Since 1997, the Virginia Holocaust Museum has been collecting oral histories from survivors of the Holocaust who resettled in state. The organization is now expanding its collection to include testimonies from other genocides and mass atrocities. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp has more.
Learn more: Scroll down for a Q&A with Amanda Prak Sam about her recent trip to Cambodia and her work with the Richmond-based non-profit she founded, One Hundred Pounds of Hope. For more information on the oral history collection and using the materials in the classroom, visit the Virginia Holocaust Museum's website and Vimeo channel.
The oral archives document stories of fear, uncertainty, hunger and separation.
Clips from archives: I prayed that I would die in my sleep to end the suffering . . . I lived in the stall between cows, I lived between walls . . . Keep running, keep running, so I kept running . . .
And they also convey hope, determination, resilience.
Clips from archives: Everyday in the morning he would bring a sandwich and hide it in my machine . . . Maybe that’s what made me stronger as a human being . . . It was a question of wishing to survive in the future and therefore doing something . . .
The Virginia Holocaust Museum has collected stories from more than 200 survivors and witnesses to genocide and mass atrocities.
Timothy Hensley: Ultimately what we would like is that people have the chance to hear the tragedy of one of these events through somebody who actually survived it.
Hensley: It provides a much more in-depth look at how people are actually affected and impacted by these events than what you can get from just simply sitting down and reading a book.
The bulk of the collection is testimonies from the Holocaust, but the museum has been expanding it to include survivors from Armenia, Rwanda and Cambodia. Amanda Sam was just four years old when Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge began driving thousands of people from their homes.
Amanda Sam: As we speak right now, I can see and hear it like it happened just yesterday. Hundreds of people were stampeded to death; children were crying, desperately looking for their family.
Sam survived two years in the extremely harsh conditions of a child forced labor camp. The family narrowly escaped death and hid in the jungle for months. They finally made it to a refugee camp in Thailand where they barely survived for another two years before securing sponsorship in United States - what they called “their ticket to heaven.”
Sam: I was given a second chance of living the life that I am very grateful for. Live everyday like it’s your last day, because you just don’t know and try to make a difference and help those less fortunate than you are.
The Virginia Holocaust Museum encourages the public, researchers, and schools to use these archives. At Glen Allen High School, Tim Towslee has incorporated the oral histories into his Advanced Placement English course.
Tim Towslee: These students can read whatever they want in a history book or see things on television, in videos; actually hearing somebody tell their story as if they’re just talking to you in the room was very different for them, was very eye opening.
It’s an opportunity that Towslee says wasn’t a part of his own high school education, even though contemporary genocides were in the news.
Towslee: I feel like I would have been a completely different student had I seen the stuff about Rwanda and Bosnia at the time, or been more aware of even the policy discussions about that. I would have been a very different student, if not person altogether.
Towslee says that’s inspired him to share the Virginia Holocaust Museum’s oral archives with his students. The museum also hopes to share more stories with the community; it is currently seeking witnesses and survivors of the 1990s conflict in Bosnia who now live in Virginia. Catherine Komp, WCVE News.
Q&A with Amanda Prak Sam, featured in WCVE's story and founder of One Hundred Pounds of Hope
Why was it important for you to share your story with the Virginia Holocaust Museum's Oral Histories initiative?
Amanda Prak Sam: I felt it is important to tell my story in order to bring more awareness and hoping it could help put an end to human suffering.
When you first arrived in the United States in 1981, you came to Richmond. After middle school you and your family moved to California, but eventually you returned to Virginia. What drew you back here?
Sam: We moved back to Virginia right after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. My father was very sick at the time so he was not able to work; my mother’s income alone could not support the family. I dropped out of (Los Angeles) City College to work to help out but it still was not enough due to high cost of living and many mouths to feed.
In 2006, you and your husband, Thoeun Thomas Sam, also a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, returned to Cambodia with $1700 in donations which you used to buy local food to donate to 110 families. Those efforts have grown into your non-profit, One Hundred Pounds of Hope (named after the 100 pound bags of rice you brought to families). What did you experience during that trip that motivated you to start the organization?
Sam: Ever since that day when my family came to America, I made a promise to myself to give back to those who are left behind. I was overwhelmed with the food, clothes, and shelter provided to my family and forever grateful to have a second chance of life after the Khmer Rouge regime. As much as I wanted to do to help those in need, I never thought that I would start something as big as an organization but I was encouraged by many after they saw the pictures and video after my trip.
You've done a lot of work in Battambang, a rural village in Cambodia where you were born and where your father was a teacher. You're working to build a school here. Tell us about your recent trip (in January 2014) and progress on the school.
Sam: I just got back from a six week trip and am already making plans for July, hoping to go back to finish the schoolhouse. During my six weeks in Battambang, I did more than work on building the school. I was able to put together a team and distributed notebooks, pens, pencils, and snacks to over 400 students. We also provided food relief, donating rice, noodles, sardines, and soy sauce to the elderly.
One Hundred Pounds of Hope Mission is to provide provinces of Battambang, an underserved community in rural Cambodia, with food and an educational infrastructure for the future. To see photos from Sam’s recent trip, visit their Facebook page.