From the Reich to the Raj

From the Reich to the Raj

Uncovering the story of German refugees in India


Many people know the story of how large numbers of Jews fleeing Hitler’s henchmen found refuge in Shanghai or in Bukhara.

Few, however, know that India, too, provided refuge for many Jews during the Second World War. Dr. Margit Franz of the University of Graz, who recently presented her work at a conference in New Delhi on the art, culture and heritage of the Jews of India, called Sherei Hodu, is working to bring India into the field of exile studies. India, she says, has not been recognized as a host country for exiles, although it has provided refuge for refugees over many centuries.

Those refugees include the Jews who came to India at various times in its history (the Cochini Jews and the Bnei Israel) and the Parsees. The Jews probably came as early as 2,000 years ago (though the dating is unclear), while the Parsees fled Iran and Islam about 1,000 years ago.

But Dr. Franz is not talking about those groups. Her specialty is the German-speaking refugees who escaped to India.

Professor Anil Bhatti and Professor Johannes Voigt published their pathbreaking study, “Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945,” in 1999. Then, conventional wisdom was that there had been only about 1,000 Jewish World War II refugees in India. However, building upon the work of Professor Bhatti and Professor Shalva Weil, Dr. Franz has concluded that there were at least about 5,000 Jewish refugees who made their home in India during the war years. It is not easy to count all those who came to India, Dr. Franz says. For one thing, not all Jewish refugees identified themselves in that way; for another, India was not a single country in those days. Not only was there British India, there were many princely states as well. But through painstaking research, however, Dr. Franz has tracked many of those Jews who came to India to find asylum.

How the refugees got to India

Most of the people who sought refuge in India had exceptional skills, Dr. Franz says. India had a large population of unskilled people so there was no room for more unskilled hands. People who had special skills were more likely to obtain visas. Of course, it was the British authorities who decided who would get visas and who would not.

There also were Indian groups who did not want to allow Jewish refugees into India. Dr. Shimon Lev, who did comparative research on Indian and Zionist national movements at Hebrew University (and who also spoke at the New Delhi conference) points to Subhash Chandra Bose, an Indian freedom fighter who was president of the Indian National Congress from 1897 to 1945. In 1938, Bose blocked the passage of a resolution sponsored by Jawaharlal Nehru, who later became India’s first prime minister, to welcome Jewish refugees “who could contribute to India’s progress.” That stipulation — that immigrants had to contribute to India’s progress — most likely was a concession to get the resolution passed; at other times Nehru fought hard to obtain visas for Jewish refugees on humanitarian grounds. All of this, further, happened before the extent of the Holocaust had become known.

Once the war had started, though, it was the British who made the decisions. Indians’ views did not matter much to them. Rulers of princely states nominally were able to make their own decisions, but in fact, the British had to approve them. The British controlled the princely states’ foreign policy, so no Indian princely state controlled any port. As a result, at the very least, a British transit visa was required for entry into India.

German Jewish refugees in India were interned together with German Nazis, Dr. Franz learned. There were many Germans in Bombay and Calcutta, so Jews were put in the intolerable situation of sharing close quarters with their erstwhile tormentors. With the beginning of the war, in September 1939, all Germans were considered enemy aliens, she said. In October, the British set up a committee to distinguish between true refugees and Nazi spies. Most of the refugees were released by the end of 1939, but there was a second wave of internment in May and June 1940, when Hitler’s attacks in Europe were particularly successful.

Four Eastern European sisters and their families in India.
Four Eastern European sisters and their families in India. (Courtesy Vinay Gupta)

Women refugees, Dr. Franz noted, were in a very peculiar position in India. In other countries, such as in Britain, they got jobs as housekeepers, tailors, and teachers. There were few such jobs available for women in India, although there were some teaching jobs. Mostly, though, women who worked had special skills, and even those jobs were limited mainly to Bombay and Calcutta. One woman, Lotte Eisenstaedt, worked for the Maharaja of Bikaner as a specialist on children’s welfare. Another woman set up a factory to manufacture bras. It employed many people.

None of this was easy. When the war started, the British shut down all German businesses, including large companies like Siemens, AGFA, Kores, Scholl, and IG Farben, which mainly employed Nazis. But after 1940, the British allowed legitimate refugees to restart their businesses.

Kindertransports to India

India also figured in two different Kindertransports. The Teheran Children was a group of about 1,000 Polish Jewish children, mainly orphans, who fled first to the Soviet Union and then were permitted to travel to Teheran, along with some 116,000 Christian Poles. From Teheran, they went by land to the Persian Gulf and thence to Karachi, Pakistan (which then was India) and on to the Egyptian city of Suez. The children then crossed the Sinai Desert by train and arrived at the Atlit refugee camp in northern Palestine in February 1943.

The second group of children, which again consisted mainly of Polish Christians, actually spent a fair amount of time in India. This group of about 1,000 children travelled overland in two convoys from the Soviet Union through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and thence to India proper.

Both these groups were expelled from the Soviet Union, and if it had not been for the Kindertransports, may have been shipped to Siberia, as were other Polish refugees to the Soviet Union, both Jews and non-Jews. These Polish children were welcomed in two different camps around October 1942. One was set up by the Maharaja Jam Saheb of Nawanagar at Balichadi, about 500 miles northwest of Bombay. The other, established by the Maharaja of Kolhapur, was at Valivade, about 240 miles southeast of Bombay. Dr. Anuradha Bhattacharjee told these children’s stories in “The Second Homeland: Polish Refugees in India,” published in 2012.

Twelve of the Balachadi contingent were Jewish children. The Jewish Agency ultimately brought them to Haifa; they arrived on April 24, 1943. Rabbi Elias Shor chaperoned them from Mumbai to Israel.

A June 27, 2012 JTA article reports a fascinating interview with Zygmunt Mandel, one of these 12 children. The Jewish Agency lists the names of the 11 other children: Edmund Erlich, Paula Gilert, Avraham Magnushever, Fima Kaufman, Cyla Rozengarten and the siblings Ilona and Janusz Goldlost, Roza and Rachel Hoch, and Eliza and Maria Spalter.

Who were the refugee Jews?

Among the Jews were some — mainly Austrians — who were famous in their own fields, or developed new areas of expertise in India.

Many of them were in the arts. Elise Braun worked on promoting the Montessori approach in music and Liesl Stary was a Viennese piano virtuoso. Walter Kaufmann was a composer, conductor, musicologist, and educator. Born in Karlsbad, Bohemia, he wrote books on the ragas of North India and of South India. Hilde Boman-Behram, née Holger, established the School of Art for Modern Movement in Fort, Bombay, and was an expressionist dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher. Rudolf von Leyden was a progressive art promoter, collector, and critic, and a member of the prestigious Lalit Kala Academy. He also organized exhibitions and published papers about ganjifa, a variety of Indian playing cards that has 96 cards in eight suits of 12 cards each. Sometimes the cards are made of precious materials, such as ivory, mother-of-pearl, or tortoise shell, sometimes they are encrusted with jewels, and sometimes they are painted exquisitely.

Art collector Rudolph von Leyden, center
Art collector Rudolph von Leyden, center. (Courtesy James von Leyden)

Kitty Shiva Rao, née Verständig, and Dr. Ernst Cohn-Wiener also were involved with the arts. She, along with noted Indian cultural activist Pupul Jayakar, launched a national program for handicrafts and handloom development in 1952 and was vice president of the “All India Handicrafts Board.” Ernst Cohn-Wiener, who taught art history in Berlin until the Nazis forced him out in 1933, first went to England and then to India, where the maharaja of Baroda appointed him the director of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery. He also was the maharaja’s personal art consultant from 1934 to1939.

Several of the Jewish refugees were architects. Viktor Lurje was a consulting architect of the maharaja of Jodhpur. Hans Glas, a Viennese architect, went to Calcutta in 1938 and was befriended by the dancer Hilde Holger. Otto Konigsberger, a nephew of the famous physicist Max Born, was appointed chief architect and planner to Mysore state in 1939. He designed Bangalore’s town hall and Bhubaneswar’s town plan, and he did some town planning for Jamshedpur, the brainchild of the industrialist J.R.D. Tata. After Indian independence he became director of housing for the Indian Ministry of Health from 1948 to 1951, working on resettling people displaced by partition.

Hilde Holger Boman-Behram, an Ashkenazi Jew, established a dance school in Bombay.
Hilde Holger Boman-Behram, an Ashkenazi Jew, established a dance school in Bombay. (Courtesy Primavera Boman-Behram)

Others were experts in the medical field. Richard Weingarten was the chief medical officer of the princely state of Bikaner. Drs. Fritz Donath, Josef Tauber, Max Scheck, and Alfred Hollositz worked with him. Dr. Georg Politzer, an Austrian Jew and a radiologist, helped Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala start an x-ray institute in his state.

Another interesting story is that of Alfred Schafranek and Alfred Wachsler, who both were expert in woodworking and in making plywood. They got visas with help from Kundan Lal Gupta of Ludhiana, a city in Punjab.

The story began when Kundah Lal went to Vienna for medical treatment and met Schafranek, who had a sawmill in Gedersdorf, Austria. By that time, though, the Nazis already had taken over Austria and begun what they called the Aryanization of Jewish property. Soon, they imprisoned Alfred and his son, Bruno.

Kundal Lal moved quickly and was able to procure visas not only for the Schafranek family but also for their friends, the Wachslers. If not for his help, they certainly would have perished in the Holocaust.

Schafranek, Wachsler, and their families joined Gupta in Ludhiana, and they helped him in his woodworking business. With Schafranek’s help, Gupta imported parts of a sawmill from Gedersdorf Ludhiana, Punjab.

This plaque honors Alfred Rosenfeld.
This plaque honors Alfred Rosenfeld. (Courtesy Margit Franz)

The final story is about Alfred Rosenfeld, who is commemorated with a memorial stone in the Chinchpokli Jewish cemetery in Mumbai. He had emigrated to India from Germany before the war and was already a British citizen when war broke out. He worked tirelessly to help new Jewish refugees. His son, Peter Roland, remembers that his father would ask Jewish refugees to be very circumspect and would recommend that they not speak any German. “It would be better to speak only English,” he would tell them, because many of the English people in India were not too happy at the arrival of Jewish refugees.

An article by a Walter Bergwerk in the May 2011 Journal of the Association of Jewish Refugees, which can be found online, recounts a seder for Jewish refugees in Bombay. Bergwerk is a Viennese Jew; he and his parents got to Bombay on August 24, 1939, nine days before war broke out. He wrote: “(t)here were several hundred German and Austrian Jews in India, many of whom had come some time earlier to fill senior medical, commercial or technical posts. Some of the established residents were quite prosperous and tried to help the more hard-pressed recent arrivals by forming the Jewish Relief Association.” Clearly all of these Jews must have stayed.

Bergwerk’s father organized the seder, but he notes that Rosenfeld must have been the moving spirit behind it. The local Baghdadi community seemed to have helped out a lot; the seder was held in a Baghdadi school and the bill for all of it, including the wine, was paid by Sir Victor Sassoon, a prominent Baghdadi Jew.

I asked Dr. Franz how she came to study German-speaking refugees in India. She started laughing, and explained that even though she had trained as a historian, she had done her Ph.D. on the consequences of the commercialization of the neem tree, which is native to India and is used as an ayurvedic herb, as well as consumed as a food. This took her to the United States and the Netherlands. Eventually she went to India, planning to study the biodiversity movement.

Once she was there, the Austrian ambassador showed her a sheaf of documents about German-speaking Jewish refugees in India and asked her to look into them. This was the beginning of her interest.

She has written a book called “Gateway India: German-Speaking Exile to India between British Colonial Rule, Maharajas and Gandhi.” The book is in German but it is being translated into English.

Dr. Franz feels there is still a lot of work to be done. Up to this point, she has simply followed the trail of individual Jewish refugees and tried to discover the circumstances of their stay in India. She thinks that what needs to be done next is to analyze the data, to see if there are any patterns, and to better understand the circumstances of the arrival of Jewish refugees in India, as well as their experiences there.

She also noted that although many of the refugees left India after the war, many others stayed. On the one hand, the British were not keen to have them stay. On the other, their home countries — Austria and Germany — did not want them back.

Many of the Jews who stayed married Indians. Their descendants are totally Indian today, and many of them would like to learn more about their roots. Some get in touch with Dr. Franz for help — she mentioned a woman in Baroda and a man who now lives in Canada but whose refugee mother stayed on in India. Dr. Franz also noted that Austria just now has elected a liberal president, Alexander van der Bellen, a member of the Green Party, and that Austrians are more open to come to terms with their troubling history.

But more than anything, Dr. Franz wants people to know about the role of India as a haven for refugees.

The story of Dilsher Virk

I met Dilsher Virk at the Shirei Hodu conference. With his light-colored eyes and imposing build, he cut a fine figure. Dr. Franz already had pointed him out to me as the descendant of one of the Jewish refugees, so I knew who he was. Still, when he told me his name, I was a bit taken aback. Dilsher is a typically Punjabi name and effectively means “Lion-Hearted.” A handsome, lion-hearted Jew with such a classic name!

Dilsher didn’t think his story would be interesting to American Jews since he was not a practicing member of the faith, but I assured him to the contrary. I got to talking with him and found out some details of his background. His mother, Hermine Speck (later known as Mady Martyn after her second marriage, which followed Dilsher’s father’s death) was born in Vienna in 1918. Her mother, Helene Reiner Speck, was Jewish; her father, Robert Speck, was Catholic. Hermine’s father died when she was 5, and her mother had to fend for herself and for her young daughter. She moved to the small mountain village of Hofgastein, south of Salzburg, where she ran a kurhaus — a spa house. Dilsher’s father, Sardar Bahadur Uttam Singh, came to visit Hofgastein, and Mady fell in love with this dashing Punjabi Indian engineer. She was barely 17; after she turned 17, she got grudging permission to marry him. In 1935, they moved to Dehradun in north India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Hermine’s mother, Helene, went to India with her daughter — they took a steamship through the Suez Canal — thinking that if things didn’t work out, they would go back to Austria. At that time, there was no immediate risk from the Nazis in their small village

But in 1938, Hermine’s brother, Robert, was arrested and sent to Dachau and then to Buchenwald, where he died in 1943, the year Dilsher was born. By then, there was no question of Helene returning to Austria.

Although Hermine was halachically Jewish, she was brought up in her father’s Catholic faith and never thought of herself as Jewish. She did not practice any Jewish customs. She was not, however, a strict Catholic, and in later life she had no aversion to going to a Hindu temple or a Sikh gurdwara. She spoke German and French — no Yiddish — but Dilsher remembers that the language at home was English. She did help Dilsher with his school German. He later on went to Vienna to work as an apprentice in diesel engine manufacture, where he learned spoken German.

Helene Speck, Dilsher’s maternal grandmother, split her time between her daughter’s home in India and the Reiner family in the United States. She died when Dilsher was 14. Dilsher went to school in Ajmer and Jaipur, then went to Dehradun to study at the Doon School, and then at Imperial College in London. He is now a software engineer in Canada, where he lives with his wife and children. They’re mostly agnostic.

The Story of
Priya Paul Singh

The story of Priya Paul Singh starts at the beginning of the twentieth century, when her grandmother, who came from a French Sephardic family, the Myers, had to flee anti-Semitism. The locals accused her family of practicing witchcraft. Somehow, Priya’s grandmother got separated from her family and had to hide in the sewers. Somehow, she found herself on a boat to Plymouth in England, and eventually she made her way by ship to Bombay, which she expected would be a safe haven.

On board that ship, she met an Anglo-Indian, Edward Martin, who operated a coal mine in Jharia, now in Jharkand State in North India. She married him, and thus became Mrs. Martin. In time, in 1916, Sheila Therese, Priya’s mother, was born to the Martins in Bengal. Sheila studied at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi and also served in the Indian Army’s medical corps before she met and married Balwant Singh Paul, a Sikh lawyer who had studied at Lincoln’s Inn in London.

Dr. Sheila Singh Paul went on to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in the U.K. and was a pioneer in pediatrics in India; in fact, she was the first women pediatrician there. She was founder and director of a large children’s hospital in New Delhi and also taught at Lady Hardinge Medical College. While she experienced no discrimination in India, she did have a harrowing experience during her travels in Europe.

She went to Edinburgh in 1943 to study medicine. While she was there, she decided that she would go to France to look for her parents’ family. She did find them, but she — and they — were caught and sent to a concentration camp. Fortunately for her, her British Indian passport saved her — but the rest of her family died. She never went back to Europe after that. Instead, she stayed and worked in India as an Indian, wearing a sari. She was proud to be an Indian.

Although Sheila grew up in an environment without any Jews, she considered herself fully Jewish and brought her daughter, Priya, up to be Jewish as well, teaching her to say Psalm 23 — The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. She also kept Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — in her own fashion, and tithed from her income as an expression of her Jewish faith. In fact, she gave her daughter Priya a Jewish name, Ruth, which she uses to this day, along with her more Indian name.

Priya studied communication in Delhi before she went on to make a name for herself in Indian television. In 2003 she wrote, directed, and produced a feature film, “The Perfect Husband,” which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Next, she embarked on a corporate career — and then, in 2008, she had a life-changing experience.

Priya and her son went to the Taj Coffee shop for their regular weekly outing. This was the day that the Taj was attacked by Pakistani terrorists, who simultaneously stormed the city’s Chabad House and killed more than 150 people in several attacks. Priya and her son remained hidden under a table in the dark for hours, until they were rescued. Since then, she has been involved in various human rights causes and other endeavors to counter terrorism.

As far as her Jewishness is concerned, Priya is part of the local Bnei Israel Jewish community. She goes regularly to the synagogue and commemorates all the Jewish festivals as well as the Sabbath. She has raised her son, Daivik, in the Jewish faith as well, and has given him a Jewish name, David, in addition to his Indian name. Though living in India, she and her son live a Jewish life, reading from the Psalms daily and keeping away from prohibited foods. As she says, “culturally we are Indian with Israel in our heart.”

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