A Visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp - The first concentration camp in Germany
By Rajeswary Balasubramainam
On the 01.11.06, I went with my Tamil friends to visit Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany. It was set up in 1933, by Heinrich Himmler, one of Hitler's henchmen. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany on the 30th of January 1933. Barely 50 days later, Dachau was opened by Himmler, who was then Chief of Police for Munich.
The SS, Hitler's brutal task force, took control of the camp on April 11th of 1933, and almost immediately the infamous history of atrocities commenced. The camp served the purpose of holding anyone the National Socialist Party considered to be a political opponent to their rule: initially these were Social Democrats, communists, trade unionists and monarchists. Soon after, Jehovah Witnesses were arrested, followed by Jews, Romanies (gypsies), homosexuals, clergies, the mentally ill and the disabled. Other similar camps in Poland and Czechoslavakia also held nationalists from different nations who were opposed to the German occupation.
There were chambers for torturing, for gruesome medical experiments and a gas chamber for exterminating men, women and children. These atrocities went on without the general public’s knowledge. Outsiders did not know the truth about the camp at that time. The information given to the public was that: ‘the Dachau camp is the centre for re- educating criminals’.
At present, the camp site is much reduced in size, since the SS guards destroyed a large part of the camp in April 1945, when news of the defeat of Hitler’s army reached there. Nevertheless enough evidence of what had occurred during 1933-1945 remained.
Today, one can still see prisoners’ beds, the wash rooms, punishment bunkers, the crematorium area, the SS shooting range where, in 1941, Soviet prisoners about 4,000 were shot dead. One can also see a plantation (herbal garden), where most of the inmates were deployed, many were worked to death there. I shall never look at herbal gardens with the same innocence again.
Millions of people from all kinds of background were murdered and tortured in the name of Hitler's ''Arian superior ideology', among these, according to some statistics nearly 6 million Jews. This camp is a most gruesome reminder of how evil can run rampant given a certain political environment. People who really believe in justice, peace and freedom, must visit this place. It will drive home the need and urgency of educating others, if we are ever to have a chance of achieving and maintaining a better and freer society for all of us.
My initial purpose of the visit to Germany in October 2006 was to attend two conferences on Human Rights violations in Sri Lanka. One conference, which I attended and participated in, was organised by the 'Sri Lankan Diaspora' in Germany. Being with people from both Tamil and Sinhala community, who had come together to bring peace to Sri Lanka, gave me hope for a better future in Sri Lanka. The second conference was the ' 25th Women's Meeting-' which is regularly held by Tamil women in Europe and to which Human Rights and political activists, as well as Tamil women writers from various parts of the world were invited .
Between the two conferences I asked someone to take me to the Dachau concentration camp as I had always wanted to visit the first concentration camp in Germany, to see how the base of all those evil acts against humanity was set up, developed and administrated from 1933-1945. We were not the only visitors. People from many countries were there to pay respect to their loved ones who perished in the camp: the day we visited was Remembrance Day.
Dachau is a symbol of the inhuman and savage behaviour of the Nazis during 12 long years.
The camp had been a munitions factory during the First World War. Himmler set it up to be used as a camp for 5000 political prisoners. But when the American forces entered the camp on 29th of June, 1945, the day before Hitler's suicide, they found over 30.000 prisoners and 7,500 unburied bodies there. No one knows how many thousands of prisoners had gone through the gate of Dachau or how many were murdered by the SS. Some records say that about 200.000 prisoners had been held and 31.951 had died there, but there are no records to prove this estimate. The camp was certainly over-crowded, with criminals helping the SS officers to humiliate and keep brutal control over the prisoners.
On arrival, prisoners from various countries were examined for their fitness to work which they had to do for 11 hours a day with no breaks and without food. Many died simply of malnutrition, heart failure or infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, typhoid etc. The camp was also used as a transit camp to transport prisoners to gas chambers in other parts of German occupied territories.
My first visit to Germany was some time in 1984 or ‘85. It was organised from London with the help of Human Rights activists who had connections there. My visit was to help campaign for Tamil refugees, who were seeking asylum in Germany, due to the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Government, which was then headed by United National Party's (UNP) President J.R. Jeyawardena.
At that time9 1983 onwards, the majority of Tamil asylum seekers in Germany, England, Holland and France were young Tamil men aged between 16-25 who were being hunted down like animals by the Sinhala regime. The Tamils in Germany were put in the old camps, which had been built during the First World War. Here they lived, away from the cities, isolated from the general population. The first camp I visited was (1984) some where near Berlin (West Berlin at that time). I remember it clearly. It was a very cold night; a sharp icy wind went through my skin like a blast of arrows from hell. I was completely unprepared for what I was about to see. The living conditions in the camp were appalling. I was truly shocked and immediately anger boiled up inside me. Those Tamils asylum seekers were kept as if they were criminals rather than refugees. The facilities were minimal, and they were without any means of communicating with other refugees in other areas of Germany.
"Is this the way you kept the Jews in the 30's?" I asked angrily to the German Human Rights campaigner who was accompanying me to see the Tamil refugees. "He was very apologetic and explained to me that ‘this is the Government’s policy and we are trying to challenge the authority to improve the conditions for refugees." I ended up thanking him for his empathy and understanding regarding the plight of Tamils from Sri Lanka.
The following day, a large meeting was held in Berlin, organised by Human Rights campaigners.
The speech I gave at that meeting can be summarised as follows:
"I hope you all understand the situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka at present. There is no safety for Tamils in Sri Lanka, especially for young Tamils as the government think all of them are terrorists. The government is punishing every Tamil for being, in their eyes, a ‘potential’ terrorist. In July ‘83, Tamil political prisoners in Welikade prison were massacred. During 83-85 large numbers of Tamil young men (some were my relatives) were arrested in the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka (Akkaraipattu area) and taken to isolated areas. The Government soldiers asked them to dig holes before proceeding to shoot them in cold blood, just as the SS did with captured Soviet troops during Hitler's era. After the soldiers had gone, some Tamils from the surrounding villages went to the scene and dug up the graves. They found two boys who had been shot a few hours earlier but who were still alive.
“As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, we know that nobody would leave their homeland unless they faced danger or feared for their life. Tamils are escaping from genocide committed by the state. They are leaving to save their lives and they want nothing but to start a new life in peace. These young men thought they would be welcomed, particularly by Germany, as your citizens understand the suffering of minorities and political opponents have endured. Please help them to lead a normal life.
“We all have a right to live and no one has a right to take another’s life or dignities, simply because they belong to a different community, speak a different language, follow a different faith or political affiliations. The situation for Tamils in Sri Lanka today is not too dissimilar to that of the Jews under Hitler in Germany during the late 30's and early 40’s."
Since that conference, many campaigns to assist the Tamil refugees have been set up in England and in various parts of Europe. The political climate in the Western Europe changed and recognition of the situation and sympathy with the plight of our people enabled 1.2 millions Tamils to live here in exile.
At that time in 1985, I lost many young relatives, including nephews and cousins in Sri Lanka, killed by the hands of the Special Task Force (STF). My sister died following her son's murder in front of her eyes by STF, my mother too was taken to her grave, after they had arrested my brother, taken him to Boosa camps and tortured him there. My aunt lost her mind having lost her three sons within three months. All this at the hand of the STF.
More people died in the East of Sri Lanka than in any other Tamil area in Sri Lanka. There are well over 6000 widows there and over 5000 child soldiers, large proportions of them were from the East. They have nowhere to run to, no relations to give them a free ticket to escape to the West. Putting together scattered information, it is estimated that about 65.000 people have lost their lives, including nearly 20.000 liberation fighters and nearly 5000 child soldiers. In Sri Lanka today, the killing continues, as do abductions and disappearances.
There are about 15,000 – 20,000 or perhaps even more Tamil refugees in Germany and a fair number of them are trying to come to the UK in order to improve their life, to benefit from an English education and /or to live near their kith and kin already living there.
A handful of Tamils in Germany engage in Human Rights campaigns for Tamils in Germany at present. Their work is priceless; they never look for fame or recognition. They never come to photo shoots and all they want is to bring improvements to the hopeless and poor Tamil communities back home in Sri Lanka.
I spent time with two women who are dedicating some of their time helping poor Tamils in Sri Lanka. Their tireless efforts are making a difference. They are members of Tamil women's groups in Stuttgart. There are only 11 Tamil families in Stuttgart, but they form the 'nucleus' of this vital assistance and they believe in and are committed to this work.
The three women who took me to Dachau are Birave Sivarajan, only 17 years old and she is already making her mark in Human Rights work in Stuttgart together with her mother Mankaiyatkarasi. The other two, who came with me to Dachau, were Mary and Mankaiyatkarasi. They are members of Stuttgart’s Sri Lankan Group as well as the Women's Group. They also run the Tamil School in Stuttgart.
Much of the time during our visit to Dachau we were left speechless. At times we couldn’t help but burst into tears. To see before our eyes evidence of such cruelty committed by human beings was simply overwhelming! There were hundreds and hundreds of photos and brief descriptions of children, elderly men and women who had suffered at the hand of the Nazis. The Nazis had brought people from all over Europe, including England, to Dachau in order to torture and murder them and use them for their appalling medical experimentations.
"How can any human being torture others like that? How can they do such gruesome acts against humanity?" I stammered again and again.
"Why are you so shocked?” one of my friends asked. “Hitler and his cronies did these horrible things to their enemies; didn’t the Sinhalese army at home inflict similar atrocities on Tamils and even on some of their own people during the Che Guevara period in 1971?” The other friend added, “…and since ‘85, Tamil groups too, are inflicting similar cruelties on each other, perhaps not quite on the same scale, but…. Fratricidal killings continue unabated.”
Yes, of course. I know the bitter truth of that too well. Over the past decades, haven’t I been kept sleepless by countless desperate letters from home and by information rolling in every day or every week, providing me with gruesome details of atrocities carried out in our homeland. I recall to learn that many of my friends, who had campaigned for Human Rights over there, are no longer alive in Sri Lanka.
Looking at the photographs of the former prisoners exhibited at the concentration camp, made me think of them all: the Human Rights campaigners, the writers and the people holding alternative political views. They were murdered as traitors, not by the government forces, but by the “liberators” of the Tamil people. Today, at least two or three Tamils are being murdered in the Tamil areas every single day, and this is done by those who are supposed to “liberate” us.
Tamil people who do not have the means to leave Sri Lanka, are now living in an open prison in their own ‘home land'. They live in fear and they are not allowed to hold their own opinions or to talk freely. In a way, their situation is not too dissimilar to that of the political opponents to Germany’s fascist regime. Jews, gays, Romanies (travellers), the disabled and those with different views suffered cruelties or lived in constant fear. Yet, were not the Nazi SS soldiers treated as heroes by many Germans both at rallies and in the streets? Is there such a huge difference, when we learn of ordinary Tamils in Jaffna coming forward and alleviating with Coca Cola the thirst of the killers of the TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation) boys straight after their killing sprees?
The current situation in Sri Lanka is no better than it was 20 years ago. Tamil people are imprisoned by both sides, yet both are supposed to care for and protect them as their citizens. They are being used as human shields so that political leaders may gain or maintain power. One way or another, they have to face multi-barrels or claymore attacks.
There are two prisons in the non-government controlled Tamil areas. It is here, that Tamil political opponents are kept. They are subjected to maltreatment, humiliations, tortures and forced labour that is truly inhuman. Whatever the TELO( Tamil Ealm Liberation Organisation), EPRLF (Ealam people revolutionary front), or PLOTE (People Liberation Organization of Tamil Ealam) boys had to experience in the 80s by the LTTE ( Liberation Tigers of Tamil eelam) is today continuing in the streets, homes, schools and in the fields in Sri Lanka? People are starving. Illnesses related to malnutrition are on the increase.
Sri Lanka has the highest suicide rate in South East Asia, and the highest level of mental health problems. People in the Tamil areas are caught between the warring parties; they try to escape to other villages or are bullied into forced labour. People, young and old, even school kids are being used as pawns in other people’s power games.
Who is going to liberate Tamils in Sri Lanka?
- Asian Tribune -