It is the feeling of being caught in other worlds — with images of the road still moving behind the pages — that made me fall in love with reading while I walk. I’ve learnt to keep my gaze moving through the words on a page and mastered the art of when to stop and when to turn the pages. It began with Night by Elie Weisel, a book I had grabbed from a friend’s bookshelf. In a moment I was transported straight into the Auschwitz concentration camp while on a train ride from Woodstock to Plumstead, with a small book in my hands leaving a drastic impact.
In this book, Weisel offers an account of his horrifying experiences during World War II, where he witnessed babies thrown into pits of fire, was separated from his mother and little sister, and was humiliated, tortured and starved by the then German establishment, which was intent on eradicating the Jewish community. He offers this historical account through a detailed narrative of what happened to him as a reflection of a moment in history that revealed how horrific human consciousness can become.
It was the moment when he witnessed his father’s death that most devastated him — and subsequently me. It was a moment where as a reader I found myself gasping for breath. The intensity with which he captures this moment lays bare the fragility of life and the terror of death.
The narrative of torture reaches a climax when his father, struggling to catch his final breaths, calls out for his son while receiving blows from the SS (Schutzstaffel) officers. All Weisel could do was lie silently next to the scene taking place, fearing to be tortured if he dared speak out. It was this moment in the book when pain becomes tangible and leaves you with a lump in your throat, affirming the power of words. It was this narrative that resonated and left me shattered — thinking about how pain, instead of killing our hope, can sometimes fuel it.
For the longest time, I’ve found myself angry at the deity that set creation into motion and made it possible for human beings to be so evil to each other. It is not only that evil exists, but that it causes pain and leaves behind the memories of trauma. I’m unsure about the role of memory and yet I still want so badly to hold on to the moment of pain — in a weird way, a sadistic connection to what has now been lost. Weisel affirmed the role of pain and memory when he succinctly writes, “to forget would not only be dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them the second time”.
When I was 12 years old I witnessed my mother being shot by her boyfriend. I remember her buoyancy and vibrant energy while alive, and I also remember the sight of her lying lifeless on the ground in a pool of blood, steadily going to the other side, while I screamed for her to come back. Holding Weisel’s book in my hands, I was overwhelmed by the precision and intensity with which he had captured the experience of witnessing the horrific sight of your loved one losing their life as a result of bigotry.
I held the book in my hands in the moving train like a person with a gaping wound, as if every movement of the train might exacerbate the intensity of my pain. I sat there with the awareness that in remembering I was keeping the memory of my mother alive. The brutal murders of our mothers, sisters and friends whose lives were lost to domestic violence should not only be remembered during the allocated 16 days of activism, they should be remembered daily lest we forget and remain complacent about the violence that society is inflicting upon us. The world must remember with ferocity, lest the crimes of patriarchy, of anti-semitism, homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, transphobia and Islamophobia be accepted by the act of forgetting.
My world was refreshed by the knowledge that it is not okay to just endure pain caused by the madness of others. In remembering and bearing witness to our pain, we are reminded that the world needs to be challenged and changed. It is okay for our pain to fuel anger, an anger so fierce and so bold that it burns the pillars of bigotry that have rested themselves for so long on our beloveds’ lives.
With Mothers’ Day around the corner, adverts are at times a trigger for the grief that’s always lurking somewhere in the background of my subconscious. Every now and then this heaviness will creep up on me like an unexpected slap, but on Mother’s Day, it becomes downright stifling. It can linger around one’s throat like a constant throttle that’s slowly suffocating you. Now I know that pain is of no use if it’s merely nurtured; in speaking it out, and writing about it, as Weisel does, the process of emancipation begins and the world is reminded of its nasty ways. Articulating pain is necessary because it is therapeutic and begins to rattle the foundations of pain that thrives in the silence of victims.
I took a moment in the moving train to steadily establish a more comfortable position, glanced around for a familiar face and wondered how people let memories of their trauma, both collective and specific, play a role in their everyday lives. It is through taking our struggle seriously enough to bear witness that the need for hope, kindness and compassion emerges.
The writer recalls the terror of reading about Nazi Germany. which burnt books that threatened the regime’s dominace. (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
In Night, Wiesel offers us an account of an historic moment when evil reigned. He manages to weave an incredibly powerful story about a historical moment, told through a very specific and detailed biographical story. It embodies Toni Morrison’s sentiment about literature serving a purposeful role when history is turned into real life figures with names.
Night is a story about pain, loss, and death told by a little boy grabbing at straws, trying to find a reason to stay alive in the face of evil. Even after surviving the worst of the worst, being alive can become a trauma, full of tormenting memories. However, reliving the trauma in writing becomes a progressive realisation that will lead towards the eradication of the root of evil in our societies.
In writing this story, Weisel reminds us that by silencing our pain, we become active participants in perpetuating injustice in the world.