At what point does history change? This is what Anne Ranasinghe asks in her latest book, Who can guess the moment? It begins on a Thursday. She was nine years old. Her family was travelling in a train along the banks of the Rhine. The grape harvest was just getting under way on either side [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Retelling the past to save the future


At what point does history change? This is what Anne Ranasinghe asks in her latest book, Who can guess the moment?
It begins on a Thursday. She was nine years old. Her family was travelling in a train along the banks of the Rhine. The grape harvest was just getting under way on either side of the river.

“Suddenly,” she writes, “a coal barge steams parallel to us, leaving a foaming trail of white water in its wake. A man runs across the deck to where the flag is gaily fluttering in the early morning breeze. He undoes the rope, and slowly, reverentially, lowers the flag to half-mast.”

It was August 2, 1934. The German president, Hindenburg, had died. Three hours later Hitler took over. “I could not possibly have realised at the time,” writes Ranasinghe, “that I was witnessing a moment of history, that this moment would be a turning point for all of us. It signified the end of an era, and the beginning of a period of such horror the dimensions of which no one could possibly have imagined. It was the end of freedom, the beginning of terror.”

This is Anne Ranasinghe’s 19th book. She sent a copy to Queen Elizabeth this year just before she and Prince Philip visited the site of Belsen-Bergen, the Nazi concentration camp where an estimated 50,000 people died of starvation, forced labour, disease, brutality and sadistic medical experiments.

Nobody could take it in
On the occasion of the Queen’s visit in June, one of the first British soldiers to enter the camp spoke about what he witnessed. Corporal Bernard Levy, who was 19 at the time, said: “It was so horrendous that nobody could take it in.”
“For 68 years I’d shut the whole subject out of my mind,” he said. “But we’ve got to make sure that this particular horror stays in people’s minds.”

Making sure there is no forgetting is the overarching purpose of Anne Ranasinghe’s work – not only in this book, but in the majority of her many poems and other published writings.

It is a challenge which she has taken up again and again. It is not easy to bring home the truth of what happened. It is not just the sheer scale that is hard to convey. The truth is that the enormity of what happened eclipses ordinary discourse. We are not simply lost for words; we are taken to a place beyond cognition. That is why, when we see the grainy photos and films or read the accounts of survivors, there is a silence that descends. It happens to everyone; it envelops us.

Book facts

  • Who can guess the moment? by Anne Ranasinghe. Reviewed by Richard Reoch
  • Printed by Swies Print Pack 
  • Price: Rs. 1,000

Recounting the indescribable
If we are to learn the lessons of history, we first have to grasp it. Someone has to retell the story of the indescribable.
This is an author who has sharpened her mind and her pen on the grindstone of this impossibility for much of her adult life. She knows what she is up against.

“A Concentration Camp is hard to define,” she tells us. “It was a world of its own, like another planet. Once a man entered the precincts of a camp he lost all identity, every right as a human being. He became just a number tattooed on his skin… After months of ill-treatment prisoners reached such a point of insensibility that they ceased to react. From repeated blows they walked with a permanently swaying walk, and they were incapable of performing even slightly complicated actions. They also ceased to feel after some time,”

She describes a prisoner at Treblinka, an extermination camp in Poland, who “allowed himself to be chopped to pieces with a shovel without any sound or gesture. The commandant of the camp had found him with a pair of pliers in his hand wandering wild-eyed among a pile of bodies. He had been chosen to extract gold teeth, but instead he was murmuring the prayer for the dead.”

Fighter for truth and human dignity
A prayer for the dead could be one way of understanding virtually all of Anne Ranasinghe’s works – including her many years with Amnesty International fighting torture, disappearances and executions worldwide.

But she is not concerned solely with memorialising the past. She has the spirit of a ferocious fighter for truth and human dignity. What comes through her writing is a deep concern for the future. Perhaps that is part of the inner meaning of the Hebrew words, Tikun Ha Olam – the restoration of the world. It’s a phrase she used when she spoke at the restoration of the old synagogue in her home city of Essen, burnt by the Nazis in the so-called “Night of the Broken Glass”.

“Can the whole thing happen again,” she asks, “if not in the same form then maybe in some other? In the world of today there is an increasing resort to violence – generated by religious or political intolerance and fanaticism, economic problems, lust for power and racial clashes.”

She tells us she shares with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel “the deep conviction that memory is our shield, our only shield.”
It is a potent warning. The Second World War was unleashed a mere 21 years after the armistice that drew to an end the unfrequented slaughter of the First World War. That was dubbed “the war to end all wars”.

In the 70 years since the end of the Second World War, which claimed the lives of over – 60,000,000 people, there have been 159 further wars around the world, within and between nations. A least 20 of these conflicts have involved genocide and allegations of genocide.

So how exactly are we to know the moment when this long, cruel and devastating history will change? Or as Ranasinghe’s title asks, “Who can guess the moment?”

Will it be a spectacular victory of the forces of righteousness? A solemn surrender of all our enemies? A global melt-down that brings us to our senses? A UN Resolution? Another Gandhi or Nelson Mandela?

The restoration of the world
Perhaps the answer to Ranasinghe’s question – which so many of us ask at some point when we are overwhelmed by news of the latest atrocity – is encoded on the face of a simple stone wall in Paris.

“Since wars begin in the human mind, it is the mind of humanity that the defence of peace must be constructed.”
These words are carved in stone in 10 languages on a monument in the grounds of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Like the rest of the United Nations, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation was born out of the horror of the Second World War. The words etched on the silent monument are the opening of the UNESCO charter.

Perhaps they offer a clue to the question posed so poignantly by Ranasinghe’s writing, by her life and by everything she has witnessed. Perhaps that “moment” when we finally turn away from our centuries of hatred and mutual destruction will be a silent turning of the mind.

Perhaps it is this deepest possible “restoration of the world” of which Ranasinghe speaks when she says it would “stretch well beyond our time into the future: Tikan ha Olam. To heal not only the body, but also the soul.”
(Richard Reoch is the former global media chief of Amnesty International.)

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