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Saturday, June 3, 2023

How Nations Confront Their History

The gates itself were intimidating.

We were led through a Jewish prisoner’s arrival & life at Dachau. First, the rail wagons on which the prisoners arrived packed like cattle, clutching their scant belongings. The barking dogs & guards who separated families & pushed them into different areas.

Shaving of heads, the fumigation of people who were till last week doctors, lawyers, teachers, bakers, bus drivers …the barracks, the work houses, the kitchens all leading to each other via gravel paths.

The crunch crunch of gravel, the barbed wire fencing, the tower guards, the walls & huge seven feet tall pictures of life at Dachau bore down on us. Healthy men & women turned into skeletons beaten down by work, batons & starved on gruel.

Dogs tearing into & eating prisoners in full view of others, children with dead eyes, that basic concentration camp striped uniform & sabots.

The other visitors were European & American Jews. Some hard faced & others sobbing unbearably. Members of a French Book Club and an Austrian school trip. The Germans were there too, taking their young children around showing them what two generations before them had done.

Perhaps some had grandparents or grand aunts & uncles who had been guards at Dachau, or train drivers bringing the cattle containers with Jews, or just administration staff weighing the hair of gassed prisoners, their gold teeth or making an inventory of the bones for tea sets & cutlery handles.

The guide then moved back as we walked into a large room. Behind us the doors slammed. There was a moment of terrified silence. From behind a glass panel she asked us to look up, and through hundreds of nozzles we were told DDT was sprayed on the prisoners who, because of the lice in their hair & mites on their body, were grateful for it.

Next they were led to the ovens. These were all men & women who were no longer able to contribute to the Nazi industrial machinery, sweat shops & factories. Hence were disposed off. Simple. Easy. Cruel beyond imagination.

From the chimneys dark smoke emanated & the village of Erlangen an hours drive away, never once questioned the smoke & why were the chimneys letting it out day in and day out.

Today, we know 31,951 Jews were killed at Dachau & the Germans see it, hear of it & confront their past every day while driving through or living in Erlangen.

700-900,000 were killed in Treblinka
11,00,000 in Auschwitz
50,000 in Bergen-Belsen
600,000 in Belzec
200-250,000 in Sobibor.

All of them are museums open for viewing.

The visitors ran their hands over names they recognized …or was it over their carcasses? Feeling each bony rib, each emaciated arm & leg, the spiky hair over brutally shaved heads. The pain was piercing & real.

In the oven room we recognized one single Indian name – Noor Inayat Khan.

For me, a 15 year old girl from Bharat in the 70s, Dachau was my first life changing moment. There were two others much later but Dachau….The girl who walked in was an entirely different person from the one who walked out three hours later.

It was an epiphany -a peek into a world of grown ups & what horrors they were capable of. It seemed judges, teachers, doctors & ordinary folk all contributed in the murder of 6 million Jews & 14 million other nationalities because they believed it to be justified & mostly they liked it – quietly.

O yes, there was the silent majority. But that majority was worth zilch because it was silent.

I returned to school in Paris & discovered the Cine Club, of which I was a member and where I only watched French heart throb Alain Delon or the beauteous Catherine Deneuve films, had an archive on the Holocaust. With an awakened interest, I watched, over two years, more than three hundred films.

Heyy Hindoo! Were you a Jew in your last life? Who knows? Who knows? (All Indians were known as Hindoo in French & for some reason only Red Indians were called Indians)

Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, German, French, American films…. films from a Jewish child’s point of view, a Jewish music conductor, prostitute, seamstress or a Kapo – a Jew prison functionary.

Then there were films of the German side. The commandant & his wife living a genteel life of culture in the midst of a death camp, of camp female guards, of young girls caught up with the latest fashion, crushes, war, hunger & the mystifying smoke from a camp.

Two members in our Cine Club were Jewish. One had lost her entire family at Treblinka & the other’s grandmother still bore the tattoo of Auschwitz. As per club rules, because we were a group of eight plus, we could invite guests, and the grandmother with the Auschwitz tattoo came to give us a talk.

In those days the French Education Minister Simone Veil proudly wore her prisoner number on her arm and was not shy of talking about what some believed was France’s dishonorable role during WWII & Marshal Petain’s acquiescence to the Nazis.

There were open secrets too.

How collaborators had been whitewashed & found their way to the highest echelons of government machinery & society. The uncle of our school book shop owner had been a member of the French Resistance. He volunteered to take us through the streets on cycles, weaving a path from safe houses to Gestapo offices & meeting points along the Seine.

Can we wear a trench coat & beret, please ? After all 15 year olds can only be 15 year old…He had guffawed – And Ladies, don’t forget the red lipstick !

Lesser known directors and actors from the films we watched spoke to us on the subject, the emotions, the demons & the catharsis. This wasn’t even an institute of film making. A mere school cinema club of teenagers.

This was history out there in the open. For us to see, feel & deal with.

Then on Friday night, from what looked like a beautiful study with plump sofas and winged chairs, in a manner so French, Bernard Pivot with a glass of wine in hand, conducted Apostrophes. Pivot ran this very successful program for 15 years, watched weekly by 6 million viewers, occasionally visibly drunk.

An hour devoted to books, authors and literature. World famous personalities were invited to an open discussion which was interesting, exciting and often volatile. On Monday afternoons in school we had a class to discuss the topics Pivot had taken up earlier. Legal abortion was big, WW2, what it meant to be French, antisemitism &….the Holocaust.

By eighteen I was back in Bharat.

One summer evening sitting in the garden after Krishi Darshan at 6:30 pm and before Chitrahaar at 8 pm, I was telling my grandfather about my school & the subjects I had enjoyed & why I wished to pursue History in university.

He watched me animatedly speak of films & the subjects that interested me. He was shocked at how history was discussed & taught in France. But that’s keeping hate alive, he said.

Look at us. How we suffered Partition. How we were left penniless. What we left behind. That fear & that panic for the safety of our women still engulfs me on days. But we have buried it deep. We don’t talk about it. We must not.

This – Must Not – was all over.

My university’s history under graduate syllabus didn’t cover Partition. When I asked why isn’t an event that claimed millions of lives, the largest displacement of population in recent history not taught? It was met with a stoniness that led me to fear that my professor had already judged & slotted me.

Getting into the National Archives was like having the temerity to ask for Indo-Pak war plans. Requests for entrance were met with the same encouragement the Indian State excels in. Attested copies of this & that. Proof of research etc etc.

JNU Library was then the most wondrous place to be and many hours were spent reading, searching …. quite unaware then of the Left’s Great Silence & their criminal role in sanitizing history.

Book stores had a single half empty shelf of that period. Kushwant Singh’s ‘Train to Pakistan’ being the most popular. Certainly there must have been books in other languages but I was handicapped by not being proficient in them.

Till 9 years later, we watched Tamas on TV. That evening, the drink was nursed & dinner somber unlike others. That night in a single air conditioned room where the beds were laid out, my grandfather dredged out from deep within him an experience that could only be spoken of with the lights switched off. The five people in that room changed forever – one film, the images, the characters & a desperate journey had prised open a chest filled with pain.

He then slowly became open to speaking about the Partition.

For a stoic soldier of WW2 vintage having fought the Japanese in Burma, witnessed his country torn asunder, having left his beloved malta orchard in Sargodha, it took some doing.

By the time we watched Train to Pakistan in 1998 I was recording his stories. He had taken to inviting fellow travelers from that time for drinks, dinner & conversation so that young people could learn their history. We learnt of people we knew & how they had coped or succumbed.

Of that journey.

A beloved uncle, a mustachioed much decorated soldier, orphaned during a terrifying train journey ended up rolling out rotis in a refugee camp. We heard shameful tales of well-known pillars of our society. The compromises & the betrayals.

We met people who were completely forgiving & others who still carried a dagger in their heart. And no, he wasn’t that sort of Punjabi who yearned to see Sargodha, Lahore or Quetta. He wanted it out, out of his system. Cleansed forever.

Urvashi Butalia ‘s ‘The Other Side Of Silence’ & Shauna Singh Baldwin’s ‘What The Body Remembers’ were published years later & are simply superb testimonies of those turbulent times.

There must have been several wonderfully researched books & documents available for scholars but very little for the pedestrian reader & viewer. And if there was so little to read at my age, what was being taught in school? The project it seemed was to bury deep like shame.

Kirron Kher’s Pakistani film ‘Khamosh Pani’ was released much after my grandfather’s passing. That story would have torn his heart out or perhaps his spirit would have been freed if he had known earlier that there were deep wells in other people’s lives too.

Art, culture, history taught & spoken are soothing balms for wretched souls savaged by violence. Our leaders, historians & thinkers in their wisdom never utilized these means to assuage a new country & its trauma. They were blind to how other nations handled their demons and attempted healing.

So with maybe four films & a handful of books dedicated to the Partition, we watched an Englishman’s version of Gandhi. We couldn’t trust ourselves to make a film on him. A Sanjay Leela Bhansali or a Ashutosh Gowrikar would have left us cringing or perhaps even more damaged.

The unforgivable tragedy is that we were deprived of National Therapy, a collective conversation to reveal, speak, discover others equally wounded, and above all, question.

To make it worse we continue to repeat our errors by obfuscating the truth. And in obfuscating the truth we refuse to name & recognize the gangrenous nature of what was once our limb.


(This article first appeared at http://www.nandinibahri-dhanda.com/wordpress1/2017/05/02/how-nations-confront-their-history/ and is being republished with the author’s consent)

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  1. Hi, Nandini! Great Post. You write amazing prose. My suggestion to you would be to write a compilation of your grandfather’s experience.


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