The Power of Words


Writing inspired by Holocaust Memorial Day Jan 27th, 2018

On February 14th Kirsten Luckins facilitated a workshop for us as part of the commemorations for Holocaust Memorial Day. She used a number of activities to help us explore the power of words.

Names

In the first exercise we explored the meaning of our first and middle names (this threw up some surprising juxtapositions) and then wrote a character piece based on the names and their meanings.

What’s in a Name?
Ethel – noble. Elizabeth – oath of God

Ethel struggled to come to terms with her father’s death.
The battle had been long and fierce: three days the armies had clashed on the field; man against man; sword against sword; sometimes hand to hand.
She had watched from her vantage point atop the high tower; her ears assaulted by the tumultuous rage below; sun glinting off the swinging blades sometimes blinding her to the carnage. All around men fell, bleeding, dying; corpses piling up and still the slaughter continued.
Just when the day had seemed lost, her father and brothers led their men in a final charge; a last-ditch attempt to sway the course of the battle; to break the stalemate. Mounted on sweating horses, they charged headlong into the maelstrom. A blood-curdling cry issued from their frothing lips, as they cut a swathe through the enemy ranks.
From her eerie, Ethel bent her head, sending up a silent prayer to her God for victory.
One last push and at last they gained the upper hand. Many enemy soldiers lay dead or dying. Others fled the field, beaten. Her father and brothers dismounted to dispatch the gravely wounded to their final rest. But their kindness counted for nothing, as some of the enemy soldiers regrouped, advanced on the victors with anger in their hearts, and cut them down mercilessly.
Ethel’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle the scream that rose in her throat, threatening to choke her. Victory had come, but at such a cost! Turning away from the scene, she began to descend the staircase to the floors below. Her own grief would have to wait: she was Queen now and her subjects needed her.

Ethel Stirman

Loaded Words

The second writing task looked at the way words can mean different things to different people. We were asked to choose a word from a given list and describe what it meant to us.

Irene chose the word, ‘Egg’.

Egg is,
My fertility
My failure to be fertile
My longing
My need
To conjure up a new life
To hold that life within me
And bring forth that longed for child.
Irene Styles
Wayne chose the word “kettle”.

The Kettle
The kettle, the centre of our existence.
A guest with towels welcomes baby’s arrival
An arm around the shoulder to a loved one
Tin bath filled offering warmth
Resilience against attack
Secrets revealed in plumes of steam
Whistle invokes memories of steam trains and grandma’s Sunday tea.
Wayne Cook
After considering several words, Ethel chose ‘lamb’ as it made her think of innocence and sacrifice.

Lamb
Katie at three, trusting, giving, feeding new-born lambs.
Cautiously, she holds out the milk,
Holding tightly onto the bottle with both hands as they suck
Greedily, noisily from the rubber teat.
Milk overflows from their mouths, froths on their faces.
I watch, protective, ready to help if she needs me.
Her face looks up, seeking reassurance;
Blue eyes trusting, smile radiant with achievement.
Across the seas in another continent, another world,
A young boy waits; both hands grasping an automatic rifle.
Bereft of parents; claimed by those who had killed them;
Turned him into a soldier, stripped of feeling;
Eyes empty, cowed, robbed of childhood.
Found later, lifeless, discarded by the road.
Ethel Stirman

Life Stories

Finally we were asked to write a response to one of the life stories from the HMD website.

This piece of writing is based upon the account of Wolf Blomfield who lost his mother , family, home and country, during the Holocaust.

Loss
I read your story and was moved to tears, I felt your loss.
The loss of your country, your home, the everyday things that made you, a child, feel secure.
I felt your loss, for your father, your hero and protector ….but understood, and hope that you know your loss was born out of your father’s love.
His need to protect the very life that sprung from within his loins.
A life that would carry on the survival of his nation and his beliefs.
His hopes in you as a follower of ‘Yahweh’, finally released from fear and persecution .
His love, his loss, ensured
That you would never have to wear the yellow star, endure starvation
or feel the cold atrocities of a death camp.
Know and understand that your loss sprang from being so dearly loved.

Irene Styles

This poem is a response to the life story of Denise Affonço whose family was forced from Phnom Penh to toil as slave farmers for four years. Her husband was taken away by the Khmer Rouge, never to be seen again, and her daughter died of starvation.

Survivor
Angkar has torn the words
from your tongue
Your voice is mute in
your native language.

Angkar judges your memories treachery
Your past has vanished in
fading shadows

Angkar has revolutionized
Seng’s brain
You have lost sympathy
with the thoughts of your
husband.

Angkar has regimented
the movements of the clock
You have forgotten the measure
of time.

You have become, ye barang,
Amenable?
You are wearing
the mask of submission

But it never
anneals to the
contours beneath
It never
threads poison through
your capillaries
Or tracks and remodels
a geography of your brain.

No, you wear
the false face
of submission
It hides the defiance
in your eyes
Survivor

By T.H.

*angkar – new power in Cambodia
*Ye barang – old French woman

And finally, a piece simply inspired by HMD.

Razia*

Perhaps I had become too complacent, the welcome, too-eager relief of the survivor.
Each day we saw the bombers glinting above our city. Like a victory parade, people in the street checked, as the bombs tumbled assuring us an end was close. Perhaps it was a slip of my tongue, saying “we” when I had long tutored myself to say “I”. It would have been enough for a sharp eared “ferret”.
Perhaps, and this I find hardest, some friend had betrayed us. A loyalty sold.
The fists like hammers on the door. “Seeking anti-state propaganda” was their excuse.
Soon books and papers from the shelves were strewn in an avalanche across the floor. The spine of each book was cracked open, the net linen binding ripped away.
The long case clock spilled cogs, wheels, pointers and works and from the inside a rolled up bundle. They opened our national flag. One spat on it, another, grinning, mimed wiping his backside. Then they went to work with their bayonets and tore holes and shreds into the weak dyed cotton.
But all they were doing was having fun, building their little play of suspense, waiting to show how clever they were. All this while they had skirted the piano standing against the brown panelled wall. Ignored it in a very exaggerated way. Surely it was a too tempting target, yet they avoided touching it.
Until, with a smile and a nod, they swung the baby grand on its smooth castors, crashing against the opposite wall. They tore away the rattling tapestry. With the blunt ends of their bayonets they began a pattern of tapping and listening along the panels. Little drum taps before the execution. Their ears caught the hollow echo. They gouged and tore and the panelling splintered into long, broken teeth.
Standing there, framed by the wreckage of the wood, like a reveal in the theatre, was the woman. In a wide-brimmed green hat, long winter coat. She was dressed for the inevitable journey. The old cardboard brown case stood at her feet.
The little girl was clinging to her mother’s coat, her face turned away. The boy stood slightly forward, small hands clenched into fists, ready to defend his womenfolk. The mother bent, lifted the case, put her other arm about the girl and stepped forward. The soldiers had stopped grinning and stood to one side.
Her eyes fixed straight ahead she passed me, suddenly a stranger.

by T.H.

*Dutch term for ‘round up’.

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