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The Rediff Special


The Rediff Special

The Indian war hero who stood up to the Nazis

Dr B N Mazumdar The Imperial War Museum has just made public the remarkable story of Dr B N Mazumdar who was captured by the Nazis during his service in World War II. Shrabani Basu tells his amazing story:

"I was the only easterner there. All other prisoners were English or Dutch. We were disinfected by some kind of powder... Then the German officer told me, I had to have my hair shaved. I said, 'What for?' He said, 'You are not European'. I said, 'I'm not going to, you can do what you like'. We kept shouting at each other. I said 'you only shave your head when your father or mother dies. I am not going to shave my head under any condition. They put me in the klink (you know what that is, prison). That was my first encounter with the Germans."

--Dr Birendra Nath Mazumdar, recalling his experience as a prisoner of war in Kassel, Germany, in 1940. (From the sound archives at the Imperial War Museum in London.

The voice was slightly hoarse, but steady with an unmistakable Bengali accent. At 82, Dr Birendra Nath Mazumdar could recall the events of 50 years ago with remarkable clarity. And he had a tremendous story to tell.

It was the first time Dr Mazumdar had ever told anyone -- apart from his family -- about his war-time bravery. The secrets would have died with him, had he not given an interview to the Imperial War Museum last year. Even so, he had instructed them not to release the memories till his death. He died last December and the War Museum has just made public his remarkable story of war-time heroism.

In a two-and-a-half hour recording, Mazumdar recalls the events of 1939 to 1945 when he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to France, till the time he was sent to Gaya, India, in 1945. In those turbulent war years, he was made a prisoner of war by the Germans in the Colditz, tortured, kept in solitary confinement for defying the Nazis, wooed by the Germans to join Subhas Bose's Indian Legion, threatened with execution for not doing so and accused of being a spy.

The story begins in 1939 when Mazumdar joined the RAMC and was posted to the French base of Etaples. In 1940, he was called upon to lead a convoy of five to six ambulances out of Etaples to Boulogne. It was on the way that German troops surrounded them and Mazumdar had no choice but to surrender. He was made a POW and taken to a camp on the Dutch border. From there they were taken to Kassel.

At the camp he realised how selfish other officers were. "There was no spirit of camaraderie that I had read about in the books of World War I. They didn't want to share their food, and we lived on black coffee and bread. This was happening among so-called educated people. I couldn't believe my eyes," he said.

One day in Kassel, Mazumdar was called by the commandant and told: 'There are a lot of your countrymen in my country who would like you to join them.' It was the first invitation to join Subhas Bose's forces. He refused.

His defiance led him to be moved from camp and he covered 17 in all. The last camp was at Marienberg near Dangiz. Again the Germans told him, 'You can have a good life if you join us and join your countrymen.' He again refused.

In 1943, his defiance cost him a move to Colditz, the dreaded high-security castle. It was while at Coditz that Mazumdar was called to Berlin. Once there, he was brought face to face with Subhas Bose.

"I haven't forgotten that moment," recalled Mazumdar. "We talked in Bengali about various things. Eventually he came to the point. 'You know why you are here,' he said. 'We are forming a Legion, won't you come and join us?'

"I said, 'I cannot and I would not.'

"Subhas Bose was disappointed. He said, 'I don't think we shall meet again.' He asked me one last time before he left. I refused once again. He pressed the bell and a chap came and took me away.

"I returned to Colditz where everybody had heard that I had been to see Bose."

In Colditz, Mazumdar made friends with the Dutch officers. He never got on with the British officers in the Indian Army, who used to refer to the Indians as "bloody Gandhi's chaps". Here he was even accused by fellow officers of being a German spy. Mazumdar then decided that he had to escape. In a desperate bid to get out of Colditz, Mazumdar went on hunger-strike.

For five weeks he lived on water and was taunted by the British officers that he was "doing a Gandhi". Then he was moved to another camp with less security. His strike had worked.

He was then moved to a camp full of Indian soldiers. One day when they were being moved to another camp by train, Mazumdar escaped with two Indian sappers, Sethi and Salim.

After hiding in the country for two days, Mazumdar finally want to the village to get food. A French villager gave them food and asked them to go as there were orders to shoot escaped POWs. They began walking towards the Spanish border, but on the fifth day they were again captured by the Germans, flogged, called 'coloured buggers' and put in a smelly dump. The Gestapo then asked the doctor again if he would like to take the last chance to join Bose. He refused and was flogged again.

They were then moved to another camp, full of Indian soldiers from Italy. The three of them planned to escape again. This time it was more dangerous as it involved crossing a 13-foot barbed wall. They somehow managed to escape.

Eventually they reached Nevers where a French widow gave them shelter and told them they would be taken to the Swiss border with the help of the French Resistance.

"We crossed the frontier to Switzerland," he recalled. Mazumdar and his mates had made their home run. The year was 1943.

Eventually Mazumdar was sent to London to treat Indian Army soldiers. Further clashes with British officers followed and Mazumdar was falsely charged with embezzling funds and put under house-arrest.

It was the intervention of a Swiss doctor that stopped him from being court-martialled. Meanwhile, the British officers from the Indian Army returned to India and eventually Mazumdar returned to England where he was stationed at Woolwich.

By then the war in Europe was over and one day he was called upon by MI5 and MI6 who wanted to ask him about Bose.

"They questioned me for two days. When I had nothing to say, they told me, 'You are ruining your chances of getting a medal.' I burst out laughing. Do you think I escaped and went through all this to get a medal?"

Finally, Mazumdar was asked to proceed to Gaya with the troops. Here again he stood up to the racial taunts of the British and once even disciplined an English officer who had asked his brother, Samar, a naval officer to get off the first class compartment.

Mazumdar returned to England in 1946 carrying memories of his war days with him. Many of them were painful, of not just physical abuse by the Germans, but the ingratitude, racism and selfishness of the British. He got no decorations and lived on his army pension. It was only recently that he joined the Colditz Association, who alerted the Imperial War Museum of his story.

The University of Leeds has requested his widow, Joan Mazumdar, to give his memories for their war archives. The remarkable story of Dr Mazumdar can then join the legends of other heroes of the war.

Courtesy: Sunday magazine

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