How Nations Confront Their History

The gates itself were intimidating.

We were led through a Jewish prisoners arrival and life at Dachau.
First the rail wagons on which the prisoners arrived packed like cattle, clutching their scant belongings.
The barking dogs and guards who separated families and 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 and huge seven feet tall pictures of life at Dachau bore down on us. Healthy men and women turned into skeletons beaten down by work, batons and starved on gruel.
Dogs tearing into and eating prisoners in full view of others, children with dead eyes, that basic concentration camp striped uniform and sabots.

The other visitors were European and American Jews.
Some hard faced and 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 and 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 and 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 and mites on their body, were grateful for it.

Next they were led to the ovens.

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

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

Today we know 31951 Jews were killed at Dachau and the Germans see it, hear of it and 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 and leg, the spiky hair over brutally shaved heads. The pain was piercing and real.

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

For me, a 15 year old girl from India 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 and what horrors they were capable of.
It seemed judges, teachers, doctors and ordinary folk all contributed in the murder of 6 million Jews and 14 million other nationalities because they believed it to be justified and 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 and 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 and for some reason only Red Indians were called Indians)

Polish Hungarian Romanian German French American…. 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 and 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 and the mystifying smoke from a camp.

Two members of in our club were Jewish. One had lost her entire family at Treblinka and 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 and Marshal Petain acquiescence to the Nazis.

There were open secrets too.
How collaborators had been whitewashed and found their way to the highest echelons of government machinery and 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 and meeting points along the Seine.
Can we wear a trench coat and 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 and 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 and 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 India.

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

He watched me animatedly speak of films and the subjects that interested me.
He was shocked at how history was discussed and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and conversation so that young people could learn their history.
We learnt of people we knew and 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 and the betrayals.
We met people who were completely forgiving and 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 and Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What The Body Remembers were published years later and are simply superb. testimonies of those turbulent times.
There must have been several wonderfully researched books and documents available for scholars but very little for the pedestrian reader and 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 and spoken are soothing balms for wretched souls savaged by violence.
Our leaders, historians and thinkers in their wisdom never utilized these means to assuage a new country and it’s trauma. They were blind to how other nations handled their demons and attempted healing.

So with maybe four films and 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 and recognize the gangrenous nature of what was once our limb.


  1. Undoubtedly, a very well written blog that precisely highlight the horrific times of those who faced it and the generations after that have lost it due running politicians who systematically reader it from history..The Gandhi Nehru duo did this to Punjab of united India.

    1. Thank You ! Yes there has been no honest, unbiased enquiry or investigation into Gandhi & Nehru's decisions that affected millions and rendered them homeless.

  2. My father was a student in FC College Lahore. One fine day in May 1947 the American Principal Mr CH Rice announced that he only had rations to feed the hostellers for 3 more days. Buses and guards would be available to escort the students to the railway station.

    At the station there was only ticket window which wasn't empty. No, there were no tickets to Ambala Cantt or to anywhere else. Poor guy was there since 2 days too scared to go home. Go, sit in any train you feel like.

    There was another guy headed to what is now Himachal. They both boarded a totally empty coach, dark. No water.

    At some wayside station Nihangs armed with swords and spears gave them big rotis and told them to keep both glass and screen windows closed, since there might be stone pelting ahead.

    In morning, at Ambala, they were caught ticketless and had to pay Rs2 bribe, before catching a train to Ropar.

    1. There are numerous such untold stories that must/should find a voice or will be lost forever for future generations...

    2. Time is short. Eye witnesses are getting on in years. Memories fade, facts get garbled. And old Man Time is taking his toll at a rapidly increasing pace.

      A NOIDA resident, Krishnaswamy Sagar, is doing a lot of sterling work tracking down 1947 survivors and recording their experiences. (Don't go by the name, he isn't a Southerner but a Punjabi).

      He rang up Father about 2 months back and interviewed him for close to an hour.

    3. Oops. Error.

      Just got a call from father. The name of the Noida gent is Krishnanand Sagar.

    4. If he were a southerner one would have to worry? Why?

  3. Thanks again Nandini, your such beautiful blogs stir ups our emotions , makes us uneasy !

  4. Your write up is so powerful that it takes one in that era while reading. Commendable keep enlightening us.

  5. Thank you for the awakening article. I have read Train to Pakistan and just ordered The Other Sode of Silence. After 6 decades we are still unaware of what actually happened. We need a similar memorial in India which captures the partition, it was no less than a Holocaust but our historians and leader thought otherwise. Bless the day I started following you

  6. Well articulated as always. We are losing our memory as a society.

  7. Thank you Nandini Ji. Nice blog. Its a shame that we are struggling to know our history, what happened during partition, what our fore fathers went through. While I see some books on the Northern side, I dont see anything on East (Bengal). Will be grateful if you can suggest any.

    1. If I come across something I will let you know .

  8. My Nani Saasji lost her husband to heart attack while negotiating her way into mainland India before the Partition Award. They left a sprawling business and home in Haripur Hazara. Lala Darshan Singh Nangee his name was. The lady had her extended clan to reach Gangapur in Rajasthan. And her three children, the last of them born amidst the journey in Mureina. I interviewed a host of people in Delhi's West Patel Nagar who were babies when their parents carried them here. They said mothers tied the babies to the back, hoping that when and if they were shot in the chest, at least the baby will be safe. Then one family was separated as husband was in Lahore, wife in Karachi, she took ship route to Mumbai, dog had to be abandoned and the hysband reached Kingsway Camp and could not meet/find wife and kids for three years as they were on the other end of ndia.

    1. There are a million such stories. Oral history is so important. I am told that the museum dedicated to 26/11 in NY has videos of families, fireman, survivors tell their personal experiences & tales. Hope our museum dedicated to the Partition also follows these lines...Makes it real & living.

    2. Correction: That should read 9/11

  9. Nandini Ji,

    I a 90s kid was never taught about this devastation in books or in schools. I precisely remember that class of history when my teacher just concluded this topic in 2-3 mins and we students never raised any questions like How did million of people manage this migration? What exactly happened?

    Not anyone's fault because We all were being seeded with "Secularism" from our childhood. We were being taught how great our "Chacha" and "Papa" of nation were. As an Army brat, I got chances to meet different people from different backgrounds & history. And I learned how excruciating it was for million of people. And No, It was not just "A Partition". It was a hunger for power of two persons, It was the ignorance of an alleged "Saint" who never bothered about anything but his image. It was "A Holocaust" which killed almost 2 million people where women paid the highest price, with mass abductions, forced conversions, and rape.

    It may take a lifetime – or several lifetimes to learn about this blood shed and get engage with such tragic stories. Not to forget those unfortunate people who didn't survive to tell their stories.

    You write so powerfully and precisely that engages us and makes us think emotionally about that horrific time.
    We won't forget this truth and won't let our future generation to forget.

    1. Thank you🙏🏼 That in itself is beginningng....!

  10. Replies
    1. The 1988 television film with Om Puri & Deepa Sahi, directed by Govind Nihalani, based on Bisham Sahni's book.


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