At a death camp in Berlin – II

It’s one thing to read about the holocaust or watch its horrors on screen — most of us have seen Schindler’s List — but to actually walk around a place where so much hatred, humiliation and torture was heaped on a people is an experience hard to capture in words.

Like I wrote  in my earlier post, Sachsenhausen was the “model concentration camp” which was supposed to set standard for other camps scattered across Nazi-occupied Europe.

And it did set the standards — for cruelty and devising innovative methods to brutalise and extinguish the human spirit of the inmates before killing them off.

The Jewish barracks

As we moved away from the roll call area to the right of the main entrance there lay two cottage-type structures — that we would have probably missed if the audioguide didn’t mention that these two were the last remaining Jewish quarters preserved nearly in the same condition as it was before the war ended.

At the entrance I felt a strange sensation as if stepping into a bloodied chapter of history. Prodded by the audioguide’s narration of the day-to-day life of a Jewish prisoner I was feeling suffocated trying to imagine the scenes that played out where we stood.

My friend Andrea looked as miserable, in fact, I think most visitors were going through a similar surge of emotions that was evident in their sombre expressions.

Kurt Eisener Junior was one of the first Jewish inmates of the Sachsenhausen camp.

A small exhibition area inside the barracks put faces to the victims through photographs — some of them too young to be in a prison– and antisemitic posters, pamphlets, newspaper cuttings showing the reality of those dark days.

The Jewish barracks were wooden quarters designed to take away even the last vestiges of human dignity from the prisoners — it afforded no privacy whatsoever to an inmate. The idea was to make them feel that they were no better than animals, who needed no privacy.

One look at the toilet area made my stomach churn, not because it was dirty, but because of the layout — nearly a dozen toilet bowls placed side by side in a row with no partition and very little space between them.

Every miserable day for a Jewish inmate began at these crowded toilets where one had to wait in queue while some one else was using it. The audioguide narrated how the inmates even had their breakfast — perhaps a slice of stone hard bread — while waiting to use the toilet before the roll call siren blared.

To complete the animal-like treatment there were no showers (the shower room near the infirmary was a gas chamber in disguise) only a washing area with large bowls of water that an inmate could use to wash his face and hands. Even that became unusable within minutes because so many of them used it at the same time. Each barrack was designed to cramp in about 400 people, but it held  many more than that.

Shorn of their dignity as humans, these miserable inmates then stepped out, rather herded like cattle by the siren and the guards, to the roll call area for more humiliation.

The roll call was a torturous affair in which the barely fed inmates in their striped cotton uniforms had to stand for hours on end — even in the harsh German winters — till every head was counted. Every one had to be accounted for, even the dead.

At any given point the camp had between 30 and 40 thousand, including PoWs and political prisoners. But the worst was always reserved for the Jews.

Harsh is a mild word to describe the punishments meted out to these miserable souls who were already fighting diseases borne out of unhygienic conditions, starvation and cold.

The Sachsenhausen Salute

One of the milder forms of punishment was nicknamed the “Sachsenhausen Salute”. It meant squatting with arms stretched in front — for how long depended on the guard.

This was one of the most common methods of torture.

Serious crimes such as stealing food meant getting suspended from a wooden post with wrists tied to the pole in an awkward position.

Or as in this particular case of a prisoner who stole a piece of leather from a saddle, he was awarded 50 lashings.The man was dead half way through the lashings but it continued till the count was over. One wonders if he felt the stings even in the other world.

But an unpardonable crime like trying to escape or even planning one meant being hanged in public or facing the firing squad at the aptly named Station Z, a trench where inmates were shot or hanged.

Pity was banished from the hearts of the camp guards by order from Hitler. “We want to select a layer of masters, who should not yield to pity,” Hitler had reportedly said referring to his Totenkopf (death’s head) unit of SS guards, whose job was to kill without pity.

From the Jewish barracks, we moved to the T-shaped prison barrack where solitary cells housed political prisoners. Many of these  cramped cells had photographs of the prisoners who occupied them put up by their families.

The killer height stand

Another set of prisoners at Sachsenhausen were the Soviet prisoners of war. More than 10,000 of them were killed in the early 40s.

If you’re wondering about the Geneva Convention — guidelines for fair treatment of PoWs — Hitler used a loophole in the treaty to justify the killings. However, American PoWs are not known to have been slaughtered like the Soviet prisoners.

An innovative method to kill them was put in place by then camp commandant Anton Kaindl by his own admission during his war crimes trial after the war. (Extract from the trial of Anton Kaindl)

A contraption was installed at the infirmary disguised as a height measuring stand. A Nazi guard pretending to be a doctor would ask the Soviet PoWs to stand at the contraption for measurement and through a hole in the stand another guard fired in the back of the head instantly killing the prisoner. Loud music was played in the next room where other PoWs waited, to mask the sound of the gunshot. More than 10,000 soldiers were killed this way.

Station Z

A view of the Station Z where inmates faced the firing squad.

Our next stop was the infamous Station Z, the firing trench. I walked down the slope to the end of the dug out where a prisoner stood before facing a volley of bullets from the firing squad. I stood with my back to the wall wondering if the inmates felt relieved knowing that in a few minutes a hail of bullets would put an end to their misery.

The harsh life they spent working at the brick-kiln or labouring on the boot-testing tracks and the constant scare of the lashings and the numerous methods of torture forced many inmates to voluntarily embrace death. They deliberately stepped on the “death strip” to end their lives.

But when a number inmates committed suicide that way, the guards changed tack. They still shot them but not fatally, leaving them to die a slow and painful death with no medical care. The inmates couldn’t even chose to die of their own volition.

Our last stop was the crematorium where everyday hundreds of bodies were burnt into ashes.  There were at least five incinerators that worked overtime to obliterate all signs of those who died of starvation, disease, torture and plain cold-blooded murder.

By the time the Soviet Red Army troops liberated the camp on April 27, 1945 after the fall of Berlin, only 3000 prisoners were left. They were too weak and ill to even stand to welcome their liberators.

Death March

If only the troops had arrived a week earlier they could have saved thousands more. Hitler had personally ordered the evacuation of the camp. This evacuation later named the “death march” had thousands of prisoners walking on foot for 20-30 km a day without food for several days towards the Baltic Sea. The Nazi guards shot anyone who fell behind. By an estimate more than 7,000 died during this march of starvation and bullets.

Sachsenhausen in its nearly 1o-year existence saw more than 45,000 people exterminated — shot, gassed and starved.

We left the camp in the evening, walking quietly back to Oranienberg station as if in a trance — the whole experience was so overwhelming. Our reverie was broken only when we entered the town and Andrea suggested we grab a bite and perhaps have a beer to cheer ourselves up again!

Berlin is a beautiful city with many beautiful sights, but if you are visiting this city do take some time out to see this “unbeautiful” slice of history.

Photo slideshow


At a death camp in Berlin

Apart from history books, my earliest encounter with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi death camps was through this movie called Escape from Sobibor.

Sobibor was one of the concentration camps in Poland established with the sole motive of exterminating as many Jews as possible, as quickly as possible.

This movie had left an indelible mark when I saw it in the early nineties as a teenager. I remember being completely shaken by the savagery, leaving me sleepless that night.

One of the scenes that is still stuck in my memory is that of some inmates being forced to dig their own graves stark naked before being shot.

Nearly 20 years later, when I visited Germany, one of my first plans of venturing out of that country was to visit Sobibor and the more infamous Auschwitz camps in neighbouring Poland.

But despite all my planning somehow I couldn’t manage the trip, which remains a regret.

So in my last week of stay in Berlin, I was telling a German friend about how I regretted not being able to go to Poland.


Arbeit Macht Frei: Work sets you free. This slogan was engraved on the entrance of all concentration camps.

Aware of my interest in history, she suggested that I go to the Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg on the outskirts of Berlin, where Hitler had built his first “model” concentration camp — a model for such camps built later.

Andrea  also agreed to be my guide at the camp, which was the administrative nerve centre of all the concentration camps in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. And this is where the Schutzstaffel or the dreaded SS officers were trained to “manage” these death camps.

So on a bright and sunny Sunday morning we arrived in Oranienburg, after a short 30-minute train ride, to this quaint little town on the outskirts.

We chose to walk our way to the camp while Andrea filled me in on bits and pieces of the town’s Nazi past. This was also her first visit to Sachsenhausen.

She narrated how the would be inmates — mostly Jews but also communists, homosexuals, gypsies, handicapped and pretty much anyone whom Hitler didn’t like — were made to march from the station through the middle of the town to the camp on the other end. The residents were encouraged to jeer, shout abuses and even hit them.

It was a sobering experience walking through the same streets and trying to imagine what it was like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany, where Hitler’s Aryan race theory meant the “others” had no right to live.

Absorbed in her stories about the town we arrived at the camp. We bought the tickets and were given an audioguide to help us through the tour.

Our journey into the past began with a detailed layout plan of the camp installed at the courtyard to give the visitors an idea of how the camp functioned.

Sachsenhausen is one of the very few places in Berlin and indeed in the whole of Germany that has been preserved despite its obvious connection with Hitler and his Nazi regime — to remind people of the atrocities committed here so that such hatred is never perpetrated again.

Dark chapter

Adolf Hitler at the Sachsenhausen camp.

Scarred by this dark chapter of their nation’s history that continues to haunt them, Germany has obliterated every place and symbol remotely associated with this Austrian-born dictator, who had brought shame on this country of progressive people.

In fact, I was surprised to see that even Hitler’s bunker in Berlin where he is said to have killed himself and his mistress Eva Braun, has been razed and is a parking lot now. A small nondescript signboard indicates what this place was.

My friend says this systematic erasing of the Nazi symbols has been done to ensure that they do not become a shrine for the miniscule number of neo-Nazis in the country. Then I was not convinced by the logic and felt that a nation’s history — dark or glorious — should be seen through the prism of objectivity.

I was convinced by her logic months later after returning to India when I read a news report. It said how a chapel in Bavaria was attracting neo-Nazi “pilgrims” because marbles and granite from the ruins of Hitler’s luxury retreat — the Berghoff — was used to build it.

But I digress too much.

Going back to Sachsenhausen, after a quick look at the layout plan we took the narrow  road leading to the main entrance of the camp — the same stretch that many thousands took for the last time never to walk back again.

Looming over the entrance was this now infamous slogan, engraved in iron,  “Arbeit macht frei” — work sets you free.

These words greeted the inmates entering the concentration camps all across Europe. Ironically, overwork on quarter-filled stomachs really set these inmates free of their miserable existence on earth.

As I walked through the menacing iron-grilled gates I could almost see the sunken, sickly faces of the inmates as the audioguide narrated how the guards kicked those who couldn’t shout loud enough the number assigned to them for the roll calls.

The machine gun post stood right above the main entrance dominating the entire roll call area ready to spray bullets at anyone who even missed a step.

Miss the step they did sometimes, metaphorically speaking.

Death strip

One step on this 'death strip' meant being shot without warning.

The camp’s perimeter was fortified by an electric fence, even so there was an eight-feet gravel marker all around the fence that was known as the death strip. Anyone stepping on it meant they could be shot without warning.

Just as it meant death for the inmates, for the guards it meant bonus and extra leave if they could shoot inmates who dared to step on the gravel.

But none dared. So the guards often left something precious — a loaf of bread or a slice of cheese on the death strip — in the hope of some unfortunate soul falling for it. Inevitably, some famished ones did despite knowing the danger.

Such was the cruelty practiced at this “model” camp, which ironically was not meant for extermination when it was initially set up as a forced industrial labour camp to feed Hitler’s war machine.

To give you an idea of what forced labour meant, here’s a nugget.

The audioguide was narrating how those who couldn’t work because of sickness or old age were made to stand the whole day in attention, rain, cold or sunshine.

Inmates were forced to run here till sundown.

If you think that was torture, the inmates thought they were lucky because they just had to stand there. I thought the same when the audioguide pointed at a 50-metre rocky stretch where inmates were made to run wearing military boots made at the camp, to test their quality.

Testing these boots for soldiers meant running up and down on the rocky surface from morning till sundown — and by experience I can tell you that the German sun sets very late, at least in summers.

Hundreds of inmates were left crippled because sometimes they were forced to run wearing ill-fitting boots, not to mention those who died of exhaustion.

End of Part I

Arey o Sambha!

The man had a streak of grey in his hairs even when he started off more than 40 years ago. That was the most striking feature of Mohan Makhijaney, who adopted the somewhat strange screen name of Mac Mohan.

He had been a constant presence in the films of the seventies and eighties as the villain’s henchman. Every Bollywood villain worth his smirk had Mac standing guard behind him.

Mac Mohan

Even the mighty Gabbar had Mac watching over his den in Sholay. Yes, playing  Sambha was the highlight of his career spanning more than 170 films in a host of languages, even English, Russian and Spanish.

I doubt if there’s a single Indian who has not heard of Sambha.

“Arey o Sambha, sarkar hum par kitna inam rakhi hai re?” Gabbar asks his trusted henchman perched atop a hillock with a .303 rifle by his side. Sambha replies: “Sardar purey pachhas hazar.”

This exchange between the dreaded dacoit Gabbar and his sidekick Sambha is probably the most popular dialogue of Hindi cinema.

It’s easy to dismiss Mac as an extra artist, but there was something about him that struck in the memories of all of us who have seen him over the years even if we barely remember any other dialogue he ever mouthed apart from the one in Sholay.

He continued to act for more than four decades ever since he debuted in Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat in 1964. In the 70s and 80s when a villain’s henchman’s chief requirement was a brawny look, Mac with his unimpressive lanky physique held his own and continued to be cast in these minor villain roles.

In a ruthless industry like Bollywood where one bad Friday could ruin the career of stars, Mac’s decades-long career deserves a special mention.

The ageless villain regretted the fact that despite being from a theatre background he was typecast as a baddie. But he was happy that he managed to stay in circulation for so long.

In an interview to The Hindu he revealed the secret of his longevity in the ruthless filmworld. “If I was not improvising and researching on my roles, I would not have been alive on the big screen for so long.”

He had made cameo appearances in dozens of blockbuster hits of Amitabh Bachchan and other superstars and I suspect those minor roles were written with Mac in mind.

So when I saw the TV ticker running the news of his death I immediately googled and ended up learning things that surprised me. His foray into Hindi cinema was not as an actor but as an assistant to none other than Chetan Anand.

He had come to Mumbai to be a cricketer not an actor but got involved in theatre and finally ended up in films.  There were other trivia like he was Sunil Dutt’s classmate in Lucknow and was the maternal uncle of actress Raveena Tandon.

But the most interesting bit of information came as a real surprise. Although, Sholay made him a household name, the film closest to his heart was another Bachchan starrer called Majboor.

In an interview to the Indian Express he says: “I played the villain opposite Amitabh Bachchan. For that role I completely did a makeover. I changed my look, my voice and even my dialogue delivery. It was my best.”

In an industry that has seen many a yesteryear actors even stars dying in penury and relegated to small briefs in newspapers, Mac in his death was able to make a splash in the media, if only because he played Hindi cinema’s most famous villain’s most famous sidekick — Sambha.

A spooky yarn!

I don’t believe in ghosts when its day. At night it’s different. It’s dark and you can’t see so well, which makes it easier for them to lurk around. So I grudgingly admit their existence mostly because if they do exist I don’t want to offend their sensibilities.

Now, if you go about bandying that you don’t believe in ghosts, one of them might just take it upon himself or (more scarily) herself just to prove a point.

So I keep myself suitably scared at night to avoid provoking the hell’s angels from dropping by to say hello. I believe in peaceful co-existence with them, one that does not require crossing each other’s path.

Having said that I have some strong likes and dislikes about certain things related to them. For instance, I hate watching horror movies.

I hate myself for getting spooked by them so easily. No self-respecting man should get spooked by these phony ghosts who have disfigured faces, big teeth and gooey stuff oozing out of them.

And for god’s sake why can’t the women in these movies just stick to their rooms? It beats me why they have to go exploring the haunted villa or take a bath in the middle of the night.

The ghosts seem to love catching them in the bathroom, naked. Not that I am complaining, but I get too psyched up by here-the-ghost-appears background music to even enjoy the sight.

But I love listening to ghost stories. In fact, I know quite a few so-called (peace be upon them) real-life stories. Fortunately, I don’t have a first-hand tale of my own.

One of my favourite stories is from my college days at Banaras Hindu University. It’s an ancient tale about one of the hostels located outside the campus. If you have been to Banaras you may have noticed a haveli diagonally opposite the street that leads to the famous Sankat Mochan temple.

This majestic building known as the Mahendrawi hostel was said to be the palace of Maharaja of Dungarpur. Legend has it that the maharaja sold off this palace after his queen committed suicide in her bedroom on the second floor of the building (can’t vouch for the historical accuracy).

It was bought by the owners of a Hindi daily called Aaj in the late 20s. The newspaper’s office functioned from this building for a few years till four of its late-shift employees were found dead in the morning under mysterious circumstances.

It is said that there was no injury mark on their bodies, only their faces betrayed an expression of horror — one can only guess what they saw before dying.

After this incident the building was abandoned again and it became known as a haunted house. Some years later, the Banaras Hindu University took over the palace and turned it into a hostel. It was in the 30s and the sprawling campus had yet to come up.

The university authorities probably figured that young men living there wouldn’t give a damn about ghosts. But they took a precaution and closed the staircase to the second floor on which the maharani had killed herself and those unfortunate newspapermen who were found dead.

To give you an idea of the hostel layout, it was a square structure with a huge courtyard in the centre. The rooms were on three sides as you entered the building from the main entrance with a corridor running across on the three flanks.

Room No 10 in which the story unfolds, is right across the courtyard in the corridor facing the main entrance. It is said that every evening after dark the occupant of the room had a visitor — a young woman.

Here you must remember it is the 30s I’m talking about. A woman visitor that too after dark was an oddity (it is even now) to say the least.

But the occupant of the room for some reason did not find it odd. It is said that the woman came at an appointed time, chatted with the guy for exactly an hour and then left.

Since there was no electricity and the rooms had single occupants, it took a while for the other students to discover that their hostel had a woman visitor every evening.

They began teasing the guy, but since he was a reticent sort, the teasing was not much fun. They used to ask him doesn’t he find it strange that a woman should come to a men’s hostel late in the evening?

But he would just shrug off their queries saying what’s wrong if she comes here? We chat for a while and then she goes.

She always came and sat on the chair right next to the door on the right hand side with her dupatta hanging by the door which remained open. No one knows what they talked.

Some of his fellow students even tried to sneak up through the corridor and try to listen in but they couldn’t make out for sure what they talked. They even tried to follow her after she left the room but always lost her just after she went out of the main gate.

So one day they hatched a plan to find out where this girl comes from. One of the guys sneaked up to the door and tied a thin black thread to her dupatta that always hung by the door while she sat there. They made sure it was a big spool of thread.

After the girl left with the thread still tied they followed her but again lost her right after she went out of their sight into the dark street. There were no streetlamps then.

But this time they knew that the thread would give her away. The boys woke up at the crack of dawn to follow the thread and see where it leads.  The entire bundle of the thread had unspooled. So they followed the black thread out of the hostel.

There’s an alley that leads to the back of the building. They followed the thread patiently and finally where it led had their jaws dropping and legs shaking with fear.

The sun was about to rise and they saw the black thread going down an abandoned well.

Lore has it that the woman never came back after that.

I don’t know how authentic this story is, it could be the figment of some one’s imagination that got passed on from one generation to the other, but old-timers say there used to be a well right behind the hostel.

PS: I hear the hostel has been sold off by the university and a mall or an apartment block will come up in its place. So many of my memories and ghostly tales will get buried in the ruins of this heritage building.