When I was a kid we used to visit relatives in Leeds, and in particular a grand old lady called Auntie Ada. She was my mother's aunt, a widow living on her own in Mexborough Avenue. Auntie Ada used to sit in her living room, facing the broad back alley, greeting passing neighbours and visitors. The front seemed rarely used, unless someone came by car.
One day, leaving the grown-ups to their conversation I wandered into the front room. There were some photographs framed on the wall. Two men in military uniform, one of them my mother's cousin Gerry. The other soldier reappeared in another photograph, as a smiling young student in gown and mortar board collecting a rolled up scroll - his graduation from medical school.
There was a toy dinky aircraft on the mantlepiece, I think it was a twin-tailed Lockheed in camouflage. There was even a skeleton, hanging on a stand! After playing with the plane and looking at the skeleton, I turned to the bookcase. I was browsing through a medical book, with some curious pictures, when my Mum came in and said I should not be in there. But Auntie Ada said "It's alright Gertie, he's not doing any harm". So I obtained the privilege of going into this room sometimes and looking at the books and photographs.
I may even have got to take home the aeroplane. Along with a curiosity about this man we never met, my mother's cousin Mark whose books and study room were left intact, and who had been both a doctor and a soldier.
Captain Mark Gordon Braham, son of Peter and Ada, probably the first of any of our relations to go through higher education, and obtain a qualification, certainly the only one to be commissioned as an officer, served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was captured by the Japanese at Singapore. He never came back.
According to the story I heard, a man who had been incarcerated with Mark in a Japanese POW camp came and visited Auntie Ada after the war. He told her how Mark had been trying to treat fellow POWs in the camp, but could not get the Japanese captors to give him medical supplies. So he organised a team to steal items from the Japanese own stores. They were caught, and Mark was executed.
It was an impressive story, about our family hero, and for years I would proudly retell it whenever given a chance. I remember when articles and books like Russel Braddon's appeared, describing the awful treatment and conditions endured by prisoners of the Japanese. The picture was later softened and prettified somewhat to suit commercial and diplomatic relations, as when the surviving prisoners became an embarassment as the Japanese Emperor was welcomed at Buckingham Palace.
There's also the cultural relativist excuse, that Japanese forces mistreated their prisoners because their code despised those who surrendered. This seems to have come along with admiration for Japanese industrial success. But bushido, the Japanese warrior code is as much a modern invention as Japanese workers' supposed lifetime commitment, shushin koyo, to paternal employers. Both were adopted to suit the zaibitsu, big capitalist corporations. Anyway the "cultural" excuse could presumably be made for Southern white racists (who also created their feudal myth in plantation days), and Nazi antisemites, and probably has. But in every national culture or tradition there are differant, opposed traditions, and we have to judge and choose.
A few years ago, coming upon Mark Braham's name in a book of Commonwealth war dead, listed as having died at sea, I thought it must be a mistake. But seeing that former prisoners of war had an organisation, I wrote asking if they had any information. It was thus I learned that Mark had been captured by the Japanese, and that apparently he was killed at sea - by the Americans. He died with other prisoners of war on board the Hofuku Maru, a Japanese ship which was taking the prisoners away to work as slave labour, when it put into Manila harbour for repairs, and was among several such ships bombed and sunk by US planes, on orders from General Douglas McArthur.
To be fair, the Japanese prison ships were unmarked. These were the "Hell Ships", old freighters into which were forced as many prisoners as could be crammed, in tropical heat. Conditions and sickness must have been horrendous.There were 1,289 men crammed on to the Hofuku Maru when it was hit, on 21 September 1944, and 1,047 were killed. Perhaps the man who came to visit Auntie Ada was being kinder telling her his version.
So now, I've no longer got the tale to tell of Mark's heroic death. But I have had the satisfaction of knowing he will be remembered, thanks to a man called Ron Taylor who has created an online roll of honour at http://www.roll-of-honour.org.uk/Hell_Ships/ .
It is quite beautifully presented and well-researched, and from it I learned that Captain Mark Gordon Braham of 1st Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, son of Peter and Ada Braham and husband of Sonia, was killed aged 26 when the Hofuku Maru was sunk by planes from a US aircraft carrier.
I have written to Ron Taylor to thank him for his work, but also to express one quibble. Above each name in this roll of honour is a large Christian cross, adorned with a red poppy. But Mark Gordon Braham was Jewish, as I'm sure were some of the others, such as Alexander Szarkow from Cheetham, serving with the Manchester Regiment, or Abraham Roumania from Stepney, who was with the Cambridgeshires. Family members would have been gratified that their loved ones were honoured, but less comfortable about their seeming posthumous conversions.
Ron Taylor has reassured me that he did not intend to claim the men, or cause offence. The cross he used is the "Changi Cross", representing one crafted from brass by Staff Seargeant Harry Stogden, of REME, for the chapel he and fellow prisoners set up in Changi prison. This cross was later taken north by a padre with the men sent to work on the "Railway of Death" in Thailand. So its use here can be said to represent not aggressive crusading Christianity, but the spirit of dogged resistance and solidarity with which the prisoners strove to maintain their humanity.
Abashed by my own ignorance, I have accepted Ron's explanation. Unable to come up with an alternative graphic, and considering that separating the men on that roll out by assumed religion might be tricky as well as unseemly, I have suggested that a note would suffice, saying that the men came from various backgrounds, and use of the cross should not be taken as indicating anything about their affiliations.
So why, since I'm not religious at all, should I worry whether some relative I never met is remembered with a Christian cross? I don't know whether Mark Braham would have cared, and even if Auntie Ada might, she has not lived to see it.
Well, for one thing because there are still ignorant or malicious people around (though I'm satisfied Ron Taylor is neither), who like to say that Jews never fought in the war, and only got others to do their fighting. For another, many otherwise well-intentioned people in Britain seem to think they are doing minorities a favour by pretending we don't exist, or taking it for granted we're all Christians.
We've just seen Remembrance Sunday, and there have been several TV programmes commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Second World War. A wide number of people, quite unconsciously, make stereotype assumptions about who the British soldier, sailor or aircrew was. Times of Remembrance can be times of forgetting.
I was reminded of this by reading John Tyrrell's weblog at http://johntyrrell.co.uk. He went to a ceremony in Birmingham honouring the Sikh contribution to Britain's war effort, and was pleased to meet young Sikh drummers.
John retells by contrast how a party of Afro-Caribbean youth experienced the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. "During the proceedings the M.C. asked who was there from Australia. There was a huge response of shouting and cheering. Who's from Canada? New Zealand? South Africa? They waited to hear who was from the Caribbean. It didn't happen so they cheered themselves. Neither was India mentioned".
(This reminds me of an incident concerned with peacetime efforts in France, which is topical in the light of recent burning suburbs. After the big oil spillage which spoiled France's north west coasts, a large organised party of youth from the poor Paris banlieus went out to help the clear-up efforts. People in the coastal resorts and villages were very pleased by these young volunteers and said they deserved a civic reception. What met the mainly black and Arab youth when they returned off the train to Paris was a solid line of well-armed riot police, "just in case" they forgot their place, presumably.)
John draws attention to an incident in Canada on Remembrance Day in 1993 which "illustrates clearly how discrimination overrides any wish to honour service". Five elderly Sikhs who had been decorated for service in Allied armed forces were invited to join Royal Canadian Legion veterans on their Rembrance Day parade, in Newton, British Columbia. When the parade reached the Legion Hall to hear speeches from dignitaries, the five Sikhs were refused entry, on the grounds that they wore turbans. They were told that wearing any kind of headgear was "disrespectful" to the war dead.
It apparently never occurred to the officious persons responsible that asking a Sikh to remove his turban was disrespectful to his religion and to all the Sikhs who had been permited to wear their turbans when serving and going to their deaths for the British Empire.
Reflecting on the way people in authority deny institutional racism and put the onus on minorities to become invisible and "integrate", John Tyrrell thought of how many people from different countries and backgrounds had served this country, like the Muslim woman Noor Inyat Khan who went to France as a wireless operator, like Odette, and was murdered by the Gestapo.
John's story has a happy ending. As he came down the town hall steps, the dhol players continued their drumming. " I spoke to the piper who had been playing upstairs saying stupidly 'you've got opposition'. Next I knew bagpiper and dhol players had got together. The combination was convincing and highly effective. My supposition of cultures in conflict was rudely banished into oblivion. Here was two way traffic indeed!"
Labels: Memory Lane