April 17, 1975, is a day that most Cambodian people remember in depths of their hearts and souls. At 5 years old, Sreng Kim-Chhay was too young to understand the importance of the events during that time. However, she still vividly remembers the chaos of the mass evacuation of people from the city to the countryside, all victims of the Cambodian genocide.
Last week, Kim and her mother, Hoeur Kim, were on campus to tell their family’s story of survival during Heidelberg’s annual observance of Genocide Awareness Week. It is a story that involves terror, uncertainty and the loss of numerous family members executed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. It is also a story of hope and appreciation.
Throughout the week, the two survivors emotionally recalled the details of the evacuation from their home and the challenges of survival in remote jungle villages and work camps. They shared their story with about 250 local students from seven area school districts as well as Heidelberg students in large and small group settings. The series of events culminated with a presentation for the community.
Kim’s return to Heidelberg was a homecoming. She was a member of the Student Affairs Division from 1999-2009, working with student diversity issues and international students.
Numerous members of her family were among the estimated 1.7 million Cambodians killed during the Khmer Rouge’s violent reign of terror. Kim watched her father’s murder and lost several of her older siblings. Through sheer will, her mother was able to save her four youngest children. After spending several years in labor camps and the jungle laden with land mines and their voices silenced, the family escaped in 1979 and began the process of immigrating to Minnesota with the help of Kim’s uncle.
Although their experiences shaped them, their message is one of hope and appreciating blessings. Kim and her surviving siblings all completed college educations. Their mother insisted on it.
“She really pushed us to get our education,” Kim said. “It’s all because of her where we’re at today. We’re really blessed because of her.”
When they arrived in the U.S., Kim and her siblings enrolled in school and their learning progressed as they realized they had a second chance at life. Kim pursued a career in higher education and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and public administration, followed by a master’s degree in higher education from the University of Wisconsin La Cross. She has worked in higher education for 20 years.
The mother and daughter agreed that humor and hard work helped them survive their hardships. “It was not easy, but we were lucky and God blessed us,” Hoeur Kim said.
Three times they’ve traveled back to Cambodia, returning to the village they once called home. It’s Kim’s dream, she said, to return one day to build a school for the village’s children.
Each year during Genocide Awareness Week, Heidelberg explores a different example of genocide. President Robert H. Huntington and Jim Minehart, executive vice president for development and planned giving, announced at Thursday night’s program that an anonymous donor has provided a major gift that will endow the Genocide Awareness Week series for the future.
The gift honors the vision and inspiration of alumnus and veteran Don Behm, ’51, and his friend, Jimmy Lichtman, who came to campus twice to share their stories as a liberator and a Holocaust survivor.
“This is really exciting news,” Huntington said. “We are here tonight to remember what happened in Cambodia. Now, every year at this time, we will remember … how genocide shows up repeatedly and continues to be a part of our human experience on this planet.”
In making the gift, the donor wanted to honor Behm, whose U.S. Army 11th Armored Division helped liberate prisoners of war, including Lichtman, from the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945. Decades later, the two became friends, meeting at a reunion of Behm’s Army unit.
Following one of the reunions, Behm asked Minehart if Heidelberg would be interested in hearing Lichtman’s story of tragedy-turned-triumph. A few months later, the first Genocide Awareness presentation on campus was held. The emotional impact moved so many that the pair, along with two other liberators and Holocaust survivors, returned last March to again share their stories. Sadly, Lichtman died in March 2012.
So that the community can continue to remember and learn from genocide events, the university and the donor came together to create The Lichtman-Behm Genocide Lecture Series. The gift will, in part, endow the lecture series, bringing to campus speakers whose lives have been changed by genocide.
“Some things are meant to be, and this is one of those things,” Minehart said. “We couldn’t have scripted this any better. Heidelberg will always remember our survivors and our liberators.”