There is a curious object available online these days. “Hitler Germany” is a cheap plastic electric extension board. The company selling it is called Freedom Fashion. The strip costs between Rs 199 and Rs 399, after an appropriate discount. Someone noticed the offer and wondered aloud on social media if we should be reporting it. But what would we report? A gadget plugged into fascism?
This is a strange moment in time: close enough for us to recall gas chambers but far enough to forget gas chambers don’t happen without a lot of people wanting them, prepping for them, refusing to see that a lot of people were going to be raped and worked to death before being gassed and cremated. No burials, no headstones.
Nazi Germany was headed towards a holocaust but first, it was headed towards slavery. Before the gas chambers, there was Commandant Rudolf Hoss working on a Generalplan Ost. Once they were done with the big war, the Nazis intended to re-introduce slavery. Hierarchy would be re-established with members of the SS at the top. Other “serfs” and workers would follow, with slaves at the bottom. The estimated cost of the colonisation of the east was the lives of 29 million prisoners and the hoped for reward, a “Thousand-Year Reich”.
Journalist Lidia Ostalowska outlines these ambitions in Watercolours: A Story From Auschwitz. Captive workers were intended to build railway lines, dig giant canals linking rivers across Europe, and run factories and farms. Plans included a “model town” with residences for workers’ families, establishments for butchers and bakers, hairdressers and tailors, cobblers and chemists, even doctors and dentists. Schools and cinemas were envisioned along with tennis courts and Hitler Youth Centres. The plan drawings showed figures of workers in overalls with “P” on their backs: P for Poles.
At some distance from the model township would be barracks – concentration camps where 30,000 slaves were meant to live. The model township never materialised. The camps, the slavery and the extermination did.
A major Nazi research project involved fraternal twins. During one of the experiments, a pair of babies – twins, but not conjoined ones – were surgically sewn together. The Nazis were big on progress. And on data collection.
These weren’t blonde “Aryan” babies, of course. Gypsy babies were made available, as were Jewish babies. The results of these experiments revealed that Gypsy babies bled and howled in pain. Hence proved human.
Racism, fascism and genocide need human beings who don’t get to say no. No to ghettos, to forced labour, to externment or internment, to wearing a label/ribbon/star/number, to uniforms.
Before a holocaust, a nation must create a set of people who don’t get to decide what to eat, whom to marry, where to live. They don’t get to say “no” when their children are taken away, or their bodies used for scientific or socio-economic experiments.
To ask this – how far from Auschwitz are we? – might come off as an alarmist question. Nevertheless, the question presents itself.
In India, we have people who don’t get to eat what they choose. Some have been killed just for transporting cattle and even trading in buffaloes isn’t entirely safe these days. The state has made it clear that it values cattle, or even hens’ eggs, over human beings. For years, we have had people being killed for marrying across caste and religious lines, with the state refusing to endorse inter-community marriages. We have had people in communal ghettos, with the state refusing to intervene on behalf of those discriminated against, or take any steps to reverse the process.
We have not yet seen or heard of such cruelty as the using of babies to conduct horrific experiments. But we would do well to remember that any talk about development and the nation’s progress is suspect unless we also ask: who progresses, at whose cost? Currently, asking questions like this can get you arrested as a Naxal sympathiser, or have you charged with sedition. There is far too much talk of anti-nationals who stand in the way of “development”. There are too many exhortations to shut up. There are too many attempts to control who gets to write and publish what stories, who gets to make what sort of art.
Auschwitz was a way off but, by 1939, things had got to the point where Jews were no longer allowed to study or work in certain professions. Art school was barred to talented young people like Dina Gottleibova, whose life and work forms the basis of Watercolours.
At first, Dina tried to secretly learn while working for non-Jewish artists. But ultimately, it was the ghetto for her, then the camps. She was sent to Theresienstadt first, “a claustrophic town that the Fuhrer had granted to the Jews.” The camp had at least 15,000 children and some teachers. Residents were allowed to learn drawing and singing, even Herbrew. Maths, history and geography were forbidden.
Still, a few lessons were conducted in secret. After all, there were “poets, artists, journalists, writers, professors and Nobel prize winners all locked up in a tight space: it was a frenzy of activity. Anything to forget, anything to distract from what was coming. The ghetto sang, exercised, went to lectures, made films and argued over Communism and Zionism. And fell in love.”
Sometimes the camps had to put on an act, pretending to be okay. The Red Cross had been hearing complaints of genocide. As late as 1944, Theresienstadt was dressed up – neat flower beds, shops selling soap and food – to reassure a visiting delegation from the International Red Cross. Before and after the day of this visit, the camp was a place where food was scarce, a cup of thin milk had to last a week and there was no water to shower with. There was lice, begbugs, diarrhoea, typhus.
There was great irony, then, in the Nazis having Dina paint signs like “Cleanliness is your obligation!” in Auschwitz, where conditions were worse. That’s how she started out, painting signs and barrack numbers. Eventually, SS officers started giving her photos of wives and girlfriends to make portraits. She was even allowed a room to paint in.
The art that forms the basis for Watercolours eventually led to a diplomatic tussle between Dina, who wanted the Auschwitz museum to return them to her – her claims were supported by the USA – and the Auschwitz museum, which argued that the art here belonged to the place itself, and also to the victims who were made to pose for it. Many of the paintings Dina did were of captive Gypsies.
This wasn’t an art project though. It was part of scientific research. If there had been enough cameras and film handy, there would have been no portraits; there would have been mugshots instead. If the Nazis had had the technology, they’d have issued identity cards based on biometric data.
People don’t talk about the Gypsy camp at Auschwitz much. Its residents were isolated, kept separate from Jewish and Communist prisoners. They were allowed to keep their traditional outfits rather than being put in standard prisoner uniforms. The author finds the words for it – it was a sort of human zoo – and she wonders if this wasn’t a natural progression given how people looked at those who were different from themselves. “At the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition in Paris,” she writes, “34 million people bought tickets to see a display of Africans who’d been stripped naked.”
Many of the Gypsies sent into camps were soldiers who had fought in the first world war for Germany. Initially there was some confusion about how they should be treated. There was also a theory that Gypsies were of Aryan stock. Then, in 1936, it was decided to segregate “pure” Gypsies and keep them on reservations. Here, they could be allowed to live as “relics of the past and research subjects”. The mixed race ones were to be killed.
This is the other thing common to racism, fascism, genocide: a terror of mixed marriages, an obsession with purity.
How did mixed race Gypsies end up in camps when they were not so easily identified by name or faith? The answer lay in science. Or, in big data. Robert Ritter, a neurologist, psychiatrist and anthropologist had been researching Gypsy genealogies. He founded the Centre for the Study of Racial Hygiene and Social Biology and the Institute of Criminal biology. He had got hold of files from the Munich police.
The police had data ready and waiting since there was already a law in place: a 1926 anti-Gypsy law intended to “expel the foreign ones, imprison the local ones in workhouses and put their children in correction centres”. In order to implement the law, they asked for identity proof, family trees, details of residence. By 1942, Ritter knew the ancestry of 30,000 Gypsies spread across “Greater Germany”.
It is hard not to think of parallels with video and new surveillance tech. There has been a great push towards biometric identification through Aadhaar cards, and interlinking such data with financial, health and educational needs. Meanwhile, people are stripped naked, whipped, beaten to death, and onlookers go on filming on mobile phones. There is, reportedly, a market for rape videos in India. One murder was prepped and filmed by a man who said that he was doing it for religion, to prevent a love affair across religious lines. Months passed and our government has not distanced itself from his ideas.
We have Muslim students being asked to identify themselves as such when they register for the final high school exams in Gujarat. The anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 hasn’t quite faded from memory, and the guilty have not been punished. More than one self-styled nationalist type politician has called for the sterilisation of Muslims, and the suspension of their voting rights.
There’s a national registry of citizens being created in Assam. This is also a state that saw an anti-Muslim pogrom, in 1983. Now citizens who are found to not have papers, or have papers on which their names were misspelt by a clerk on any one document, or whose parents were too busy to foresee this calamity and didn’t fortify them with iron-clad identities, are now in prison. They’re called “detention centres” but the inmates are held in actual jails.
Assisting Ritter was a young woman called Eva Justin, a nurse who spoke some Romani and was working on her PhD. She concluded that Gypsies were “incapable of integration” and “to preserve racial integrity we must insist the men are completely sterilised.” Ritter himself believed that intermarriage between Germans and Gypsies would lead to children who were “illiterates, criminals and harlots”.
Germans – white, Christian Germans – were forbidden from marrying Gypsies, who had been thrown out of their jobs, whose homes were confiscated and, in several places, were allowed to move around only during certain hours. Town councils were writing to German men in mixed marriages to ask: “How can you imagine remaining married to your current wife?”
There’s a story of a German soldier named Werner Soetebier who was engaged to a Gypsy widow called Berta Bamberger. The story is tragic and cinematic. After Berta was deported, Werner threw himself at the mercy of senior officers, writing letters to ask about her whereabouts. He admitted that Gypsies were “parasites sucking our nation dry” but she was different, he pleaded. In vain.
Finally, Private Werner went to rescue his love. He looked for her in various camps until he found her, in the winter of 1942. “It was a small camp where heaps of frost-covered corpses lay around a water pump in the courtyard. Berta had died of typhus...Once Werner saw the extermination camp with his own eye, he shot himself by the roadside in the forest.”
What would Private Werner have seen if he had looked for her in Auschwitz? He would have seen uniforms marked with a black triangle, which represented “asocial”. These prisoners were also given numbered tattoos, starting with Z for Zigeuner. Gypsy.
Auschwitz had its own slang, apparently. Prisoners, including Jews who had surrendered totally to their fate, those who weren’t resisting any more, were called “Muslims”.
Most Indians don’t know where Auschwitz is. Many of them can’t pronounce it. People in my family don’t know much about it. I don’t tell them. I want to un-know it myself. But we’re hearing the language of the Nazis – pests, wild dogs – used with reference to Muslim citizens and immigrants fleeing genocide elsewhere.
How many millions of Indians who have read Mein Kampf will ever get around to reading Watercolours? How many people are buying Hitler Germany electric strips?
For memory to lapse thus, for words to lose all meaning, it ought to take a couple of hundred years. A mere seventy years have passed and here we are. We see videos of Israeli youths bullying Palestinians. We watch Arab children die of starvation, the bombing of homes and hospitals, the checkpoints, the demand to see papers. We listen as an Israeli woman says that she might be a little bit fascist as she watches the destruction of Gaza.
Nobody says: Do as you would have done unto you. The elders told what was done to them; the children have grown up and inflict violence upon other children. It is like being in a hall of mirrors with a video of the past playing on loop.
It’s not an overnight journey. It never was. The Nazi project was never about the absolute elimination of minorities. It was about the enslavement of those who were free. It started with name-calling, bullying in schools, making gypsies and Jews fret about proving citizenship. And for this, Nazi Germans were not necessary. There were enough white Christian Poles laying the metaphorical foundations of Auschwitz before it was built.
Auschwitz is the taking of human time, dignity, strength, bone and blood, as a freebie. To refuse to pay back a human being in your own coin of time, respect, labour, bone. Auschwitz is the opposite of consent.
Roads got made. Scraps of cloth were converted into belts for soldiers. Gypsy girls and Jewish girls and socialist girls and little boys and their sexual organs were snatched while the faces of the wives of Nazi officers got turned into watercolour portraits. Auschwitz was about coercing art out of artists. Free eyes that could measure accurately the proportions and sweetness of a face beloved by the men who were slowly killing you and your beloveds. Free prisoner eyes. Free prisoner fingers. Slave art.
I should be titling this piece “Strolling to Auschwitz”. Or, just not use the word “Auschwitz”, which is off-putting for those who want roads laid by slave hands and rivers inter-connected and a free pass to rape and whip people, because you can.
Maybe I should titled it “Crawling to Auschwitz”. Here were are, crawling under the new barbed wire of “Never again”.
Anyone who keeps going down this road, will eventually get to some place that means Auschwitz.