Plans for genocide memorial stir up emotions from diverse groups
By PETER HECHT
McClatchy Newspapers
SACRAMENTO – Assemblyman Lloyd Levine says he came to understand his Jewish cultural roots and comprehend a horrific epoch in history on a trip to Israel in 2004.

He was at the Yad Vashem holocaust museum in Jerusalem, transfixed by cubes stacked like children’s play blocks. Each depicted children who died of Nazi genocide. A somber voice intoned their names as 1.6 million beams of light reflected the toll of young lives taken.

”For the next several hours, I had the abiding urge to throw up,” Levine, D-Van Nuys, said. ”It makes you sick knowing what happened.”

Levine returned to California determined to make his own contribution to the victims by seeking a ”dignified and quiet” memorial outside the Capitol to honor those who ”perished and suffered” in the Holocaust.

But as the bill he sponsored was debated and amended in the Legislature and then signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept. 30, Levine’s original vision grew markedly.

Under Assembly Bill 1210, which goes into effect Jan. 1, California will begin a quest to construct a memorial in Sacramento not only for victims and survivors of the Holocaust, but for all people who faced genocide and ethnic cleansing across the world and many generations.

On its face, the effort raises a poignant challenge by seeking to bring together diverse peoples and histories to acknowledge acts of inhumanity from the Holocaust of Nazi Germany to the killing fields of Cambodia to the ongoing ethnic slaughter in Darfur.

Though still an ill-defined concept, the idea of such a memorial is stirring emotional discussions among vast, varied communities affected by genocide.

In Glendale, Haig Hovespian hopes the memorial will acknowledge the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Turkey in 1915.

”A vast majority of Armenians who came to California were either survivors or descendants of the victims of Armenian genocide,” said Hovespian, community relations director for Armenian National Committee of America. ”If you want to boil it down, it is the reason that they are Californians today.”

In Sacramento, Zang Fang, 36, believes such a monument should acknowledge Hmong refugees who fled wanton killings in Laos during 30 years of retaliations for the Hmong’s support of the United States’ secret war against communist Pathet Lao in the 1970s.

As a toddler, Fang lost his father, Joua Lue Fang, who fought alongside U.S. forces and was killed in an explosives accident. As an 8-year-old, he saw an uncle, Zong Chue Fang, executed and lost a cousin, Xialee Fang, who was gunned down while collecting wild roots as Pathet Lao forces sacked Hmong villages.

Thousands were ultimately killed or imprisoned, and 200,000 people were forced into exile. Fang’s family attempted a perilous trek to flee Laos on a mountain trail lined with bodies of Hmong victims. They eventually made it to Thailand in a boat crossing the Mekong River, as 16 people drowned when a second boat capsized.

”What the Hmong did to help the Americans needs to be acknowledged,” Fang said of the Capitol memorial. ”And the price they paid to help the Americans needs to be acknowledged.”

Under AB 1210, a nine-member International Genocide Commission, including at least six survivors or descendants of genocide, will be appointed to select a design and initiate private fundraising to build the memorial.

”The construction of this memorial will help all Californians remember the unimaginable suffering genocide survivors endured,” Schwarzenegger said in signing the legislation.

The bill declares that ”California recognizes the atrocities of all ethnic cleansing campaigns,” including ”the Holocaust, Kosovo, Armenian genocide, Rwanda, African American slaves, Native Americans and the plight of the Hmong in Southeast Asia.”

If built, the memorial would be the 16th major monument at Capitol Park, joining such company as the Civil War Veterans Grove, the Father Junipero Serra statue, and veterans, Vietnam War and firefighters memorials.

The planned genocide memorial’s attempt to meld together such horrific events from far corners of world history may prove particularly sensitive.

Andrew McPherson, director of design at Nacht & Lewis Architects in Sacramento, which designed a veterans memorial plaza at Mather Field, said the genocide commission should cast a wide net in seeking input.

”To have somebody go off into a vacuum and design a memorial is really, really risky,” he said. ”You’re going to have people coming out of the woodwork that have different ideas. And you’re going to have people who may be offended, saying, ‘Why wasn’t I asked?'”

Holocaust survivor and author David Faber, 80, of San Diego wonders how other acts of genocide can be incorporated into the same reflective space as a Holocaust memorial.

”It’s nice if they do that,” Faber said. ”It can work, providing that it is put into sections: the Holocaust here, Rwanda here, Kosovo here….”

His hesitation over a combined memorial may be because his own sense of persecution is literally burned into his flesh. Faber’s left forearm bears number 161051 from the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in Germany, one of numerous death camps he was shuttled to as a boy.

He witnessed Nazi soldiers executing his mother and five sisters at his family home in Poland. He also lost his brother, father and more than 90 extended family members to the Holocaust.

”We’re talking 6 million people (who perished),” Faber said. ”How many would be here now if they hadn’t been murdered? It would be over 50 million. A generation was wiped out.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said a universal-themed Capitol memorial would be an appropriate ”statement of empathy and solidarity with all victims of genocide.”

”… It is a shocking and depressing statement that, here in the 21st century, you have to stand up again and again and say this type of behavior cannot be sanctioned,” he said.

That’s why San Francisco lawyer Martina Knee, a daughter of Holocaust survivors and a member of the Bay Area Darfur Coalition, wants the memorial to acknowledge still unfolding mass killings of hundreds of thousands of villagers in western Sudan.

And Igor Cimpo, 30, of Sacramento wants the memorial to honor the 12,000 people who died in the former Yugoslavia in Sarajevo and the 8,000 — Muslim men and boys — massacred in Srebrenica.

The Bosnian refugee dodged Serbian sniper fire during the 1992-1996 siege of Sarajevo, ”running to get water, to get food, always wondering if you were going to make it home.”

”There was genocide in the middle of Europe. It happened again, so long after the Holocaust,” Cimpo said. ”I fear these events happen and people forget overnight. I’m afraid they’re forgetting now.”