For Indians like myself, Auschwitz, Hitler, and the war can initially seem difficult to decipher through the mists of time and history. At the time these horrendous camps plied their disreputable and abhorrent trade in human suffering, the country I was born in-India- was right in the midst of a battle for individuality and independence from the British.
I was tentative about going to Auschwitz because I am not a believer in “dark tourism” as it is known but the fact is this citadel of moral decay and inspired hope in the darkest of hours is a major point of reference in history. What I didn’t expect was to go there and be moved beyond words could express, the far flung dots of history, remembrance, tribute and empathy connected me to a place that both scarred and inspired my heart.
And so not knowing why I was partaking in this form of ‘dark tourism’, I found myself on the bus from Krakow to Oswiecim. As if the mood for the day ahead had to mirror the aesthetic, I was warned by foreboding, dark, rumbling clouds that had started to gather, reminding even the most brazen of us that this was not just a place of misplaced dread and human suffering: it was one of its epicenters.
Even without the chill in the air, the first sight of the camp would have turned the blackest heart cold. There it was, the prevailing symbol of the Holocaust: Sixteen blocks of yellow-brown bricks and tile-thatched roofs, surrounded by a barbed wire fence. The German phrase “Arbeit macht frei,” the Nazi slogan that literally translates to “Work makes you free,” remains scrolled on the gates.
More than a million people perished here, 960,000 of them were Jews. This is where women, children, elderly, disabled, and weaker men marched to their deaths. The healthier ones were spared for a while, forced to work until they were eventually withered away by hunger, pain, disease, frost bite, and torture. Welcome to hell. Yet within hell the Jews, and the others who perished, showed a fortitude and strength of spirit that is beyond most mere mortals in today’s age who whine about seemingly anything and everything in their suburban, cosmopolitan life.
As an Indian in Auschwitz on this journey, the history that informed it had a particularly strange resonance. I saw all this carnage and I couldn’t help wonder why on earth Hitler’s Mein Kampf remains both freely popular in India and remains a consistent high seller. Then you dig deeper and some discourse amongst right wing proponents of politics and history within the country often comment that “India needs a Hitler” or words to that effect.
This thankfully remains a strange anomaly of late given the fact that the relationship between India and Israel has never been more powerful and close than it is now.
What this fringe minority is trying to say-despite the unsavory reference-is that a ‘Hitler type’ would be stern enough to banish corruption and through power of personality, oratory and unflinching leadership, would smack the notorious bureaucracy of the country to smithereens with a proverbial sledgehammer.
It’s strange standing in Auschwitz wondering India has an uncomfortable bond with this man, both out of necessity and in spite of it. For example, he adopted one of the most iconic Hindu symbols, the swastika, as his party’s emblem. The swastika has been a part of Hinduism for centuries; almost 6,000 years old, it stands for good-luck and well-being. Today, however, it is sadly more commonly recognized as a symbol of the Nazis.
Then there’s the reference to his autobiography and political manifesto Mein Kampf which is banned in most parts of Europe but freely available in India. In fact, it has been popular there since its first print run in the 1920s and can be found in almost every bookstore in the country, big or small, branded or pirated. Perhaps it’s a misplaced sense of appreciation for this modern day Lucifer but I find myself wondering about it as I spent my three days in this coven of suffering that he thought up in his demonic mind.
A prayer escapes to let those fears remain unfounded as I follow the soft-spoken tour guide around Auschwitz, through the relics of brutality. The victim’s clothes, suits, their shoes—fashionable heels, sandals, slippers, children’s boots—their engraved suitcases. Sacks and sacks of human hair—blond, brown, long, short—enough to fill an entire room.
Hunger chamber, torture chamber, gas chamber, execution wall. It’s an infernal, diabolical place.
I had thought that being from a completely different continent, from a completely different heritage, I wouldn’t carry the same emotional baggage that others visitors might. Physical distance has a way of insulating worlds, but places like Auschwitz have the power to meld them into one.
You don’t have to be Jewish or a European to sympathize.
Ethnic cleansing is not an alien concept to Indians. Hindus were persecuted when Islamic rulers conquered the land; according to some estimates, the Hindu population was decimated by as much as 80 million between 1000 and 1500 AD. For most of our history we were loose collection of warring princely states, even before British imperialists introduced the “Divide and Rule” policy in the 19th century.
Few cases are as extreme as Auschwitz. Fewer still have managed to honor their innocent dead with such great care. Auschwitz today stands as a chilling reminder of how hatred can push humanity to madness. Lest we forget.
For a writer the best work sometimes comes through infinite pain but this was a pain that was sometimes unbearable to think about let alone experience.