Archive for the ‘Travel blog’ Category

Moscow has been a very familiar name since childhood and one had heard about the Red Square, Kremlin etc. from a young age. In November 2019, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of days at Moscow. The fascination with the USSR and consequently Moscow, had started with some of the Soviet publicity books that I had read when I was young. Kerala, with its Communist roots, was always interested in the USSR and the stories of the October revolution, Lenin etc. were quite commonplace.

Naturally, my first port of call was the Red Square. Given the Communist history of Russia, my impression was that the origin of the name Red Square must have been connected somehow with the revolution. However, I understand this is not the case. This has been the main commercial square in Moscow since many centuries and it has been called so since 1662 or so. It separates the Kremlin (palace of the Tsars and currently of the Russian President) and the historic merchant area. This has been a very important location in Russian history and many ceremonial activities including coronation of the Tsars took place in the Red Square.

This rather large square borders the Kremlin on one side and the main attractions are the most famous icon of Russia, the St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s mausoleum etc. There is a very large department store (called the GUM) that occupies one side of the Red Square where the erstwhile commercial quarter was located. This store is more than a hundred years old, I understand.

 

On one side of the Red Square is the Kazan Cathedral. After defeating the Polish army in 1612, Prince Dmitry Pozharsky entered the Kremlin through the Red Square and in commemoration of that success, he built this Cathedral and consecrated it in 1625. The original building was of wood and burned down in a fire in 1632 and was rebuilt using brick and consecrated in 1636. It was considered as one of the most important churches in Russia and on the anniversary of liberation of Moscow from the Polish forces, the Tsar and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church used to lead a procession around the Red Square. As part of removing religion from public life, Stalin ordered the demolition of the church in 1936 and a temporary building to host the offices of the Communist International was constructed on the site. After the fall of USSR, this was the first church to be reconstructed (1990-1993) and has been made to look like the old church.

 

St. Basil’s Cathedral is arguably the most reproduced image from Moscow and is regarded as a cultural symbol of the country. It is now a museum. its original name was The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed. Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia (1547 to 1584), constructed this church to celebrate the capture of two cities – Kazan and Astrakhan. The construction took six years from 1555 to 1561 and it had nine chapels with eight chapels around the central ninth one. A tenth chapel was added later, in 1588, to honour a local saint named Vasily (Basil in English). In the Soviet era, this church was taken over by the state and converted to a museum and all religious activities stopped. After the collapse of USSR, some church services have been resumed since 1997.

This building has a very unique architecture and resembles a fire rising up to the sky. Supposedly, there is no other building with a similar architecture in Russia. I read somewhere that an old mosque in the captured city of Kazan may have been the inspiration for this architecture and to the untrained eye, the building does look more like a mosque than a church, with its massive domes.

 

The interior of the Cathedral is very beautiful and richly decorated with icons, altars and nice paintings.

 

 

The GUM department store is a very impressive looking building and the roads outside were all decorated, possibly in anticipation of the New Year and Christmas (Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 7th January).

 

The next day morning, I decided to visit one of the most popular monuments in Russia – Lenin’s Mausoleum. It seems this monument attracts the highest number of visitors in a year. Lenin’s body has been embalmed and displayed here since his death in 1924; except for a brief period during the Second World War when the body was moved to a city in Siberia as it was feared that the Germans might capture Moscow. The mausoleum stands on one side of the Red Square; the square, squat red marble tiled building on the left side of the image below. When I arrived, there was a queue waiting for the museum to be opened; Mercury had fallen below zero and it was extremely cold, with a wicked wind, but people waited patiently.

 

After Stalin died in 1953, his body was also embalmed and displayed right next to Lenin’s. However, Stalin’s body was removed in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinization drive and buried in the Kremlin wall along with other leaders. Photography was not allowed inside the Mausoleum and so I could not take a picture of the body. It looks as if Lenin is sleeping on his back, with a blanket covering the lower half of his body. It looks very life like and you wouldn’t think almost a hundred years have passed since his death.

Two thoughts crossed my mind as I stood there looking at the great leader’s body. This was a man who had changed the world and made a new order of society and politics possible. John Reed, an American Journalist and Communist, was a witness to the October Revolution and he saw the whole event unfold, from close quarters. In about a year from then, he published his book “Ten days that shook the world”, which is an eyewitness account of the revolution. This was an unbiased account as it was published in 1919, before the people that came to power after the revolution had any opportunity to influence what was written. As you go through the book, it becomes very evident that the two people that made the revolution possible were Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It is also equally evident that Josef Stalin did not have much of a role in the revolution. In the whole book, he is just mentioned in two places and that too as passing references. From the two, the body of one lies preserved in all this grandeur as a sign of respect and gratitude of the state while the other, Leon Trotsky, lies buried in a small grave in a non-descript cottage in Mexico City; after he was murdered by the KGB agents sent by the usurper, Stalin.

 

The second thought was about the seeming absurdity of making a shrine out of a Communist leader’s dead body. In a strange way, I was reminded about the relics and preserved dead bodies of Christian saints. I am sure that the state benefits from the symbolism of Lenin’s dead body but somehow I felt it was not in keeping with what this great leader stood for. After all, he was the proponent of a philosophy which was rooted in logic and not symbolism.

Next stop on the agenda was The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This church was built in the nineteenth century and was demolished in 1931 on the orders of Stalin. It was rebuilt between 1995 and 2000, after the fall of the USSR. It is an imposing building and stands right on the banks of the Moscow river. You can walk up to the terrace there are some very beautiful views of the Moscow city from there.

 

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is just a short walk from the Cathedral. It has the largest collection of European art in Moscow and is a visual treat. There were works by many masters like Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Monet, Gauguin etc.

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: Hans Vredeman De Vries

View of the old market in Dresden: Bernardo Bellotto

Bucentaur’s return to the pier by the Palazzo Ducale: Canaletto

View of the Grand Canal in Venice from the Fondamenta Del Vin: Michele Marieschi

The bridge across the Marne at Creteil: Paul Cezanne

Nude woman sitting on a couch: Pierre Auguste Renoir

White water lilies: Claude Monet

Luncheon on the grass: Claude Monet

A mother’s kiss: Eugene Carriere

Girls on the bridge: Edvard Munch

Young acrobat on a ball: Picasso

Spanish woman from Majorca: Picasso

Old jew and a boy: Picasso

Jaguar attacking a horse: Henri Rousseau

The muse inspiring the poet: Henri Rousseau

Mirror above a washstand: Pierre Bonnard

The King’s wife: Paul Gauguin

Her name was Vairaumati: Paul Gauguin

Gathering fruit: Paul Gauguin

What, are you jealous: Paul Gauguin

The ford: Paul Gauguin

Landscape at Auvers after the rain: Van Gogh

The red vineyard at Arles: Van Gogh

The prison courtyard: Van Gogh

 

Bolshoi Theatre is a very well known Russian icon with the Bolshoi Theatre Company having been founded in 1776. The company operates in various cities in Russia and the building in Moscow itself is very well known and is even featured in the Russian One Hundred Ruble note. I was staying very near the Theatre and used the opportunity to watch a short performance. This was on one of the side stages and not the main one and was an orchestra. It lasted for about 40 minutes and was quite enjoyable.

 

The State Tretyakov Gallery has the best collection of Russian fine art and was started by a merchant from Moscow by name of Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov in 1856. Having seen some works by Nicholas Roerich in the gallery in Mysore; I was quite keen to visit this collection of Russian art. I found that many of the works from the 19th Century had very relevant and interesting social themes; especially those by an artist named Vasily Grigorevich Perov. Interestingly, the Gallery did not have many works from the Soviet era; not sure why.

 

This painting is titled “The appearance of Christ to the people” by the artist Alexander Ivanov. It is a huge work measuring 5.40m x 7.50m and this was the most important work in the life of Ivanov. It took him twenty years to finish this painting and he died within a few months of finishing the painting. John the Baptist is the central figure in the painting (wearing an animal skin) and points to the Christ who appears in the distance. Ivanov has painted himself into the portrait as the wanderer with a staff, sitting right in front of John the Baptist. The artist made several small works, probably as studies for the painting, and these were also exhibited at the museum.

 

This piece by Konstantin Flavitsky is titled Princess Tarakanova and is based on the story of a young woman named Tarakanova from Italy, who claimed a right to the Russian throne. Catherine II lured her to Russia and imprisoned her in Petropavlovskaya fortress in a cell that was known to flood every time the waters in the nearby river rose. The painting shows a desperate Tarakanova standing up on her cot as the flood waters have reached almost up to the bed. There is no evidence of whether Tarakanova was indeed killed like this but the painting caused a lot of public outcry and Ivanov was later forced to announce that he had made up the subject from a novel.

I liked this painting (The Unequal Marriage by Vasily Pukirev) quite a lot and it seems it was received with a lot of enthusiasm when it was painted as it did not stick to conventional subjects used till then, but instead chose to show a social issue that was common at that time – old, rich men marrying young women who are unwilling, but are forced into the marriage. A young man, supposedly, the girl’s lover, looks on from the back.

 

Painting titled “Easter Procession in a Village” by VG Perov. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “In the early 1860s, Perov created a series of anticlerical paintings. Its main theme was the clergy that forgot their duty. A bored and drunken procession carrying icons and gonfalons is passing by the viewer. The peasants with half-closed eyes are wading towards a precipice as if they were blind. Their leader, a drunken priest, who has crushed an Easter egg underfoot, has abandoned them. Not far from him we see a woman holding an icon whose image is effaced. Farther off there is a poor man carrying an icon upside down. But the All-Seeing eye on the gonfalon is there as a reminder that these people won’t escape the Supreme Judgment. The dull landscape, dissonant movements of the participants in the procession and bleak dawn emphasise the ugliness of the whole scene. The painting was removed from an exhibition of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists in St Petersburg on grounds of it being an “immoral” work. Its reproduction in the press was banned, and P.M. Tretyakov was advised not to show it to visitors.”

 

This painting titled “Troika” by Perov was the one that touched me the most. It was painted in 1865 and in those days, peasants used to migrate to the city in search of work, because of extreme poverty and their children used to work as apprentices. Perov used three such children as his models in this painting. The boy in the middle was living with his mother and he had no father; they were very poor as well. Shortly after modelling for the painting, the boy contracted some disease and died. The mother was distraught and heart broken and she sold all her belongings and took the meagre amount she had to Perov and asked for him to sell the painting to her as she wanted to be able to see her boy whenever she wanted. By that time, Perov had finished the painting and it was displayed at the The Tretyakov Gallery. Perov took the mother to the gallery and showed her painting.

Funeral Procession: VG Perov

 

Yet another work by Perov that speaks about the social issues of the time: “Tea-party at Mytishchi near Moscow”. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “Ordinary on the face of it, the scene of tea drinking under the shade of a tree is transformed by Perov into an accusatory picture that deals with an acute social issue. The table turned cornerwise to the viewer with a samovar on it halves the small canvas, which is almost square-sized. The world of the painting’s characters also breaks into two parts: on one side, we see a fat, well-fed priest, on the other side – a poor old man and a boy. The impression of social drama is reinforced by the Order of the Hero of the Crimean War on the old man’s chest. At the same time, the idyllic background landscape and the circular rhythm of the painting’s composition embody the idea that justice and harmony lost should be restored in the world.”

 

This painting is titled “Landscape Steppe” and is by an artist named Arkhip Kuindzhi. This work was so very different from the other paintings and I was curious to note that it was painted between 1890 and 1895. I am not sure whether there were many paintings in this style at that time. I was reminded of a photo by Andreas Gursky, which is among the most expensive photos ever sold, having fetched a sum of $4.3 Million in 2011.

 

This work titled “There is Life Everywhere” by Nikolai Yaroshenko was yet another image that I liked a lot. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “ The topic of social contradictions was one of the most important for Yaroshenko. This painting was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s story What Men Live By. The artist originally planned to title his work as Where There Is Love, There Is God. Prisoners have huddled up together at the window of a convict car to feed pigeons. The painting’s idea was to show humanity maintained in inhuman conditions. The central group reminds the Holy Family. Like many other Wanderers, Yaroshenko used parallels with the Gospel to enhance the social resonance of his canvas. “This speaks so much to the heart,” said Leo Tolstoy about this painting.”

 

This painting “Christ in the Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoi immediately catches the eye because of the very desolate nature. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “The artist looks upon the Sacred history in the context of the issues of his day. Gospel themes and images served at the time as a way to express ideas of what was good and just. Christ’s personality was understood as the “perfect human being” embodiment; the life journey of a progressive person was a reflection of His earthly path. Kramskoi wrote: “…There is a moment in the life of every human being, who is created in the image of God however slightly or greatly, when they are in a quandary – whether to take the ruble and deny the Lord or not to yield a single step to the evil.” The painting took on a topical nature thanks to the resemblance of Christ’s pose on Kramskoi’s canvas to the pose of Fyodor Dostoevsky in the famous portrait by V.G. Perov. Both paintings were made in 1872 and both were shown at the very same travelling exhibition. Eternal, panhuman problems are the central theme of the painting.”

 

This is a huge work titled “The Princess of a Dream” by an artist named Mikhail Vrubel. It measures 7.5m x 14m and was painted in 1896 with the help of two others. It speaks about a love affair between Geoffroy Rudel and Princess Melisandre. Supposedly, Rudel heard about the beauty of the Princess and travelled across the sea to meet her. Unfortunately, he contracted some illness during his voyage and died at the time of their first meeting and with this, the Princess became a nun. I am not sure whether this is fiction or true story. I was not very exposed to Russian art in the past and Tretyakov definitely set that right. It was quite a beautiful experience.

Moscow has very wide roads and walking around the city itself is a pleasure. I was staying close to the Red Square and many buildings around that area were very impressive. There is some more to see in Moscow and two days were not enough. I hope to be back one day.

 

Montmartre has always had a romantic kind of appeal given its association with famous artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso etc. and because of its association with events like Paris Commune. I had not been able to visit Montmartre during any of my previous visits to Paris and this time, when the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it and set off with my camera. The first sight that greets one as we get out of the metro is the famous Moulin Rouge. This iconic nightclub, which has even made it into celluloid, has been around for more than a hundred years and is often a prime destination for the partying crowd.

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A short walk takes one to the Montmartre Cemetery. As odd as it may sound, I find it kind of peaceful to visit cemeteries, especially the old ones. One gets a strange feeling when looking at the resting places of the famous and the powerful, the dead. As Spring had not yet started in Paris, there were no leaves on the trees and that added to the ambience with the shadows and bare lines.

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Montmartre Cemetery is quite large and was started in 1825 when Paris started running out of space to bury their dead. The government banned burying of corpses within the city limits and Montmartre, which was outside the city limits and also had abandoned quarries, proved to be the right setting for a cemetery. It has now become a place to visit in the map of Montmartre because of the numerous celebrities buried there like Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Degas, Adolphe Sax etc. There was a detailed map available in the cemetery which showed the tombs of the famous people buried there but it was a bit confusing and I could not locate Degas.

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The next stop on my agenda was the Dali Museum though I was not very sure of how it might turn out to be as I suspected that there was an overtly commercial angle to it. The day was quite sunny and Montmartre presented interesting sights as one passed by.

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Vincent Van Gogh lived in this house in Rue Lepic with his brother Theo from 1886 to 1888. Theo owned this house and continued living here even after Vincent moved on.

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Montmartre once had thirty two functional windmills, of which only two have survived. These can be found at “Moulin de la Galette” and this was a popular subject for many artists like Van Gogh, Renoir, Corot etc.

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The Dali Museum, though small, turned out to be quite a treasure trove. There were many sketches done by Dali, sculptures etc. “The Persistence of Memory” inspired sculptures were quite fantastic. Dali had done many sketches based on Alice in Wonderland and also a famous comic strip.

This work “Retrospective Bust of a Woman” was presented in Paris in 1933 with an actual baguette (which was then eaten by Picasso’s dog!) and it evoked mixed reactions as such objects as bread and corn had never appeared in art works before. Ants are an oft-used motif in Dali’s work, signifying decay.

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The Space Elephant is a sculpture motivated by Dali’s work “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” and the “Cosmic Rhinocerous” represents Dali’s fascination with objects that have a hard exterior and a soft interior.

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Alice in Wonderland was another favourite subject for Dali and here are a series of sketches that he did based on Lewis Carrolls’ book. In the sculpture, Alice is shown as a young woman, which kind of contrasts with the innocence that Carroll accorded to Alice, in his story.

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There were many works based on The Persistence of Memory and I liked these the best.

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Next was a work that showed Dali’s interest in Anamorphosis. On one hand, it is the painting of an insect done in great detail but the work becomes complete when one looks at the cylindrical mirror where one can see the self-portrait of Dali, shown as a clown.

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These are some sketches that Dali made for a Parisian publisher in 1971 based on some old engravings. These have been modified into Dali’s own style with grotesque figures.

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This is a work in a classic style but replete with Dalinian symbols like a watch, an egg, two ants and the divided torso.

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In 1942, Dali produced a backdrop “The Ship Aground” which was inspired by Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet and its tory of impossible love. Dali tries to show a world torn between love and hate in the colours blue and red, emphasising the duality of passion.

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Roman poet Ovid, wrote a series of three books titled “The Art of Love” in the year 2 CE. This was supposed to be a series of instructions to men on how to attract women. Supposedly, this work so enraged Emperor Augustus that he exiled Ovid (censorship and moral policing seems to have been active even then). In any case, the work excited Dali and he produced these etchings based on it.

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“Woman Aflame” is famous work by Dali and I quote this interpretation from what was pasted alongside the work: “This work combines two of Dali’s obsessions: fire and a feminine figure with drawers. The flames coming from her back represent the hidden intensity of subconscious desire, while the drawers express the mystery of hidden secrets. Open drawers point to the private, subconscious of the human being. The flames are supported by crutches “generally used to support fragile soft structures” according to Dali. This faceless woman devoured by flames is the symbol of the mystery of femininity.”

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Next on my list was a visit to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in the heart of Montmartre. Construction of this church started in 1875 (soon after the Paris Commune was crushed) and finished in 1914. It was consecrated in 1919 after the First World War finished. To many of the free spirited inhabitants of Montmartre, this church represented the last nail in the coffin of their freedom and they viewed this as an imposition of the will of the state.

En route to the church, I passed through the famous Place du Tertre, which was a haunt of artists in the heydays of Montmartre. Even today, one can see some artists with their tripods and easels offering to make portraits of tourists and selling their work.

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Maybe because I had an impression of Sacré-Coeur as a symbol of oppression, the first image I captured of the church was this – more like a picture from the sets of a horror film!

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The Basilica is quite impressive and it also offered some interesting views of Paris as it stands on a hilltop. Photography was not allowed inside the church and so I couldn’t capture any images there. It looked pretty much like other European Catholic churches with plush interiors. Entrance to the bell tower was closed and that was a pity as that would have offered some more interesting views of Paris.

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After you get down from hill, a few minutes’ walk takes you to the “I Love You” wall. This is set up in a small garden and has an area of about 430 sq. ft. The phrase “I Love You” is written all over the wall in about 250 languages. I could spot Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi etc. on the wall. This seemed to be a must visit spot for the romantically inclined as I could find many people expressing their love in front of the wall.

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When you wander through Montmartre, you see plenty of buildings that were associated with artists – like this one which claims to have been frequented by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet etc.

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One of the quaint little delights in Montmartre is the Le Clos Montmartre a tiny vineyard bang in the centre of town spread across an area of about 16,000 sq. ft. The produce from this vine yard (about 1000 bottles of wine) is auctioned off during the annual harvest festival and the proceeds used for development projects in the area. Supposedly, this vineyard was started in 1933 to stop real estate developers from grabbing the space – I wish we had similar projects in Bangalore.

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Just across the street from the vineyard is the oldest cabaret in Montmartre – “Au Lapin Agile”. It was started in 1860 under the name “Au rendez-vous des voleurs”. In 1875, artist Andre Gill painted the image of a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan and people started calling the place “Le Lapin à Gill”, meaning “Gill’s rabbit”, which later on evolved to the present name. This was also a popular haunt for artists, anarchists, students, writers etc. Picasso even made a painting titled “Au Lapin Agile”.

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My last visit was Musee de Montmartre, which was the oldest house in Montmartre, having been constructed in the middle of the 17th century. Many artists lived here, including Suzanne Valadon and Renoir had painted in the gardens of the house. There were many works of art in the museum with many works from Valadon.

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Montmartre still retains a bit of its former anarchist spirit with graffiti to be seen in many areas.

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Although I had spent a good many hours around Montmartre, I hadn’t covered all the sights. However, I could sense the spirit of Montmartre, that still lingers there – a heady mixture of art and anarchy. One could only wonder how it would have been in the twentieth century when Montmartre had its day in the sun. Just roaming around the place was great fun and I am sure I will be back here one day. For now, dusk had sent into Montmartre.

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“Arbeit macht frei” is a German expression which means “Work brings freedom”. This phrase originated from the title of a novel written by Loernz Diefenbach in 1873 and in the novel, the protagonist is a fraudster and gambler who finds the path of righteousness through proper employment. An expression which can be deemed to be mildly motivating – except when you see it written over the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp when you walk in.

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It chilled me to the bone when I read it; what struck me was not the absurdity or even the cruelty in having such a slogan at the entrance to a concentration camp where innocent people where brought in just because fate played a cruel trick on them, in the accident of birth called religion. It was a kind of prescient moment for me, it made me understand how extreme cruelty can be inflicted on fellow human beings by people deemed normal. Work! Work on improving production; work on arriving at a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”. It was just work – how to kill efficiently; how many deaths per day will help achieve the target of extermination of a race by a certain date; what can be done to ensure that a race does not survive by ensuring that its women are sterile; how much can medical science advance if it had access to enough humans whose life did not matter and hence any type of experiment could be conducted on them – it was just work. The trick was to change the complexion of the terrible acts from what it really was to “work” and the Nazis knew this and that is why they posted “Arbeit macht frei” at the entrance to all their concentration camps. And it worked; for as George Steiner said: “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning”.

Auschwitz, where approximately 1.3 million people were killed in about 3 years – that is an average of little over a thousand a day; Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi concentration turned extermination camps; Auschwitz, where Anne Frank was an inmate (though she did not die there); Auschwitz, which Viktor Frankl and Ellie Wiesel survived and wrote about; Auschwitz, a timeless reminder of the depths to which man can fall!

Auschwitz (situated near the Polish town of Oswiecim) was started as a concentration camp in 1940 and it was converted to an extermination camp in 1941. The first gas chamber was constructed here in 1941 and after the Nazis became convinced that gas chambers using the poison Zyklon B were an efficient method for mass killing, the camp was extended to include Birkenau which had four gas chambers. Over 1.3 million people are estimated to have been killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau with about 90% of them being Jews. The whole area was about 40 square kilometres with a plant for producing synthetic rubber also included in this space. Most of the tour is in the Auschwitz I camp as that is what has survived, including the gas chamber. In Birkenau (Auschwitz II) there are only a few barracks left and the gas chambers were demolished by the Nazis towards the end of the war in a desperate attempt to destroy the evidence of their heinous crimes.

We visited Auschwitz on a cold, bleak day and perhaps that was fitting to the mood of what we were about to see. The guide led us through the gates of Auschwitz and we could see a row of neatly arranged brick buildings, which looked quite peaceful and even serene. These were the barracks that prisoners were housed in.

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The visit started with a building that had a gruesome exhibit – an urn containing human ashes found in the camp.

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There were many photographs also exhibited in that building.

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The photographs were taken by the Nazis to help with documentation and were mostly about prisoners arriving at Birkenau, awaiting selection etc. A passage from Dr. Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” came to my mind about how he himself stood in such a line upon arrival at Auschwitz. The prisoners were asked to go to the right or left. Although they did not know it at that time, those sent to the left ended up in a gas chamber within a couple of hours and seventy five percent of the prisoners that arrived were sent straight to the gas chambers. The Nazis wanted all those that could not work to be killed immediately, without having the need to “waste” resources on them. Don’t be appalled, just think of it as a demonstration of efficiency!

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This image really broke my heart. If you take it out of the context, this might look like children walking in a village or out on a picnic; but this a photo of kids walking to their death. Young and innocent and yet…

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Some prisoners were chosen to help with disposing the dead bodies and they were called the “Sonderkommando”. Of course, those chosen had no option but to be part of this group and some of them tried to take photographs clandestinely to show the world the reality of Auschwitz. Such an image is shown below, of mass burning of dead bodies.

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The poison gas, Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers came in these canisters. Zyklon was used as a chemical weapon by Germany in World War I and was banned later. A chemist named Bruno Tesch and others made some modifications to use this as an effective killing agent this was named as. Zyklon B. Tesch was executed in 1946 for his role in this war crime as he knew that Zyklon B was being used to kill people.

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Prisoners were brought into the camps in railroad wagons with 80 to 100 prisoners crammed into each wagon. Mostly, they had to leave their homes with very short notice and had just a few pitiful belongings with them. Even these were taken from them when they arrived at the camp and today we can see these heaped up, as exhibits.

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Some of the stuff was used for war efforts. For instance, prisoners were shaved before they entered the gas chamber and the hair was used to make vests for soldiers. Gold teeth were pulled out and the gold reused. Of course, what use do dead men have for gold!

Initially, the Nazis used to photograph each prisoner and keep records but they stopped this when the volumes increased as Hitler moved toward the Final Solution of killing all Jews in Europe. This meant that a huge portion of the people that were killed in Auschwitz were never recorded as having arrived there as they went straight to the gas chambers. Later on, the Nazis claimed that they had no idea about these “missing Jews”, in an effort to escape punishment for this criminal act.

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Facilities for the prisoners

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The sadistic and ruthless criminals from among the prisoners were chosen to be guards called “Capos” and the Capos enjoyed some special privileges including better accommodation.

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This is Block 10 where experiments were conducted on women to see how quickly sterilization could be done. The Nazis planned to rid Europe of Slavs after the Jews were exterminated as the pure Aryan race could then thrive and have enough space for itself. The Slav population at the time was estimated to be 100 million people and they realized that killing so many people was no easy task and so they needed a multi-pronged approach. One of the ideas was to sterilize women so that there would be no progeny. Here also, volumes posed a challenge and in Block 10, they conducted experiments on the inmates to develop efficient means for sterilization. Doctors who had taken the Hippocratic Oath were the ones conducting such experiments! Such is the power of hate peddling, the power of creating an “other” – the others are not humans anymore and thus do not deserve to be treated as such and of course, the others are at fault.

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Every day, the prisoners had to assemble in a particular area where their count was taken. If there was anyone missing, the count was taken again and again till the authorities were satisfied and the prisoners had to wait in the open till then. The guide told us that this exercise went on for 9 to 10 hours at times. Many prisoners did not even have shoes and their clothing was totally and completely inadequate to meet the winter conditions when the mercury dropped well below zero. As I stood there on that slightly cold day, I couldn’t even imagine standing barefooted in the mud in those pitiful robes at minus twenty degree Celsius for hours on end. Those are hardships that can’t even be imagined.

If a prisoner was missing, his or her cell mates were taken to task, tortured or killed. The idea was to make everyone suffer if one escaped. This was a cunning method to ensure that the prisoners themselves would try to stop anyone from even thinking of escape. In such conditions as in Auschwitz, the veneer of civilization drops and man starts to focus only on the primordial instinct of survival. Dr. Frankl has mentioned about how the all pervasive thought that was foremost in every prisoner’s mind, was about food as they never had enough to eat. They were fed a coffee kind of liquid in the morning, a limited quantity of very thin soup in the afternoon and some black bread in the evening. With this diet, they were expected to do heavy labour such as creating roads, buildings etc.

Our guide mentioned that the average life expectancy of a prisoner in Auschwitz was three months! In his book “Night” Elie Wiesel speaks about how a fellow inmate advised him to forget about looking after his father and try to focus on his own survival – caring for the father being a burden in that case. Such indignity can’t even be imagined by people like us and thus the horrors of Auschwitz can never be fully understood by those that weren’t there.

Facing the square for assembly are the gallows where prisoners found guilty of serious offences were hanged.

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There were tall barbed wire fences and guard posts everywhere. Anyone approaching within a certain distance of the fence was summarily shot. Yet, some prisoners did manage to escape, such is the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

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Right next to the gas chamber is another gallows. This was where Rudolf Hoss, the longest serving Commandant of Auschwitz was hanged in 1946. He was the one who perfected the use of Zyklon B and proudly spoke about how they were able to kill 2,000 people in one hour. He repented before his death and in a farewell letter to his son he wrote: “Learn to think and judge for yourself, responsibly. Don’t accept everything without criticism and as absolutely true… The biggest mistake of my life was that I believed everything faithfully which came from the top, and I didn’t dare to have the least bit of doubt about the truth of that which was presented to me. … In all your undertakings, don’t just let your mind speak, but listen above all to the voice in your heart.” Sage advice and valid even today, maybe more so today!

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Prisoners were led to the gas chambers straight from the train. They were told they were being taken for delousing and disinfecting and since this was standard practice in camps, nobody suspected anything else and they went along peacefully. I read somewhere that an SS guard had mentioned that it was easier and faster to get people to obey if you asked them politely instead of shouting at them. Once inside the gas chamber, the prisoners all stripped down and the chamber even had fake showers. The reality sunk in only when the gas started coming out of the faucets but then, it was too late.

Entry to the gas chamber

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Plan of the chamber

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Probably, this is what many a prisoner saw as the last sight of outside world before being sealed in the chamber

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Inside the chamber

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Furnaces for burning bodies

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Birkenau is slightly far from Auschwitz and we had to catch a bus to get there. The entrance to Birkenau has a familiar look from the scenes in “Schindler’s List”.

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Prisoners were brought from various parts of Europe in wagons such as these and each wagon was filled with 80-100 prisoners.

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There were four gas chambers in Birkenau and most of the people were killed here as Auschwitz I had only one gas chamber. However, there are only a few barracks to be seen here today as the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of mass killing and dynamited all the gas chambers. The fields look very green now but the guide said that when the camp was functional, there was not a single blade of grass as the camp was overcrowded and there were people everywhere.

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Ruins of the gas chambers

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Ash from burning bodies were dumped into ponds like these

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In 1967, a monument was erected in Birkenau to serve as a reminder and warning to mankind about the horrors of Auschwitz.

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The terrible despair and sense of dejection that one feels at Auschwitz is far beyond description; my writing skills are totally inadequate to the task and I have not been able to capture even a small percentage of that horror. As one wanders through the camp the question that keeps coming up is “How”. How could a people have been so cruel? How could a people have supported such an atrocity? How could normal, respectable individuals support such inhuman crimes? How could a whole nation be brainwashed to support the bigotry of a few? I think these are very important questions and these questions need to be reflected upon by peoples of various countries even now.

This is what we have to be aware of when we see people’s minds being filled with hate for the “other” (as in India, for instance). This is what authoritarian, oppressive regimes will do and we have enough examples from the past – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot etc. This is what we have to guard against when we see signs of such regimes, be it in any part of the world. During the tour, our guide said: “We preserve this as a museum because the world should know that this happened and this can happen in any country, at any time”.

This is why history is important. It teaches us to be on our guard and recognize the signs of Fascism and oppression. This is why George Santayana’s quote is displayed at the entrance to the first barrack in Auschwitz: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

This is why Auschwitz should not be forgotten…