Tales from the Baltic

Stranger in the town

Judging by the curious looks I was getting, I had this nagging suspicion that this 13th-century Baltic sea town doesn’t get too many foreign visitors.

Walking around in this medieval town of Stralsund, I failed to spot a single face that looked like an outsider apart from my own that occasionally bounced off the mirrored shop fronts.

If there were tourists from outside of Germany from the rest of Europe I couldn’t tell, but your’s truly did stand out in the crowds as an odd man out.

Walking up to the Old Town Square in Stralsund. See Panaroma (right) for more pictures.

Feeling rather strange from all the curious looks I was getting — more so because I was walking around with two distinctly German-looking Germans — I decided to share my views with my friends.

“I seem to be the only non-German around here,” I told my friend Andrea. She smiled and said, “Could be. This is a very German holiday destination. Not too many foreigners come here.” Her boyfriend Wilko smiled in agreement.

My suspicions were confirmed when we walked into a shop . The cheerful elderly lady at the counter asked Andrea something and I could make out from her reply that she was introducing me as a friend from India. “She doesn’t get to see too many Indians around,” Andrea said and I thought that was an understatement!

So once my unique presence was established and I came to terms with it, I could now focus on sight seeing in this picture-perfect town that appeared caught in a time warp with occasional modern intrusions.

We were now in the heart of the old town or the Old Market Square (Alter Markt) with the Gothic town hall and the imposing St Nicholas’ church standing guard. My mind wandered off to a different world trying to imagine this market place abuzz with merchants, sailors and fisherfolk milling about.

My reverie was broken by the church bells that rang as a newlywed couple walked out hand in hand and posed for their wedding photographer. On that bright sunny day this medieval town square looked straight out of a children’s story book.

I clicked away furiously with my camera  not quite getting enough of the sight.

After a while, having checked out the imposing cathedral and the town hall, we decided to take a stroll down one of the streets leading to the sea front.

There lay the Baltic sea in all its azure glory. The Ozeaneum — a marine life museum — stands on the sea front shaped  like a concrete-and-glass ship while a real vintage German navy ship from the first world war floats anchored on the harbour.

Soaking in the sight we posed for very touristy photo ops and I tried to capture in vain the deep blue sea in the backdrop of the anchored white ship with my rather unprofessional camera.

Wilko and Andrea in front of the Town Hall.

The sun was quite up by now and we were feeling a bit peckish and beerish as well. And along came wafting on the salty sea breeze a mix of meaty and fishy aromas. My tickled nostrils fought with the smell of fish fries to pick up the meaty aroma trail as we walked to the nearest takeaway joint floating on channel.

My friends settled for fish fries and I chose a schnitzel (cutlet sort of) and we clinked the beer bottles. Refreshed, we walked back into the town.

Soon it was time to say good bye to beautiful Stralsund and move on to our original destination —  the Ruegen island across the bay — for a day of camping in the forest.

Coming up soon: An encounter with Raging Roland!


Fizzy trip on a soccer night!

On the night of the Germany-Spain semi-final I was invited by a friend to join him at the German embassy to see the game live on giant screens they had put up for the event.

I was further enticed by the prospect of guzzling free beer, which I was told, would be flowing freely, which it did. Germans are a generous lot, at home or away, I can tell you by experience.

Entering the embassy, the first thing I noticed apart from the giant screen and the huge mostly Desi gathering with a smattering of expats, was an empty bottle of Becks.

Even if a pretty woman were to look into my eyes right then she would have only seen a reflection of the lovely green bottle in my widened eyes!

For an extra-long moment, soccer crashed out of my mind, the roaring crowd went mute and then disappeared, and I was transported to a chilly summer evening in Berlin walking back to my apartment with a six-packer of Becks in my hand.

That was my second day in the city and I was on a little walk to checkout the quiet neighbourhood in the Gesundbrunnen district. At the local utility store that day I made friends with Gunther, the owner, and he introduced me to Becks.

It is among the top five brands of beer in Germany and is exported to more than a 100 countries from its brewery in Bremen. Wonder if its sold in India!

There were other brands at Gunther’s shop like Krombacher, Berliner Kindle, and Oettinger, which incidentally is the largest selling brand in Germany. But seeing my puzzled look he gave a thumbs up for Becks and I picked it up.

A Ger-Man (even women) knows his beer, follow him if you’re new and you wouldn’t go wrong!

From then on it became a ritual. Every other day after wandering about in the city taking the U-bahn trains to random destinations, I would drop by at Gunther’s shop near the Neuner Platz station and he would keep a Becks six-packer and a pack of Marlboro ready for me.

I was forced to switch to Marlboro because my stock of Navy Cuts taken from India lasted three days and Marlboro was the only one I had smoked back home. Later I was to discover that the French Gauloises and the American Pall Mall cigarettes weren’t too bad either.

Back to Gunther, he also graciously agreed to become an occasional guinea pig for my German language experiments, which began with the harmless Guten Abend (good evening) to such complicated lines as “Ich habe ein Becks und ein Marlboro”!

He always smilingly bore my linguistic assaults!

In between guzzling gazillion litres of beer every evening and chomping on tonnes of sausages and millions of Doner Kebaps, I also experimented with the German wines. The Reiseling whites soon became a favourite and also the Dornfelder reds.

But when you’re in Germany and living on a budget, it’s got to be about the beers. The world knows how strongly the Germans feel about their beers even though they probably come after the Irish and the Czechs in terms of consumption.

But just how strongly they feel about it could be summed up like this — if it’s not brewed in Germany it’s not a beer! They even have a 500-year-old law known as Reinheitsgebot or the “Bavarian beer purity law” which states that a beer can only have three components — water, barley and hops (a flowering plant used to lend flavour).

Enjoying a dark beer and a Marlboro at a mountain-top restaurant on the Alps near Munich.

Most beer manufacturers still make a declaration on the bottles of their adherence to the purity law even though its now an open secret that yeasts have become the fourth component in modern breweries.

(Pardon me if it is beginning to read like an academic thesis on German beers!)

Going back to the emotional quotient of beers for the Germans, I am reminded of this incident in Cologne while we were on a tour of some of the big cities, visiting the prominent media houses there.

Cologne has its own special brand of beer — a light brew inexplicably served in small glasses — like every other city and region in the country. It’s called Kölsch. (I could never get the pronunciation of Kölsch or Köln as Cologne is called in German, right!)

While having dinner at a restaurant by the Rhine, our German instructor was telling me about the traditional rivalry between Cologne and its neighbouring city Dusseldorf, which has its own brand of beer called Alt.

He said if you asked for Alt here you might get beaten up or if you’re lucky thrown out of the restaurant and the Dusseldorfers would do the same. Hilarious as it sounds, Mathias said why don’t you try when the waiter comes to take the drink orders, being a foreigner you might get away with just a frown!

As I was preparing to do the “unthinkable”, Mathias being a German did the unthinkable by asking for Alt and sure enough a frown crossed the waiter’s face, which may have degenerated into something worse had he not seen me smiling and then he smiled back realising that my German host was only giving a practical demonstration of the Kölsch-Alt rivalry.

Having throughly beered myself in nearly every big city in the two months I lived in Germany, I am left with only one regret that I missed the Oktoberfest in Munich by a month.

The statue of Goddess Bavaria overlooks the ground where Oktoberfest is held.

Walking by the statue of Bavaria — the patron goddess of the region — overlooking the huge grounds on which this Bavarian beer festival is held, I had made a wish to be there someday when the ground overflows with beer tents!

My reverie was broken as my friend nudged me towards the rows of Becks bottles lined up for the guests. With a heavy heart I drank, saw Germany lose the match and cussed at a rejoicing Spain supporter. “Why aren’t you at the Spanish embassy?” I wanted to say!

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

Mehdi epilogue!

In my last post I missed out on narrating this experience I had in Berlin listening to a Mehdi Hassan song with a Pakistani friend.

I was in Germany for two months last year for a journalism fellowship. Made many friends from many parts of the world. Among them was Bilal, a journalist from Islamabad.

We hit it off from Day One. It was male bonding at its best between two guys from countries divided by a thorny border. We got along so well that his female compatriot, Sehrish, would feel left out sometimes (I hope Sehrish doesn’t read this)!

But we couldn’t help it.

With Bilal at the historic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

We had made a habit of going out for walks after dinner. It was summer and the German sun set only after 10 pm, which was a little weird for us. But after a while we got used to the sun staring at us the whole day and even at night.

The best part about those walks was we could talk in Hindi/Urdu without having to think about fellow journalists from other countries feeling left out. It was a relief from the constant chatter in English!

When you’ve made friends from across the border the talks inevitably veer towards politics, cricket, Bollywood and if you are a ghazal buff like me — Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, The emperor and prince of ghazal gayaki.

During one of those walks Bilal asked if I liked ghazals, I said of course that’s all I like. And then he threw the bomb at me, ” Have you heard Mehdi Hassan?”

I didn’t know how to reply that!

Bilal never went anywhere without his i-Pod.  If he was not chatting he would have the i-Pod plugged into his ears. But I, for some reason, had assumed that he would be listening to rock or pop or some such music which I understand very little, so never bothered to ask till the day he threw that question at me.

My initial reaction was “what an affront!” but didn’t say that. Just managed to say Mehdi Hassan is my favourite — an understatement if there ever was one.

My Pakistani friend was quite overwhelmed to know that not  only I had heard Mehdi but he was also my favourite. As a quid pro quo perhaps Bilal said he loves Jagjit Singh and of course Bollywood.

In that spirit of togetherness, Bilal offered his i-Pod to me and said “Le ye sunn agla gana Mehdi ka hai (Listen to this one it’s Mehdi’s.”

This ghazal is again one of my many favourites sung by the maestro — “Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain…”.

Instead of me listening to it alone I said let’s share the cords and listen to it together. It was not the semi-classical version I had heard, Bilal said Mehdi sang this for a Pakistani film of the seventies.

That day we walked a lot. Bound by music an Indian and a Pakistani walked through the streets of Berlin listening to a Mehdi Hassan ghazal we both loved.

PS: I am adding the classical version of the song I heard in Berlin. Notice Ghulam Ali sitting in the audience as Mehdi Hassan renders the immortal ghazal.