German stamp collection in Calcutta
By Nitin Shirsekar
Calcutta - A Philatelist’s Delight’
Philately they say is a hobby of ‘Kings’. The late King George of England, had an impressive collection, no doubt greatly contributed to by his subjects from far flung domains of the then British Empire on which it was said ‘the sun never set’.
Impressive as philately is, the hobby when coupled with historical evidence brings great pleasure and learning to the collector.
It is enthralling to browse a well catalogued thematic collection (with a magnifying instrument, even though one may be blessed with 20/20 vision) and observe the soft monotone or multi-tone hues of a stamp, or admire the skillful contrast of dark / light shades that give depth to the picture on the stamp.
One marvel’s at the miniature picture on a stamp carefully sketched to scale by some artist - authentic image reproductions of the flora, fauna, geographical features or events from the rich tapestry of a nation’s social, cultural and bio diverse heritage.
My fondness for philately received a fillip in Calcutta (Kolkata) where I spent may a pleasurable afternoon in its pursuit.
The General Post Office (GPO) at Dalhousie (also known as BBD Bagh) is an impressive high domed structure in white washed lime in an area surrounded by commercial houses dating before circa 1930. During the day the pavements of this area shaded with huge trees bustle with activity and people.
On my wanderings one winters day afternoon, I chanced upon an individual selling stamps near the GPO entrance.
No, he was not competing with the crowded retail postal counter in the interior but made a living by hawking used stamps of Indian and foreign origin.
Philatelists would point out their requirements as he showed them his wares neatly arranged in stamp stock books.
Young students would look eagerly for cheap foreign stamps to begin their collection.
Discerning clients like me would make specific solicitations.
Choice stamps of countries or themes depicting Locomotives, Birds or Sailing Ships and Ocean Liners were some of my favourites.
It was exciting to watch him delve into his capacious shoulder bag and come out with stock books brimming with stamps. Later, I was allowed the pleasure of leafing through the well thumbed stock books myself.
My pulse always quickened at the familiar schoolboy thrill of scanning stamps of different hues, shapes and pictures from far off places. Over the months I stocked up on my choice of stamps and built up a satisfying thematic collection at a fraction of the cost. The stamps cost me Two or Three Rupees each depending on the country of origin, design and rareness of the parchment. There were always two or three ‘Stampwallas’ (as they were known) plying their trade at fixed places under the shade of the GPO compound wall.
Reviewing my now sizeable collection on quiet Sunday afternoons gave me immense pleasure.
The joy was also compounded by the anticipation of further qualitative additions to my collection in a short time.
Inquiries had revealed that the vendors had links with government offices and commercial houses whose people threw away the empty envelopes and packets after removing the contents.
Stamps that remained in good condition and bore no heavy postmarks or handwriting found their way to these vendors.
Then there were the rare, valuable stamps (Indian and Foreign) that the vendors kept in special stock books for select customers.
The Stamps were rare…decades old and in good condition. Probably given away unknowingly by the heirs and successors of collectors who parted with them either from lack of interest or ignorance.
Either way it was a bonus for the avid Calcutta philatelists who gave these stamps their due and cherished them for the future.
It was some time later that I realised that the Dalhousie ‘stampwallas’ were not as articulate as they seemed.
During my periodic visits to the British Council Library in Shakespeare Sarani, I had sought out the Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue.
Of particular interest to me were the pages describing stamps belonging to the period of the Second World War (from 1939 to 1945).
These stamps were collectors items.
After Germany and other countries capitulated in 1945 the stock of unused stamps and their printing dies were lost forever in the rubble of war and the division of the country.
Only those that were stashed away in private collections or posted out of these countries to foreign lands hoped to survive.
The chance of encountering such stamps in Calcutta, India was rare and possible only if someone for example had mailed them from wartime Germany all the way to Calcutta in undivided British India.
But history’s ways are mysterious.
I discretely searched for these stamps during subsequent visits to Dalhousie with a hope of adding them my collection.
It was several months before I hit…pay dirt.
The stamps cost me not more than ten rupees each.
Each was a masterpiece.
The postmarks recorded the dates and time -‘Frankfurt Main 14.4.44 – 18’; ‘Dresden Poste 26.6.43 – 8-9’, affixed by some Home Guard Volunteer, now long forgotten.
The manpower shortage in Germany especially during the later stages of the war contributing to the absence of fulltime postmen is by now, well documented.
The stamps were multi-coloured and bore the title ‘Deutsche Reich’.
Several depicted soldiers of the Werhrmacht (German Armed Forces) in field or in combat poses.
There was a blue magenta 20-pefnig stamp of a soldier riding a tracked motorcycle.
Another brown 20 Pnifeg piece depicted an anti aircraft crew with their gun pointing skywards with thin white searchlights beams knifing the sky.
Still another of the same value in dark and light orange showed a three man mortar crew in camouflage smocks readying their weapon.
There were stamps of different denominations with profiles of Bismarck, Admiral Von Tripitz, and the Graf Zeppelin Airship.
Pre war Germany now exists only in the memory of a handful of surviving veterans, history books and film archives.
All vestiges of that period have been removed from public memory by the occupying powers of US, Russia, England and France.
But in my private collection I still hold a piece of that history that was designed, printed, circulated and transacted in a bygone era.
The stamps were used to post letters by the hand of some long buried addressee in wartime Germany through a now probably non existent post office.
Yes, these stamps have more in common to a museum display than my humble stamp collection.
And it all began…through a modest stamp vendor outside Calcutta GPO in Dalhousie, which added substantially to my philately collection.
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