The German Gandhian Whom Modi Found a Threat

Kati Sonnenburg with a tribal girl from Odisha

By Anil Dhir


I had got this email from Kati Sonnenburg a few days after I had posted the photographs of the annual memorial service of the Amarda Road Air Crash last year.

She wrote : “Good morning Anil Bhai. The airport crash and its memory function are still in my mind. There is a close connection to my birth place in Germany. You might know and heard about Peenemünde V2 rockets. Here is a huge museum and the area of construction is still there and a youth hostel where regularly from all over the world youngsters are here under guidance to learn, study and plan for a peaceful future. They are actively involved to reconstruct the concentration camp to remember the past for a better future. The past of World War should never come back so they work together in that area to make a museum of memory.

Kati Sonnenburg at Rasagovindpur Air Strip

The real differences around the world today are not between Hindu and Muslims, Jews and Arabs; Protestants and Catholics; Shias and Sunnis. The real differences are between those who embrace peace and those who would destroy it; between those who look to the future and those who cling to the past; between those who open their arms and those who are determined to clench their fists”.

I first met Kati in 2011 when I was researching the 1945 Air Crash at the Rasgovindpur Air Strip. I was introduced by Aditya Patnaik, the Gandhian who founded the Mahatma Gandhi Eye Hospital at Rangamatia, deep within the Santal area. Kati was a volunteer and was looking after the school and was working on livelihood development for the poor tribals. She had been here for the last few years, living a Gandhian existence in a remote jungle area where even few other volunteers ventured.

For the next three years, I would meet her each year. It was ironic that the memorial service of the World War II dead was attended by a Gandhian lady from Germany. We held the service for the 14 dead airmen who comprised of nationalities from seven different countries. The dead airmen were from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, USA and one from India. The few hours I spent with her were really motivating. In 2014, after the Modi Government was sworn in, the crackdown on foreign aid workers happened. Her visa was not renewed and she had to go back, leaving behind a lot of unfinished work. It was a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The short sightedness of the political class, who did not differentiate between the missionaries and the Gandhians, was a loss for the poor Santals.

Kati Sonnenburg during the memorial meet at Rasgovindpur Air Strip

Kati went away to spread her big heartedness in other parts of the world. She continued with her good work, as a Gandhian volunteer, living among the poorest of the poor and spreading the goodwill message of love, compassion, non-violence, tolerance and equality. I missed her presence every year that we went to hold the memorial service. I do not know which part of the world she is spreading cheer today, but I know that she joins us in the memorial prayers from where she is.

Her short note had got me thinking. The simple lines that she had written inspired me to endeavour for a museum at Rasgovindpur. I had written to the different embassies of the countries where the dead airmen came from and have received positive response. Aditya Patnaik too has promised the necessary space for the Museum.

Kati Sonnenburg (middle) and Anil Dhir (first from right)

We shall be holding the memorial service this year too. On the 26th July at 10.a.m. at the abandoned airstrip, like we have been doing since 2011. The families of these dead airmen too join us in the prayers from their respective places. Many of them want to come and join us, but due to their advanced age, travelling such a distance is a hindrance. All my friends who are interested are welcome. You can message me for more details or Google Amarda Road Air Crash and get the complete story.

God willing, next year the Museum will be up. I am sure Kati will come and join us in the opening.

To the Kati’s of the world, may their tribe increase.


Anil Dhir is an archaeology researcher. He is associated with INTACH and the chief project coordinator of INTACH Jagannath Sadak Project. He is also working as the National Secretary, Bharat Raksha Manch, Odisha.

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