of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge genocide. Our joint appearance had an impact far greater than the sum of our stories. And it reminded me of the value of listening to “the other,” something relevant to issues dividing the Jewish community.
I owe my survival during the Holocaust to an Indonesian family and their nanny living in The Hague who risked their lives to save a nine-month-old Jewish baby. My parents and two sisters were hidden elsewhere, but were nonetheless deported. My sisters, Leah, 6, and Eva, 8, were killed in Auschwitz. My father survived to see liberation, but succumbed shortly after and lies buried in the Austrian Alps at the site of the last concentration camp where he was incarcerated, Ebensee. My mother survived 12 concentration camps, and I was reunited with her in August 1945. In 1958, she and I left Europe and immigrated to the United States.
Arn Chorn-Pond was 10 years old when he was separated from his family and put to slave labor by the Khmer Rouge. He witnessed incredible acts of cruelty and is still haunted by the sounds of people’s skulls being cracked with hatchets, “like coconuts being split.” He survived by learning to play the khim, and the khloy, respectively a traditional Cambodian string instrument and a bamboo flute, for his captors. The music was amplified to cover the cries of the Khmer Rouge’s victims. After four years of captivity, Arn escaped to Thailand, where he found refuge in an orphanage. He was subsequently adopted by an American family. Sadly, his New Hampshire classmates mocked him, calling him “monkey” and telling him to “go back where you came from.” But Arn ultimately overcame their taunts and became a globally renowned advocate for human rights.
Arn and I spoke at at least a dozen different events, some in classrooms and others in stately venues like Glasgow’s City Chambers. Arn’s story sadly demonstrated that the tragedy of the Holocaust was compounded by the world’s failure to learn its lessons. As Arn and I listened to each other’s stories over and over, we developed an intense bond, not just because we could feel the other’s loss, but also because of the urgency and frustration we felt to try to do something to eradicate the seeds of genocide: prejudice and hate.
A friend who accompanied me to Scotland reminded me of the halachic question of what defines alot haschachar, “the dawn of a new day,” with respect to the earliest time tefillin can be put on. The answer? Misheyakir, “when you see the face of your neighbor.” I survived the Holocaust because a man called Tolé Madna and a woman called Mima Saïna saw me as their “neighbor.” Arn survived the Cambodian genocide because a fellow prisoner called Yoeun Mek saw him as his “neighbor” and taught him to play the khim.
Seeing “the other” as a “neighbor” is key to erasing hatred and moving from conflict to reconciliation. That is why Interfaith Scotland, the organization that planned Holocaust Remembrance Day, included representatives of other persecuted groups in the program: the Roma, the LGBT community and victims of the Rwandan genocide. And that is why we ought to applaud Israelis and Palestinians—writers, playwrights and ordinary people—who bring us the glimmer of a new dawn by learning each other’s narrative and looking at each other, not just as people living side by side, but truly as neighbors.
Alfred Munzer is a physician residing in Washington, DC.