Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

163256

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Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. I’d chant that verse with my little girl nose up in the air in a “holier-than-thou” way in response to name-calling or other playground taunts. It’s rather surprising I didn’t suffer a beating, that some smart-ass kid didn’t say, okay, you asked for it, I’ll hurl sticks and stones at you instead of words. The playground can be a war zone.

There were other childhood incantations. On the way home from school, I’d link arms with my friends, and we’d barge down the sidewalk. Hey hey get out of our way we just got back from the USA. The words made us tough, invincible, transformed us. Even then, as children, we knew the bulldozing strength of the superpower south of the border, mightiness as a strategy to dominate. We became brats, bullies, pushing aside the smaller kids in our path. Kindergarten baby, wash your face in gravy.

I’ve been thinking about the power of words, how words transform into action, sometimes good, sometimes horrific. I’ve recently read Michael Englishman’s remarkable and devastating book, 163256, A Memoir of Resistance, published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press as part of its Life Writing Series. The series promotes “autobiographical accounts, diaries, letters and testimonials written and/or told by women and men whose political, literary, or philosophical purposes are central to their lives.”

A Dutch Jew and a concentration camp survivor, Englishman relates in straightforward narrative how he and his family, his friends and acquaintances, the Jewish community, suffered enormously at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. It is a difficult story to recall and recount, but Englishman does it with purpose, and that purpose involves the power of words. Words can hurt, particularly words of racism. When unchallenged, words can lead to injury, torture, and death. Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me is a childhood lie.

Words can also heal and warn, can serve as a tool of vigilance. Englishman writes: “Racism begins in small, subtle – even ordinary, seemingly harmless – ways, but it is a poison to any civilized society. If young people speak out loudly and clearly against racism and hatred, they can help to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust never happen again.” In order for youth to speak out, they need to know the stories of racism and hatred, what acts of evil can result, and hence the impetus behind Englishman’s memoir.

My friend, Netty, grew up in Holland during the war years. She is not Jewish, but the war had many victims. By the time she was fourteen, both her parents were dead and she was left, for the most part, family-less. She says the memory of the war and the deaths of her parents never goes away, that it is always under the surface, that she survives by living “overtop” of it. Netty is a poet, and by clicking on to the link, you can read her war poem, Barbed Wire.

Englishman also talks about the inescapability of memory. “The horrors of the concentration camps and the grief of losing my parents, my sisters, and my wife, were and still are, always with me. The grief is always there. I will always be #163256.”

~ Marianne Paul

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Marianne Paul

Marianne Paul's is the author of the novels Dead Girl Diaries (BookLand Press, 2009), Tending Memory (BookLand Press, 2007), Twice in a Blue Moon (BookLand Press, 2007) and The Shunning (Moonstone Press, 1994). Her fiction, non-fiction and poems have appeared in publications such as Vox Feminarum, Cahoots, Canadian Author, Western People and The New Quarterly.

Go to Marianne Paul’s Author Page