Generations come and go, and memories fade. But books remain. Even if out of print, they will be found in archives and other collections, storehouses of those distant events, incidents, habits and technologies of which the current generation has only a passing interest or knowledge, or not at all. History is recorded and book marked by books.
The Second World War too, is now a victim of this generational grind. The Holocaust long ago became the biggest part of its bloody heritage. More than its battles and victories, the Dunkirks, El Alameins and Stalingrads, the Nazi-programme in which more than six million people -- mainly Jews but also including many with political or ethnic configurations ranging from communists to gypsies hated by Hitler and his cronies were killed in all kinds of barbaric ways -- stands out as starkly as a charcoal tower in the desert. It is that conflict’s darkest part, and the hardest to comprehend.
The Holocaust has been recreated in many forms – fiction, histories, biographies, movies, even theatre. Now, it is reconstructed mainly as movies, for example Shindler’s List, the Counterfeiters and the Pianist, but, as participants, observers and victims die one by one, the recreations become projections of a different reality, altogether different from first hand experiences.
Events can be fictionally recreated, but it’s not the same degree of horror that actual victims of Nazism knew. New books about that dark chapter in human history have become all but non-existent. There are no more Anne Franks or Eli Wiesels; they are posthumous chroniclers, their books now at the mercy of publishers focussed on market trends seventy years after the event.
But Anne Ranasinghe keeps writing about the most wrenching of experiences of her life, the events which turned her into what she is now. How could she forget? She is alive today only because she was schooling in England during WWII, as schoolgirl Annelise Katz. Her parents were gassed to death. This seminal experience is something we can approach with sympathy, though there is no way we could ever feel what she feels. The depth of that horror is hers alone.
“A Long Hot Day” was published in 2005. “Snow,” a collection of prose and poetry, came out in 2014. She is certainly one of the very last voices from the bleakest of chapters in human history, stubbornly telling her story in the face of growing indifference. While there is still an occasional news story about the trial of a former SS guard, the focus is on new forms of violence, new horrors. Many people under 20, 30 or even forty have never heard of Adolf Eichmann, the Final Solution, the SS or Buchenwald. Nazism is history. But Anne Ranasinghe keeps nudging and pinching – don’t forget, or history will repeat itself. What happened to me could happen to you, or your children.
As she writes in ‘A Long Hot Day’: “I did not really expect to be alive into the third Millennium. I was born at the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century in Europe, to a father who, were he alive today, would be well over a hundred years old and filled my childhood days with tales of his military exploits during the First World War.”
When she says ‘were he alive today,’ it isn’t the same thing as someone talking about their father who died in an accident or a heart attack all those years ago. Her parents was gassed to death after being deported to Poland. There can be no argument that this is a horrible way to die, and the reason for these murders is among the most appalling one can think of – racial hatred.
As she writes with such clear-sightedness: “I have been asked why I was ‘so obsessed with death,’ and I have answered that I am no more obsessed with death than with love – aren’t these the two predominant themes of our lives? And death has in truth been ever present in my life: first in Hitler’s Germany, then during the war in England, later when I learnt of the loss of all my family. And my husband fell ill and was unwell on and off for the last ten years or so of our marriage. Now I myself am getting to that point in life when death from being an abstract idea becomes a concrete possibility.”
Anne Ranasinghe knows more about death than most of us. She found a new home in Sri Lanka, but it wasn’t the idyllic paradise of the tourist brochures. Ethnic riots blackened Colombo, other cities and Sri Lanka’s image, and her home was in sight of a location where a Prime Minister fell victim to national and religious extremism.
But her bitterness is understandably reserved for Germany and she did not return there for four decades after WWII even though a new generation of her compatriots tried to make amends in various ways. In 1983, her hometown of Essen decided to publish a book of her Holocaust poems. In its wake, a scenic collage based on her features, stories and poems was produced by a group of young actors and performed across Germany. A radio play, combining her poetry and music composed by a Chilean composer was aired by several German radio stations. But none of that can quite erase the pain of knowing the gruesome details of how one’s parents died.
German documentary film maker Michael Lentz made a TV film in 1986 about Anne Ranasinghe called Heimsuchung (Visitation. The final part was made here by Lester James Pieris). After its screening by a German school, students faxed her questions as she could not attend the event. These and her answers are reproduced in a chapter called ‘The Lingering Weight on Germany’s Conscience’ in ‘A Long Hot Day.’
In these answers, she explains how she visited her old home with Lentz. She accompanied the cameraman and other crew members to the garden behind the house, where her father practised how to escape in case the Gestapo came to arrest him. Neighbours watched from closed windows and called the police to say ‘a black-haired foreign woman is trespassing.’ Lentz talked to the police and was able to continue filming.
The man who now lives in her grandmother’s home in Zuschen has no proof that his parents acquired it and the land legally. The house was given to his father after Anne Ranasinghe’s parents and relations were deported to concentration camps. She has a copy of the letter sent by the then mayor of Zuschen to the present occupant’s father asking him to be “a little patient, then he would probably get the house for nothing.”
The present owner denied all knowledge of the home’s history though his mother was still alive at the time of the filming. The poet’s grandmother’s neighbour who remembered her as a child asked: “Did you come here to revenge yourself?”
Her parents were killed before the gas chambers were in operation. As there were so many people to kill, the Nazis found a gruesomely simple method of execution – pack the victims into lorries and use the exhaust fumes to suffocate them. This was how the poet’s parents died.
Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann who made a monumental documentary called Shoah about the Holocaust managed to trace one of the lorry drivers employed for this grisly work at the place where her parents died. Having been warned, he disappeared before Lanzmann could interview him, and he spoke to a young woman who was his neighbour.
When asked if she knew what her ‘very good neighbour’ was doing during the war, she replied that did not interest her. After learning the truth, she said without blinking: “Everyone has his private life.”
Anne Ranasinghe’s replies to the question whether she did not want to live in Germany again has to be understood in the context given above.
“Because of what happened in Germany, what happened to my family and my people is so horrendous that I cannot forgive or forget it…”
When asked “how long did it take you to ‘come to terms’ with the past,’ she said, giving details of the grisly executions: “…the actual killing took about ten minutes, and the lorries were then driven a short way from Chelmno to the forest of Rzuchow where the bodies were thrown into previously prepared ditches and burnt. Because of the speed with which the killings were accomplished depended on the way the driver controlled the engine, people were sometimes still alive when they reached the blazing fires in the forest….
Excuse me. How does
one ‘come to terms’
These two books aren’t simply about the Holocaust and the poet’s painful memories. They cover many topics ranging from Sri Lanka’s history and customs to sati puja, German Jewish poet Rose Auslander, Anne Ranasinghe’s writing methods and habits, a personal biography, the death penalty, Buddhism and its contradictions in Sri Lanka. But it’s the signal events which marked (and probably ended) her childhood which stand out. Her past, present and future are all here. There’s nothing more left to say.
Germany is undergoing dramatic change. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy towards Middle Eastern refugees is transforming Germany’s demography and social structure. She is perhaps trying to make amends to the country’s Nazi past. It’s a magnanimous gesture but there is a strong right-wing reaction, and no one can forecast what it’s going to be like in a hundred years – whether the refugees’ descendants would be accepted as ‘Germans,’ or they would be simply the Jews of the future. That doesn’t depend entirely on the politicians. In a democracy, voters decide. After all, Hitler was democratically elected.
Anne Ranasinghe’s Holocaust poetry would be highly relevant today in Sri Lanka which has seen a revival of the endless and agonizing cycle of racial bigotry, so openly exploited by hardline politicians on both sides of the divide. Just as the current occupants of her ancestral home in Germany may be unaware, or may not care, about how they got to live there, anyone who sets fire to a house whose occupants have ‘different blood’ is only a step away from the Holocaust. The idea is not something uniquely German to be wondered at. The Nazis did not invent racial discrimination, hatred, labour camps and genocide. They simply took all that to incredible oganisational levels. Nor did racial bigotry and killing other people on racial basis end with Hitler. It’s still going on all over the world, though nowhere on the same scale or with the same chilling bureaucratic efficiency.
We are all capable of our own holocausts, big or small.