I’m not sure why I was moved to read this book after seeing a preview for the recently released movie of the same title (starring the dreamy Colin Firth) as I tend to shy away from WWII-related books and movies- especially if based on a real event or is a memoir. Historical events of the 20th century still feel a little too close to current times that I am often discomforted by the reading of such books and rarely force myself to watch war movies as I usually end up crying the entire time. I blame being forced to watch “All Quiet on the Western Front” as a precocious 7th grader. That movie has haunted me.
Cinematically traumatic memories aside, I was intrigued by the story line for Railway Man. Perhaps it was due to my being fairly ignorant to the horrors inflicted on British soldiers within the Asian theater during WWII as more of my history centers around the Holocaust and European theaters of that time. I was also pulled in by the wonders of fate that allowed a man who was so horribly tortured and survived events that most of us can’t even being to fathom, the opportunity to 50 years later meet the man who was the interpreter during his torture and the fixation of his hatred for what he experienced.
Railway Man is an autobiography written by Eric Lomax. Perhaps it is the span of time in between when these heinous events occurred and when he was able to finally write about the events, but the book read with a sense of distance to it. Understandable given the descriptions of torture the author lived through along with his time spent in the Changi prison. Lomax was captured by the Japanese when Singapore was surrendered in Feb. 1942 and eventually ended up with thousands of other POW’s building the Burma Railway (tens of 1000’s of people died in the building of this railway). Lomax was tortured under suspicion of anti-Japanese activities due to his suspected involvement in helping to build a radio while in the POW camp. He was found guilty of this charge and transferred to another Singapore prison where he spent the remainder of the war.
Lomax had a difficult time adjusting back to civilian life and he talks at length in his memoir on this topic as he is able to reflect on how his experiences in the war changed him. He became a patient of Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in the mid-1980’s where he received counseling to help him both deal with what he experienced and document his experiences as a POW.
The most powerful part of his story is when he is able to meet the interpreter, Nagase Takeshi**, and forgive him for his part in the torture Lomax experienced.
As I finished this memoir, I couldn’t help but cry a little at Lomax’s capacity to forgive a man who was fundamental to the pain and suffering he endured. While you could argue that even if Takeshi had wanted to protest the torture being inflicted on Lomax and others that were being interrogated, this likely would have been a death sentence for Takeshi and probably not changed the outcome of Lomax’s story. My own thoughts also ran along the lines of could I forgive something so great? I think of my daily life and those of people around me and what we choose to focus on, hold against each other and allow to be unforgiven but are they worthwhile things to fall into an “unforgivable” category? Perhaps it is all relative to what we do experience in our lives. I can only hope that I never live through such a brutal and life-altering experience where my capacity to forgive, heal and find peace at what I endured at the hands of my fellow man would be tested. I honestly don’t know what the outcome would be.
Railway Man also reminded me that WWII stories need to continue being present in our 21st century world. More so as fewer and fewer are left to share firsthand accounts, and sadly being replaced with others from different generations who have their own difficult memories to battle.
**Nagase Takeshi wrote his own memoir called Crosses and Tigers and spent much of his life post-war leading people back to the Burma railway to discover the mass burial graves of railway workers. He also financed the construction of a Buddhist temple at the River Kwai bridge as part of his atonement for his part in the war.