In Washington DC, the Holocaust Museum has a simple but effective way to bring the Holocaust home to its visitors. It gives you small cards to carry, with a photograph and 'the story of a real person who lived during the Holocaust.'
My card-imprinted companion is Machla Spicehandler Braun. She stares out at me as we walk through the Museum: about 40 years old, her head tilted to one side, a lock of hair falling over her forehead, a faintly sardonic smile forming on her lips. It seems Machla is with us, breathing life and horror and death into the exhibits. Did she sleep on one of those bunks? Travel in that cattle car? Is her shoe one of the thousands in this dismal pile?
Back in Bombay, I often find myself thinking of Machla Braun. Especially, but not exclusively, over the last year. As my thoughts wander, I realise Machla has never quite left me. She's there, travelling the train of my thoughts with me.
Sometimes, horrors happen on trains. More on that soon.
In Nazi history, November 9, 1938 is a seminal date. Kristallnacht, or the 'Night of the Broken Glass,' saw widespread attacks on Jews, the worst to that point. Two days earlier, a teenaged German Jewish refugee called Herschel Grynszpan, had shot dead a German embassy official in Paris. The Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, and the German press called the attacks of November 9th a 'spontaneous' demonstration of the German people, 'reacting' to the Paris murder by Grynszpan.
'Spontaneous'? Haven't I heard that word before, many times, much closer to home? Seems I have indeed: in connection with Ayodhya, with the riots in Bombay, with weeks of violence in Gujarat a year ago. But more on that, too, in a bit.
Documents found after the war show just how 'spontaneous' Kristallnacht really was. According to Nazi party judge Major Walter Buch, Goebbels issued instructions on the evening of November 9 that 'spontaneous demonstrations' were to be 'organised and executed' all night. You wonder how 'spontaneous' translates to 'organised and executed'? Well, there's Nazi wordplay for you. Yet there was still more. Later that night, the number two man in the SS, Reinhard Heydrich, sent out more instructions to the police and security forces, among which were the following:
* 'Synagogues are to be burned down only when there is no danger of fire to the surroundings.'
* 'Businesses and private apartments of Jews may be destroyed but not looted.'
* 'The demonstrations which are going to take place should not be hindered by the police.'
* 'As many Jews, especially rich ones, are to be arrested as can be accommodated in the existing prisons.'
That's 'spontaneous,' Nazi style.
The toll in that German night of terror was horrific. Several hundred Jews died. Heydrich himself gave the number of Jewish shops looted -- yes, despite his instructions, shops were widely looted -- as 7,500. 119 synagogues were set on fire, and another 76 completely destroyed. 20,000 Jews were arrested just for being Jews. The evidence, for those who want to see it, gives the lie to Nazi claims of 'spontaneous' reactions.
For those who want to see it, of course. Machla Braun must have.
The evidence is here in India as well. A whole raft of leaders spent months exhorting Hindus to come to Ayodhya in late 1992. There is film footage from that time that shows many of those who came -- over 200,000 of them -- practising to destroy the Babri Masjid. It also shows the police clearly backing away -- almost physically backing away -- from taking any action to prevent the destruction, no doubt so instructed by the government then in power in Uttar Pradesh.
Despite all this, that same raft of leaders described the destruction of the Babri Masjid as a 'spontaneous' reaction of 'aggrieved' Hindus.
During the horrible violence that followed that destruction in Bombay through late 1992 and early 1993, there were several areas -- Thakurdwar, Girgaum and Reay Road, for three examples -- where every single Muslim-owned shop was destroyed. Whether a small cabinet on the wall selling oil or a large jewellery shop, not one was spared. This happened almost overnight.
This swift efficiency caused several shopkeepers -- Hindu and Muslim -- to remember mysterious young men who came around before the riots asking about the ownership of shops. Several Muslim families found large 'Xs' painted outside their doors, and only their doors, overnight. Various leaders spoke openly and repeatedly of 'teaching Muslims a lesson' and that the following days were to be 'ours.' And the police? Whether by instruction or by choice or both, they did very little to stop the rioting.
Despite all this, there were any number of leaders who described the violence as a 'spontaneous' reaction to Muslim crimes by 'frustrated' Hindus. This grand myth has persisted through a decade.
I remind you of all this sorrow and tragedy because of the repeat we watched in horror in Gujarat a year ago. After a mob of Muslims launched a cowardly and vicious attack on innocents on a train in Godhra, an attack that burned 60 people to death, weeks of 'spontaneous retaliation' against innocent Muslims across Gujarat left several hundred more people slaughtered. The carnage, whether on a train or on Gujarat's streets, scarred a nation, lives in our memories; you don't need me to spell it all out again.
But yet again, the evidence spoke for itself. The 'spontaneous retaliation' was presaged by remarks from various Gujarat ministers. 'We will teach a lesson to those who have done this,' Home Minister Gordhandas Zadaphia said. As we know, 'those who have done this,' by perverse logic that was swallowed all the way up to a prime minister, turned out to be all of Gujarat's Muslims, living all across the state. But besides that, the goons setting out to attack Muslims in Ahmedabad, Lunavada, Baroda and elsewhere had available to them voters' lists, LPG cylinders and trucks. The police, whether by instruction or choice or both, did nothing to stop the attacks.
In any case, there were innumerable reports of senior Gujarat leaders camping in police control rooms to direct police action or inaction. The administration allegedly managed to delay the effective use of the army; by the time soldiers took their positions, vast slaughter had already happened.
So much for spontaneity. The Gujarat violence, like the destruction of Babri Masjid, like the Bombay riots a decade ago, like Nazi attacks on Jews, was spurred on and applauded by our own leaders. As always, the evidence -- voters' lists, ministerial pronouncements, gas cylinders -- gives the lie to claims of 'spontaneity.'
For those who want to see the evidence, of course.
Machla Spicehandler Braun lived to see liberation by British forces in 1945. But just barely. Weakened by starvation and disease, she lay helpless on the floor of her filthy barracks at Bergen-Belsen as the British walked in. Two days after the camp was liberated, she was dead.
There's that evidence too. There are those memories too. For those who want to see it all.
If you would like to send me your thoughts directly, you can still do so at
Tailpiece: In my last column, I quoted Mark Twain, saying he wrote what he did 150 years ago. I was wrong, he wrote those lines in 1910.
Finally, alumni of BITS Pilani (like me) are meeting in Bombay on March 8. For details, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org