Back from destruction
Zehrensdorf Indian CemeteryREAD STORY
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Cemetery destroyed by tanks
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Secluded in a quiet woodland, next to an abandoned Soviet era military base, 15 miles south of Berlin, lie the graves of 206 Indian servicemen of the First World War. Dotted between each headstone is a small burst of colour from the spread of flowers that are synonymous with our work.
Visitors would be forgiven for thinking Zehrensdorf Indian Cemetery had always been this way.
But when the Iron Curtain lifted in the 1990s the Commission was faced with a disaster zone. A World War and a Cold War had destroyed the cemetery. Not one headstone was left standing.
Almost nothing remained of the peaceful space that had been created to remember these men.
These Indian servicemen died while prisoners of war, captured by the Germans on the Western Front.
They were held at two camps at Zossen-Zehrensdorf which included large numbers of Allied PoWs of African and Asian descent. They were ‘show camps’ with better conditions than others and included the German Empire’s first mosque built specially for the Muslim prisoners. Many prisoners were then the focus of studies by curious anthropologists, keen to research the international mix of captives.
After the war the Commission formalised the Indian cemetery at Zehrensdorf which formed part of a larger cemetery containing allied war dead of the First World War.
Old visitor books from the cemetery in the 1930s show the local fascination with these men from far off lands continued between the wars, though comments were increasingly accompanied by Nazi sentiments.
By the time the Second World War had drawn to a close the Commission hoped it might be possible to return. But a new Cold War between East and West soon put an end to those hopes. We were only able to return long enough to find out that it was already damaged.
Held firmly behind the Iron Curtain staff were unable to gain proper access.
When they eventually returned after the Fall of the Berlin Wall they found the site had been all but wiped off the face of the Earth. But, underneath the overgrowth and debris, in spite of tanks using the area for training exercises, the beams that once held headstones were somehow intact.
One by one, once the area had been cleared of explosives, we were able to assure ourselves that no human remains had been affected. Each grave could still be marked in its original position. New headstones were produced, and great efforts were taken to ensure everything was replaced exactly.
The final, heavy, piece of the puzzle was installing a brand new Stone of Remembrance – all seven tonnes of Portland stone. The only evidence that remains of the damage is the original Stone of Remembrance, preserved at a nearby museum.