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July 18, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/ Gerhard Fischer

'We lepers, we don't care about compassion. We want action'

Gerhard Fischer Gerhard Fischer's travel schedule -- from Germany to the other European countries to the Himalayas to the southern part of India -- makes it difficult to believe he is 76. Can you believe a 76 year old granting an appointment at 6.30 in the morning? This was the first time Shobha Warrier was given an appointment so early in the morning. At 6.20, Fischer was dressed and packing under the tree when she reached the Children's Garden school where he stayed in Madras. This was his first visit to India after winning the Gandhi Peace Prize in January.

In 1985, Fischer gave up his job in the German foreign service and started working full time for leprosy patients in India. In the last twelve years he has established several centres for leprosy patients all over India. He was awarded the Gandhi Prize in recognition of his work for leprosy and polio afflicted patients. Speaking to him, Warrier says, "was a very, very memorable experience for me as his life was as colourful as a fairy tale. Even after going through several downs and many ups in his life, he has retained his wonderful sense of humour. My only regret is that he did not elaborate on his World War II experience, as if he wanted to forget those eight years."

We expected you in Madras in January after collecting the Gandhi Prize. Why did you cancel the trip and go back to Germany?

I was in the Himalayas where I have built two leprosy stations and came to Delhi for the surprising event at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I generally spend only some time at the stations because they are functioning well. I don't have to be there for long. When this news reached me, my wife was, to put it mildly, rather sick. She has let me go to India six months at a time for the last twelve years. None of my friends's wives would have let their husbands go for six months to another country, certainly not for 12 years! So, I decided to stay back and look after her when she was sick.

How is she now?

She is better. So I could come back now. I have two projects in the construction stages in the south and I am needed with my partners to get the projects moving. Because of my wife's illness I had to make a break in my programme which was nice. Being away from October to March, I have not seen snow in Germany for the last twelve years. I miss the winter in Germany. This time I was in the snow and my batteries are charged well.

Why did you decide to spend six months in Germany and six months in India?

When I decided to have a second life in 1985 I looked at the period when I am needed here in India for building and running stations for leprosy and polio. I am also a hobby farmer. So I had to think of my tiny little farm in the southern hilly area of Germany. As we are on our own in that country, I have to work. I have to make the hay, I have to see the fields, I have to look after the horses...Winter is a quiet time and my wife can take care of the horses and the fields. I chose to be here then and so, I miss the German winter.

What do you farm there?

I don't really farm. It is a mountainous area and you can't do anything there. We just graze our horses. I have been a rider for 65 years and so I have horses.

How many?

Two and a half! The half is a pony for my grandchild. He is my daughter's son. Is it the right word, grandchild? He is seven and a keen little rider. Every morning at five thirty, the horses are fed and at six, they are saddled by me and for two hours, I ride.

When in Germany, I can be with the family. I can take care of the farm and the horses. There will be stacks of invitations from the Rotary, Lions, schools and so on, saying 'Fischer, come and report.' So, often I have to be on the road to report to those people who have supported me throughout these years.

How much does your wife help you in your work?

My wife is a tremendous help because she runs the administration. It is a big word, even though we don't have an administration. Twelve years ago when I quit an organised life, I decided not to have anything to interfere with my plans and work. So, we decided not to have an administration. Just the two of us. She has a computer as she can handle it. I don't touch it. We have 175 donor friends who have helped us for the last twelve years. We have to sent them the tax receipt for every paisa they contribute. She writes to them.

I don't take cheques, I don't take anonymous donations. I accept only money and I use this money, for example to make an artificial leg for Himani Subramaniam who is one of my many, many recipients. We send our donors pictures of children like Himani Subramaniam so all our donors know where their money goes. That's my wife's work. She sends the typed reports to all of them. Without her, nothing would have been possible. So, she deserves half this prize.

From an organised life in the foreign service, you now lead a totally different kind of life. Did you find this transition difficult?

It was not difficult at all. I am at home here, there and everywhere. I consider Germany and the Himalayas as my home. So, there was no difficulty in the transition. I land somewhere up there! Then take buses to wherever I want to go. Or I take trains. I don't drive in India because I like to have people around me! I like country buses and trains. It takes me eight days from my Himalayan (leprosy) station to the Kanyakumari (leprosy) station. That is part of my fascination. I like people and I like to be in with people. In an airplane, I am not with people.

I have read that you were born in Oslo, Norway. From Oslo, how did you reach Germany?

My mother is a Norwegian and my father, a German. I was born in Oslo. When I was three and a half, I think --- that was a long time ago! -- my father got transferred to China. He went to China as a Sinologist, a Chinese scholar, in 1907. We were there for sixteen years. I started to learn medicine at Beijing Medical University,, but discontinued.

Why? Didn't you like medicine?

I always wanted to be a doctor. The medical school at Beijing University was started by Rockefeller. When the Japanese occupation began, they closed this American-sponsored school. So there I was! I thought, what do I do? Should I take up dancing, or should I walk in the streets? But I wanted to be a doctor. So I said good bye to my parents and went to Germany as my father was a German. And, right into another big war!

This is the first time I am meeting a person who participated in the Second World War. I have only read about it till now.

Look at my white hair, dear! You don't meet many people with so much white hair any more. They have all gone. So, I was fighting for five years....

Were you forced to fight for the Nazis?

What do you mean by Nazis? No. This is a funny notion of yours. Here was a country at war. I am German. I arrive via Siberia. Naturally all men were roped in! I could have stayed in China. What to do? I wanted to do medicine. I didn't realise that there wasn't a chance of studying medicine in a country which had just entered war. I walked into the trap. Yes, I call it a trap. Everybody has some purpose in life... may be this was it for me. Five years in the war. But I survived.

What was it like to be in the battlefield?

Oh, no. If I have to talk about the war, it will take days.

Did you meet Hitler any time?

How could a jawan meet Hitler?

I have read that Hitler used to address soldiers.

Could a jawan meet Krishna Menon in this country! No.

Did you see Hitler from afar?

I am sure Krishna Menon never came to the battlefield. Hitler never came to the battlefield. They never do that. They live far away from the battlefield. Where would he be otherwise? We stormed towards Moscow and then we stormed backwards because of the heavy snow (laughs). It was winter at its best.

I have read that even though Hitler was told about the hard Russian winter, he ordered his troops to march towards Russia. How difficult was the winter?

Gerhard Fischer Hitler was a painter from Austria. He was a corporal in the First World War, made himself a field marshal later. Hitler never took advice from the generals who had experience. But they obeyed him. As a human being, I criticise this behaviour.

I am straight and very critical. You read my speech at Rashtrapati Bhavan, then you will understand this man speaks like this. I saw everyone in the Cabinet sitting there. That did not deter me from talking straight. There was my friend RV (R Venkataraman) who was the industries minister when I was here, in the cabinet of a great man. Tell me, who is that great man? Kamaraj. And I say this to everyone, I said to Anna also, that the best government that Tamil Nadu ever had was the Kamaraj Congress government with men like RV and CS (C Subramaniam) in it. RV unfortunately has moved to Delhi and CS whom I always meet, unfortunately is in hospital now.

Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

Gerhard Fischer Interview, continues

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