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Survivor’s tale told in German

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German journalist Alexander Goeb first met Cambodian painter and Tuol Sleng prison survivor Vann Nath in 1992.

He was on assignment, working on a radio program in Phnom Penh about the destruction of Cambodian culture under the Khmer Rouge.

They kept in touch and developed a friendship. Goeb and his wife, Bettina Eichhorn, interviewed Nath with the help of his son, Nara Lon, and helped raise money for the ageing artist during his long struggle with kidney disease.

Nath died in September last year, but his legacy lives on through the relationship with Goeb. The result is the first German translation of Nath’s memoir, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 Prison, set to come out next May.

I Painted For My Life is the revised title of the original text, first published in 1998, but that isn’t the only addition.

Goeb plans to tack on his own written portrait of Nath, and include the funeral oration given by Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh.

“So far, there is no German translation of the diaries in Germany. I have tried in vain for many years, but the publishers were evidently worried about the financial risk,” said Goeb, who hopes the text will introduce Nath to Germans.

“The crimes against humanity committed in the time of Pol Pot are comparable in many, if not all, aspects to the events during the Nazi period.”

Nath, born in Battambang province, was arrested by the Khmer Rouge in late 1977 and taken to Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, where his jailers commanded him to paint large portraits of Khmer Rouge strongman Pol Pot.

The prison, called S-21, was a centre of death where an estimated 14,000 people were killed. Nath was one of only a handful of Cambodians to make it out alive. In later years, he made paintings of torture at S-21 that hang in the museum today.

His experience speaks to the life of some artists under the Khmer Rouge, who were spared and put to work performing music in official arts units or, as was the case with Nath, forced to create.

“Many of them are still alive today; they still remember the Khmer Rouge songs,” Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said.

 “The Khmer Rouge were artistic too; they had their own songs, their own music, their own performances, their own film.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com

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