“Or sailing down a languid August river-
Heavy with grapes the vines along the slopes.
A sparkling summer noon – the air is still;
And then the river barges passing us
Lower their flags to half-mast-- who can guess
The moment when an era starts, or ends?”
From Images- Germany 1933-39 published in Against Eternity & Darkness by Anne Ranasinghe
When Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, “memory, the warder of the brain”, he poses two paradoxes inherent in the meaning of the word, “warder”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary warder means a guard in a prison. It also means a prisoner. Hence the paradox: Can memory lock you up and make you a prisoner or victim, or does it function as a guard or shield?
Anne Ranasinghe’s latest book, Who Can Guess the Moment, refers to perhaps the most horrendous period (1932-1945) in European, even world history, “a period of such horror, the dimensions of which no one could possibly have imagined - the end of freedom and beginning of incredible terror”. Being a German Jew, she experienced the first years of Adolf Hitler’s regime. She was rescued by relations in England just before World War II broke out, but lost all her family. In a passionate and clear voice she confronts us with the events as they really occurred - not only where the Jews were involved, but the whole of Europe, later, many parts of the world.
The reader is completely absorbed in the text as the story is both personal and factual, until the bitter end: Costs of Hitler’s Third Reich-
50 million dead
30 million seriously disabled
21 million homeless Europeans
19 million European refugees
6 million murdered Jews
She begins her book by recounting a significant moment in the history of Germany and the rest of the world: the lowering of the German flag in a boat steaming down the river Rhine, signifying the death of President Hindenburg, the predecessor of Adolf Hitler. At that moment, this had no meaning to a child, just nine years old, who was setting out with her friends on a camping holiday in a train running parallel to the river, that the flag at half-mast- much later – would symbolize the end and a beginning of an era.
Then, she takes the reader through the events that followed during the next five years, reaching its high point in November 1938 with the “so called” the Night of the Broken Glass (which she witnessed) and the subsequent increasingly organised and efficient system of persecution – murder, torture, and the destruction of not only Jews, but ultimately 126 million human beings.
Anne began researching in the 1960s after being asked by a Tamil newspaper to give an account of her experience and this one time account grew into a 6 months Sunday paper serial. Here sources were many: the most important were The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944, edited by Lucjan Dobroszycki, written by a set of very brave inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto without the Germans being aware of it (her parents were there for 2 ½ hears) and the other is a booklet, sent to Anne by the S. Fisher Verlagepublishing house in Germany, explaining that her parents actually did not die in Lodz but were gassed by engine exhaust in Chelmno, a death camp in Poland. The booklet supplies all details.
The other references in the text are also extremely valuable including the photographs which bring the story to life as well as a map of the death camps.
The middle section of the book is a chronicle of German State Jewish Policy from 1933 to 1945 which gives the reader a clear understanding of the historical backdrop against which her personal horrors are recounted. It is followed by a paper read by Professor Norman Simms titled, Anne Ranasinghe: Jewish Poet of Sri Lanka-Three Strands in a Literary Corpus(1991), which was read at the New Zealand Asia Conference and subsequently appeared in the Journal of South Asian Literature published by the Michigan State University. Prof. Simms compares and contrasts Anne’s writing to that of Ruth Prawer Jabvala and Nissim Ezekiel. Jabvala was a European immigrant, married an Indian and flourished as a writer; Ezekiel an Indian by birth and Jewish.
The poems from which Simms quotes are also listed in the back of the book, and capture the spirit of this, her 19th book.
The relevance of Anne’s writing
Who can guess the moment?: This is the thesis that Anne poses to justify her recounting of a horrendous disaster that took place more than half a century ago. She finely captures her argument when she writes in her poem Memory is our shield, our only shield, that memory is important to “both idealise and trivialise the circumstance”.
In fact, this text functions as a clear reminder of how human rights violations seem to be a part of the history of human civilisation. Especially in Sri Lanka, which has seen pogroms, insurrections, mass graves and 30 years of civil war, human rights violations is not an alien concept. It is through remembering and reminding and foresight that we can try to keep society alert, to prevent the occurrence of similar disasters in the future.
I believe, that this book functions as a memorial, not only to Anne’s family and her people, but also three million men women and children who suffered the most unimaginable fates. At the same time the book has a didactic function to warn generations ahead- who may be neither victims nor perpetrators- memory is our shield, our only shield.