Sine, who writes the wonderful blog Joburg Expat, recently posted a moving account of her family’s visit to Robben Island, the apartheid-era South African prison whose most famous inmate was Nelson Mandela. The tour made a deep impression on Sine because her guide, a man known to her only as “Prisoner 19,” shared the story of how he came to be incarcerated and what life on the island was really like.
It’s this type of personal testimony that makes history come alive, as Elder Daughter and I discovered during our pilgrimage to Auschwitz. It’s amazing to me that these brave souls can return to the site of such private anguish, and revisit what must surely be the darkest chapter in their lives. They do it, I’m guessing, because they don’t want their suffering to be for nothing. And perhaps, paradoxically, by returning to the belly of the beast day after day, they’re able to achieve some distance from what haunts them.
Prisoner 19 spoke of his ordeal simply and without bitterness. Sine tells us that “he had taken Mandela’s call for forgiveness and reconciliation to heart.” It can’t be easy to overcome that much misery and resentment. I didn’t get the feeling my Auschwitz guide had been able to do it, even after all these decades. I know for a fact that the lovely but troubled guide who accompanied my family on a visit to Singapore’s Battle Box had no room for forgiveness in his heart.
The Battle Box, a WWII bunker located 9 metres beneath Fort Canning Hill, is one of the lesser-known tourist attractions in Singapore. Although it’s been restored and refashioned as a war museum, it truly is the real deal: the actual military operations complex that was used as Britain’s Malaya Command Headquarters during the Malayan Campaign of December 8, 1941 to January 31, 1942. After the fall of Singapore, it became the headquarters for the Japanese military.
Our tour began with a video history of the Japanese invasion of Singapore. Once we’d understood the background, we descended into the bunker. Each room was set up to represent the events of February 15, 1942, the day the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese. It was gripping stuff (although the effect was diluted somewhat by the decision to use clunky animatronics to bring those fateful final hours to life.)
Our Singaporean guide had been a small child during the war. It had obviously been a very difficult time, and he had a lot to say about the occupation. When he told us the story of the Japanese soldier who committed suicide in the bunker after the Japanese surrender — adding that none of the staff liked to be alone in the building because his ghost had been seen wandering the corridors — the creepiness factor came more from his ghoulish delivery than the eerie surroundings. But hearing him admit he had a hard time swallowing his hatred when Japanese tourists were in his tour group, it was hard not to pity him. This was a man who had suffered much, and continued to suffer.
I’ve thought of him often over the years, but since reading the Robben Island post, I can’t get him out of my mind. Unlike my Auschwitz guide and Sine’s Prisoner 19, his work didn’t appear to be helping him overcome his demons — quite the opposite. I hope he eventually realized that spending time in a place that rubbed salt into his wounds and made them fester was not going to help him heal. I’d like to think he was able to let go of the bitterness that was eating him alive, and find some peace at last.