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Teaching the legacy of genocide to young descendants of immigrants

An East Hollywood mural memorializes the Armenian genocide; its 97th anniversary was observed April 24.
An East Hollywood mural memorializes the Armenian genocide; its 97th anniversary was observed April 24.
Photo by Clinton Steeds/Flickr (Creative Commons)

How to teach young descendants of immigrants who survived a genocide, wartime atrocities and other horrors about their turbulent heritage? KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has put together a fascinating series taking in how elders are teaching younger descendants of Cambodian, Armenian, and European Jewish immigrants about what their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived through.

It's difficult, especially in the cases of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s and the Armenian genocide of 1915, which receive little mention in American students' history books. His series explores various projects, like a recent event in Glendale organized for high school students called "Our Traditions Keep Us Alive." From his piece in the Pass/Fail education blog:

In a darkened auditorium at Glendale Community College, the remembrance of the Armenian Genocide took a somber tone. The campus Armenian club screened Suzanne Khardalian’s film “Grandma’s Tattoos.” The film focuses on the trauma of the genocide survivors and how that trickled down to the filmmaker’s generation.

After the film, student Chantalle Parsakhian said its portrayal of the genocide’s destruction is very different from what she learned at home and at Armenian private school. She’s worried young Armenian Americans are losing touch with this side of the genocide.

“I feel it’s just another day for them to not go to school because, and the passion for justice has kind of dwindled, that’s what really is upsetting,” she said.

Another event in Long Beach called "Courage to Remember" drew young Cambodian Americans like Brenda Man, a Cal State Long Beach student:
Unlike the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, there is little discussion among Cambodians about that chapter in their history. 

Man says she first learned about the genocide when she was a teenager. “I first read about it in textbook. My parents never brought it up to me and so I confronted them about it and my grandparents and eventually my senior year of high school, I was in AP government, an extra credit was to do an interview and I decided to do Khmer Rouge as the topic and I interviewed my grandma,” she said.

Her grandmother asked why she wanted to know about such a terrible time in Cambodian history, although eventually she opened up. That needs to happen more, says Chad Sammet, who helped organize the Courage to Remember event.

Knowledge of the Holocaust during the World War II era is institutionalized among descendants of European Jews, but getting the point of remembering this history across to a younger generation a different kind of challenge. Adolfo followed Phil Liff-Grieff of the Jewish education group BJE into a private Jewish elementary school classroom:
Liff Grieff talked to about 50 children on Yom HaShoah. He projected a map of central Europe onto a screen. The kids are dressed in street clothes, some with Nike athletic shoes. The boys wear yarmulkes, religious skullcaps. “Where are your ancestors from?” he asks them.

“Poland. Poland. America. Germany. Africa. Poland. Poland. Israel. Mexico. Australia,” were some answers.

The Holocaust is part of this school’s curriculum, so these fourth and fifth graders know about the horrors.

“Here’s my question to you. Why? Why remember something so difficult? What’s it for? What good is it to remember?” Liff-Grieff asked.

So that it will never happen again, a student says.

The series also features a great video interview with Cambodian American rapper Prach Ly, who was born in secrecy in a concentration camp. He talks about growing up in the shadow of a tragedy that still affects not only the lives of his elders, but their American-born children as well.