Conference explores silence and wartime memory

For Elizabeth Olive, remembrances of war are sometimes few and far between.

“My grandfather was a prisoner of war,” she said, noting his experience in Asia during the Second World War. “He died many years before I was born – I never met him – but I learned of his story through my mum and I knew that I needed to follow that up.”

On Nov. 3, the William Doo auditorium at the University of Toronto featured researchers and scholars, including Dr. Elizabeth Olive, addressing wartime accounts drawn from the Second World War in Asia.

Olive, was one of three main speakers at the Holocaust Education Week event hosted by the Alpha Education; the event was entitled ‘Bearing Trauma, Sharing Forgiveness: Japanese Prisoners of War & the Next Generations.’

Mindful of the approach of Remembrance Day, on Nov. 11, the Canadian organizers of the event themed it ‘Liberation: Aftermath and Rebirth.’

As Dr. Olive’s research pointed out, the aftermath of the war experience played a major role in the lives of Allied soldiers imprisoned in Japanese POW camps. And the aftermath, she said, was mostly silence.

“Relatives, wives and children of these men will say that he never talked about it,” Olive said to the auditorium peppered with attendees wearing red poppies. “(The former POWs) came home and that was that – life moved on.”

Mark Sakamoto, Toronto author of ‘Forgiveness: A Gift From My Grandparents’ and speaker at the event, understood the culture of silence as well, and why it was difficult to draw his grandparents’ story out.

Sakamoto’s maternal grandmother was indentured as a servant in Alberta during the 1940s, when the Canadian government treated anyone of Japanese ancestry in the country as an enemy alien; meanwhile, his paternal grandfather was captured in Hong Kong and became a POW in Japan. He shared their experiences in his book.

“I only really knew the skeletons of both sides of my family’s stories. The silence was definitely in many respects (there) and for different reasons,” Sakamoto said.

“For my Grandpa MacLean,” he continued, “I think it was a defensive mechanism. The silence spared him and his family. He would only ever relive it when his mind was at sleep and he would have terrible, terrible dreams.”

He explained that there was also silence on the Sakamoto side of his family, but for a different reason.

“The twist … with them was that they didn’t want to verbalize the transgressions and those injurious years because they didn’t want them to come back.”