Can Beauty Save A Life?
Field Notes from Prisoners of War
“Remember that a flower is not just a flower, it is the start of a whole garden.”
- Eddie Jaku, former prisoner of Auschwitz.
Harsh, immovable rock to the left and to the right bordered my eyes; steep and valleyed, taller than I could see. The air was thick with humidity and my breath was shallow. I’d walked down 157 steps through a bamboo forest and was now level with Death Railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
In 1942, the Japanese Army planned to invade India but required a more direct overland route to transport reinforcements. So, in 1948, this opening through the rock was cut by prisoners of war and laborers, commanded by Japanese and Korean soldiers, using their hands and basic tools and limited dynamite. The Thai-Burma railway track, which would be later known as Death Railway, wound 415 kilometres, crossing rivers and twisting through mountains and was completed in 1943. It’s estimated that around 90,000 Malay, Chinese, Burmese, Tamil and Thai prisoners of war and labourers died constructing the railway. In the section I’m standing in, alone, 69 men were beaten to death by Japanese guards in the six weeks it took to build it, and many more died from starvation, exhaustion, cholera and dysentery.
At night, the workers’ torches would light up the rock walls, stretching and flickering their skeletal shadows against the walls they were digging. The monsoon rains and high temperatures threatened the health of already malnourished and overworked prisoners.
This path wasn’t made for walking, but for trains; not for enjoyment but for invasion. I see a tree standing in the middle of the pathway, surrounded by sloping walls of rock. It grew from stony ground; stark, slender and alone.
Hope can be the size of a seed. A single acorn can hold a thousand forests; a tree now grows from the ground of Hellfire Pass.
Even here, there would be stories of bravery and forgiveness growing from the dirt. Inside earthquake-shelters made from cornsacks and concrete-drainpipe-homes and shipping-container-clinics, and sun-dried desert-homes and swept-tombstone dwellings, dignity is alive. Even in these places, there are bodies, eyes, minds and souls defying death.
Earlier in the year, I had travelled to a different part of Thailand to tell the story of a stateless baby in the borderlands; born invisible in many ways. Created images had, quite literally, saved her life: she had received surgery to correct her gastroschisis — a condition where the intestines grow outside of the body. I had watched as Patnaree took a small box of milk, and lifted the straw to her mouth. She sipped. She swallowed. She was alive.
Recently, I’ve noticed lots of discourse circling about the Christian theology of beauty. I haven’t delved into it, as I don’t think I can bring myself to narrow beauty’s definition into a theological box or as an isolated concept detached from the messiness or complexity of our world; our Crucified Christ binds beauty and pain inextricably.
In 1943, Australian prisoner of war at Hellfire Pass and surgeon, Weary Dunlop, wrote in his diary:
‘The morning and evening sometimes positively hurt with their beauty, especially the lovely quarter hour before dawn when the whole sky is aglow with brilliant crimson bands showing through the clearly etched foliage in a brilliant atmosphere and the softest of pale blue. Vividness and colours everywhere.’
To hurt with beauty, he wrote.
I am learning to pay attention to the surprises in the sorrow, like a surgeon who treats and touches tortured bodies but stays soft enough to paint the sky with his words.
Ray Parkin, another prisoner of war, and friend of Weary Dunlop’s was an artist who painted surprises with colour on paper. He was riveted by clusters of orchids, ‘salmon-yellow mackerel clouds’ and ‘smoky-blue ranges’ beyond the Kwai Noi River.
One day, in his journals, Parkin wrote forlornly:
‘As I get to the top of the big hill, I look out and see between strong green and brown forms, the lovely blue of the rain-washed mountains with the sun back-lighting them. But I cannot absorb it in a real way. I know it is beautiful, but what does beauty signify?’
He sounds like a man at his physical and emotional limits.
Yet, in Parkin’s marvel in his descriptions of the landscape, though he himself is in such dire circumstances, is a speck of hope:
‘A dull day with grey half-light – indigo, green and sepia. Whitish rags of low cloud skirting across the mountains, tearing themselves on the ridges. It is humid and we are hurling rocks down the hillside. Scraping them out with our hands … In spite of our situation, there is something here which is giving my heart a lift: perhaps it is the much good against which to contrast our little evil, giving a sense of proportion.’
The beauty of the landscape and his own optimism are intertwined.
Ray would collect butterflies that flew around the Kwai Noi river and its valleys. In fact, in February 1943, he was known to paint little else, naming and drying some of his finds, sticking them to the ceiling of his hut with splinters of bamboo. Here was order, fragility, and an appreciation of colour in the hands of a man crushed by forced labour; here was curation and delight in a place of depravity.
I am absorbed by one of Parkin’s paintings from his time as a prisoner, showing what he nicknamed as a ‘Will O Wisp’ beetle. It’s open wings spreading out in an array of colour, ‘blue dappled, speckled, lined and patched, with a red body and a remarkable upturned horn of lake-red,’ as Ray describes the colours in his journal. His layered words match the rich hues of his palette.
I am still figuring out exactly why this drawing has become so significant to me. It’s partly that this drawing is a testament to human resilience; this small creature offered Ray a chance to reclaim some of his humanity and creativity in a place where humans were treated like animals.
It’s also a reminder that we live inside a juxtaposition of scale - of colourful insects and of war, of a global pandemic and an eyelash resting on a child’s cheek, of a newborn and a sprawling refugee camp, of tsunamis and a wasp sting, of cyclones and a dust speck dancing in the sun, of rainbows and a nose freckle.
Ray’s beetle drawing from Death Railway has become a sort of symbol for me – that I am at once entirely out of control; helpless and limited and unremarkable — sometimes a prisoner of things outside of my control — and yet I am still here, full of specificity, colour and purpose. So is the person living on the other side of my beliefs - or my garden fence – or my country’s borders.
His sketches were eventually concealed and transported inside a false bottom of Dunlop’s operating table. I enjoyed learning this fact; I smiled at the thought of the painted butterflies lying next to the sketches of exhausted bodies. Discovered beauty and the darkness of brutality – both together – both carried and rescued inside the surgeon’s workspace.
Butterflies and beaten bodies; vivid, shocking, anomalies.
In fact, another of Ray’s paintings would save someone’s life. When the war was finished and Ray’s prison camp was liberated, a commandant let the men he was supervising walk around. Ray was able to pick leaves, flowers, and butterflies. Ray drew a picture of the camp and gave it to the commandant, thanking him for his kindness. Many of the commandants were later executed for their war crimes, but the recipient of Ray’s note was spared. He had a small painting from Ray Parkin—evidence of his character— to present in his defence.
In the midst of death was life.
Walking through Hellfire Pass and seeing the Will O’Wisp painting also reminds me of one of my favourite stories about the Ten Boom family in Holland.
During World War Two, Corrie Ten Boom and her family, motivated by their belief that all humans bear the glorious image of God, hid Jewish people inside their home, sheltering them from the persecution of the Holocaust. They were eventually caught by German guards, who sent Corrie and her family to concentration camps where they faced hunger, violence and despair. Betsy and Corrie were prisoners at Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany, and Betsy, already weak with lifelong health problems, endured beatings from the guards and eventually died in the camp, aged fifty-nine.
Before Betsy’s death, she explained to Corrie that she had received a vision from God that, after their release, they would own a concentration camp. It would be a place where German perpetrators, hardened by hate, could learn to love again. In Betsy’s vision, the barracks were painted green and had window boxes filled with flowers and plants. ‘It will be so good for them, watching things grow. People can learn to love, from flowers,’ said Betsy. ‘We must tell people what we have learned here,’ she explained to her sister. ‘We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.’
Even though it seemed impossible for Corrie at the time, Betsy could see something that Corrie could not. She could see beyond her present suffering. She could see colours yet to be.
The Ten Boom window-boxes symbolised a defiant truth : no pit is deeper than God’s love — beauty’s Source.
The Will O’ Wisp and butterflies could fly free, unlike the artists who painted them or the soldiers who watched them.
Don’t we all need to see that something unexpected can grow along Death Railway?
As always, I love hearing from you. Feel free to leave feedback, comments or reflections.
You are most welcome, Ella Grace. Thank you for your uplifting response.
I love this piece, Ella. Thank you for sharing it.