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Beyond Barbed Wire

1948
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Saddler's dream created Phoolsagar in Bundi. Pic courtesy: Ambika Singh.

By Ganesh Saili

From the Hathipaon area, if you look down at the Doon, you see the expanse of Prem Nagar spread out like a map on a table. This is where the Central Internment Camp stood some seventy-odd years ago, where, in the sweltering heat, between tea gardens and scrub, row upon row of thatched-roof barracks built by Captain Kirpa Ram & Co, Mhow-based entrepreneurs.

‘Given the wartime petrol shortage,’ recalled the late Mohan Jauhar, ‘hundreds of donkeys were used to carry sand, stone, gravel, and flat reeds from the Asan River.’

No women or children were in the camps, only German men who far outnumbered the Italians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Finn internees. While most idled away their time, seven had better ideas – to break free. And they did, on April 29, 1944, at 2.30 p.m., with Rolf Magener and Heins von Have disguised as British officers – swinging swagger sticks – pretending to be in charge of the others disguised as a fake native wire repair gang. Courageously they marched boldly through the main gates, where the guards presented them arms.

German schooling in the POW Camp in
Premnagar.
Pic courtesy: Author’s Collection.

Outside, they split into two groups: five went north to the mountains, while Magener and von Have bluffed their way across India, travelling 1500 miles as British officers. Initially, the Japanese took them for British spies in Burma, but later on they were hailed as war heroes in Tokyo.

Nineteen days into their escape, Friedal Sattler and Bruno Treipl were struck by glacial lassitude and returned to Prem Nagar. Kopps sought asylum in Nepal, only to find himself escorted to the British Embassy. He was arrested and was back in the Central Internment Camp by Christmas.

‘We were not arrested,’ Heinrich Harrer maintained, writing of their original foray into the Nanga Parbat basin, ‘just escorted to Karachi, where the Superintendent of Police received us with: Well, gentlemen, you lost your way while hunting, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, sir!’ was the ready response of the team.

Spring triggers off hysteria on a wisteria.

Afterwards, escapee Friedal Sattler was relocated to Deoli, which lies southwest of Agra, where he secured permission to design the interiors of Maharaja Bahadur Singh of Bundi’s summer palace called Phool Sagar. This did get him some privileges, but it could not be the cure-all for his troubles. On a stormy night, he sneaked out, hoping to meet some Korean Red Cross nurses. This inadvertently resulted in a riot, which meant solitary confinement for him for twenty-eight days.

Meanwhile, continuing on their trek across the Roof of the World, the two Austrians reached Kyrong on July 17, 1945. Afterwards, they arrived in Lhasa on January 20, 1946, and what happened after that is set out by Harrer in his book Seven Years in Tibet, wherein fact is interspersed with fiction. Poignantly, he said: ‘Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the cries of wild geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear, cold moonlight.’

My search takes me to Bala Hissar’s Oakless – home to our Himalayan encyclopaedia, author Bill Aitken, who says: ‘There’s little doubt that as a mountaineer Heinrich was brave, but in moral terms, he was a wimp. His downfall came after its Jewish underwriters withheld the film based on his book.’ The last nail in the coffin came when two journalists from Stern magazine located Harrer’s SS dossier. It included documents that he had signed. Henceforth, his fate was sealed and he was forced to change tack, admitting the signatures were indeed his.

Bill Saab wonders aloud, ‘How could two foreigners have got past the scrutiny of several border check posts?’ adding, ‘In those days no outsider could come within a hundred miles of Lhasa, yet somehow they managed to get there and were found sitting in a nobleman’s garden?’

Peter Aufschnaiter managed to live in Nepal and returned as an old man to Europe when the war ended. Of course, only after being thoroughly debriefed in Chakrata by Manohar Malgonkar.

When asked about Harrer’s shady past, the Dalai Lama compassionately leaves it with: ‘That’s between him and his conscience.’

(Ganesh Saili, author-photographer, has written and illustrated twenty books, some translated into over two dozen languages. He belongs to those select few who illustrate their writing. His work has found publication in periodicals, columns, and journals.)