Thursday, 31 January 2013

A Nazi who escaped from India

He was a member of the dreaded Schutzstaffel (SS) of  Nazi Germany where he held the rank of an Oberscharfuhrer. He also became a member of the Nazi party in Germany
He wore his SS uniform only once in life and that was on the day of his marriage. A renowned mountaineer, he was one among the four of a team of four who were personally received by and photographed with Adolf Hitler.
He was a world champion in mountain climbing. He was also the winner of the downhill event at the World Student Championships at Zell am See Mountain climbing competition in Austria.
He was classified as a Nazi by the British and placed in a German internment camp in India. He escaped from India to Tibet, by giving a slip to the British guards. His escape is the stuff of legends and it closely resembles a Hollywood potboiler like Indian Jones  or even a war movie like Escape to Victory.
He was Heinrich Harrer, an adventurer, mountaineer, writer, sportsman and a geographer. An Austrian, Harrer was born on July 6, 1912. The son of a postal worker, he studied geography and sports at the Karl Franzens University in Graz. Here, he became a member of ATV Graz, a student organization.
In  1935, Harrer was selected to participate under the Austrian flag in the Alpine skiing competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch Partenkirchen, a mountain resort in Bavaria, southern Germany. The Austrian team, however, boycotted the event following a dispute about the status of skiing instructors as professionals. Harrer, therefore, lost an opportunity to participate in the Olympics.
In 1937, Harrer won the downhill event at the World Student Championships at Zell am See. Subsequently in 1938, Harrer and his friend, Frtiz Kasparek, became the first mountaineers to climb the North face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland.
This mountain peak was known as The White Spider because of its sheer vertical cliffs and dangerous crevices. Decades later, Harrer published an account of the climb called the White Spider. The book, published in 1959, immediately became a  best seller and was translated into many languages and even made into an English film.
Coming back to Harrer, he joined the SS where he held the rank of a  Sergeant. On May, 1 1938, he became a member of the Nazi party. By then, Harrer’s fame as a mountaineer had spread far and wide and he was received by and photographed with Adolf Hitler.
Harrer then decided to get married to Charlotte Wegener, the daughter of  well-known explorer and scholar Alfred Wegener. He wore his SS uniform on the day of his wedding. He never wore the uniform again.
In 1939, Harrer joined a four-man team led by Peter Aufschnaiter to climb Nanga Parbat in India. When the World War broke out, Harrer was declared by the British to be a Nazi and placed in a German Internment Camp in Dehradun and Hazaribagh where there were nearly a thousand such “enemies” .
Before being transported to Dehradun, Harrer was taken to a detention camp in Ahmedanagar where he considered the option of fleeing to Goa which then was under Portuguese rule. Before he could put the plan into operation, he was sent to Dehradun and from there to Hazaribagh. 
The days at the Internment camp in Hazaribagh were long and hard and Harrer decided to escape to Tibet and from there to the Japanese war front of  Burma or China.
Aufschnaiter and Harrer escaped from Hazaribagh and were recaptured a number of times before they finally succeeding in breaking free.
On April 29, 1944, Harrer and six others, including Rolf Magener and Heins von Have, disguised as British officers, and  Aufschnaiter,  Bruno Treipel, Hans Kopp and Sattler, disguised as native Indian workers, walked out of the camp.
While Magener and von Have took the train to Calcutta and from there joined the Japanese army in Burma. Harrer and others
headed for Tibet. While a weary Sattler gave himself up to the British, the other four crossed into Tibet on May 17, 1944 by fording the Tsang Chok-la Pass (19,350 ft). They then divided themselves into two teams-  Harrer teaming up with Kopp and  Aufschnaiter going along Treipel.
Kopp later surrendered to the British. Aufschnaiter and Harrer, helped by the former's knowledge of  Tibetan language, carried forward to Lhasa.
In their travels, they had passed Mount Kailash, the South-West plains of Tibet (Gyirong) and the Northern Changthang plateau.
In 1948, Harrer joined the Tibetan Government as a salaried official, translating foreign news and acting as court photographer to the Dalai Lama.
Harrer first met the 14th Dalai Lama when he was summoned to the Potala Palace, and asked to make a film about ice skating. Harrer, by then, had introduced ice-skating to Tibet. He then built a cinema for the Dalai Lama, with a projector hooked to a jeep engine.
Harrer soon tutored the Dalai Lama in English, geography, and science.
In 1952, Harrer returned to Austria where he wrote several books. The seven years in Tibet  (1952) and Lost Lhasa (1953) dealt with his experiences in the mountain kingdom. Seven Years in Tibet was translated into 53 languages, and was a bestseller in the United States in 1954, selling more than three million copies. The book was filmed twice, the first time in 1956 and the second in 1977, featuring Brad Pitt as Harrer.
By then, Harrer had been cleared of any pre-war crimes and this was later supported by Simon Wiesnthal. In  his book “Beyond Seven Years in Tibet”, Harrer called his involvement with the Nazi Party a mistake.
Harrer participated in a number of ethnographic as well as mountaineering expeditions to Alaska, theAndes and  central Africa. He also explored the Amazon river in south America with the former king Leopold of Belgium.
In 1954,  Harrer climbed Mount Deborah and Mount Hunter, both in Alaska. In 1962, he was chosen as the leader of the team of four climbers who climbed Puncak Java in western New Guinea. He also explored the Neolithic stone axe quarries at Ya-Li-Me.
He  wrote more than 20 books about his adventures. An  excellent  golfer, he won the Austrian national championships in 1958 and 1970.
He visited Tibet again and wrote a sequel to Seven Years in Tibet called Return to Tibet. He made 40 documentary films and founded the Heinrich Harrer Museum in H├╝ttenberg, Austria which is dedicated to Tibet.
Harrer died on January 7, 2006 in Friesach, Austria.

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