The Hungarian Jewish girl who became Indian almost-royalty

The Hungarian Jewish girl who became Indian almost-royalty

Our correspondent tells the remarkable story of Shobha Nehru

Shobha Nehru was born as Magdolna Friedmann; in Budapest, her nickname was Fori. She died in India, where she had lived for most of her life, at 108. (YouTube)
Shobha Nehru was born as Magdolna Friedmann; in Budapest, her nickname was Fori. She died in India, where she had lived for most of her life, at 108. (YouTube)

On the warm morning of May 21, 2017, my friend Bindu Bhamba took me to visit Anil Nehru in a spacious, modern, sun-filled bungalow in a quiet neighborhood of Chandigarh.

Anil’s mother, Shobha Nehru, aka Fori, the little-known 108-year old Hungarian Jewish woman who had married into the legendary Nehru family, had just died on April 25. I had recently read about her death in the New York Times. This was soon after I wrote an article on Ashkenazi World War II refugees in India.

I was intrigued to learn that her youngest son, Anil, lived in Chandigarh, where serendipitously I happened to be visiting a friend.

I was born not long after India’s independence, so the India of my early years was full of the larger-than-life Jawaharlal Nehru, our first prime minister. The Nehru family, consisting of famous statesmen and writers such as Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Nayantara Sehgal and many others, captivated India’s attention for many decades. I could not pass by the opportunity to make contact with that almost mythological family.

When we knocked at the Nehru residence, we were expected; Anil himself opened the door and invited us in. Anil and his wife, Chand, also of Kashmiri heritage, soon put me at my ease. Over a cup of spicy masala chai, they answered my questions frankly and without reservation. Although I was out looking for a Jewish story, it was quite clear that this was an Indian story.

From time immemorial, India has been visited and even invaded by different groups of people — Greeks, Mongols, Jews, Armenians, Persians — most of whom stayed and became part of the culture of Bharatvarsha — ancient India. Anil’s mother was such a one; she had come to India as a Hungarian Jew and soon became indistinguishably Indian, always dressed in a sari and passing as another fair-skinned Kashmiri in a family of Kashmiri Pandits. I suppose I was hardly the first interviewer who mistakenly sought to find out more about the Jewish Nehru, the refugee from Hitler’s Holocaust.

But though Anil noted that “there was very little Jewish” about his mother, he was more than willing to respond to my queries. The story that he told, supplemented by information provided by his brother Ashok, was indeed fascinating; and for all that Shobha Nehru had become undeniably and completely Indian, there was still enough of the Jewish Fori about her to interest the diligent inquirer.

Fori was born Magdolna Friedmann to Regina and Armin Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary, on December 5, 1908. The family name had been changed several times, from the original Forman to Friedmann and later, after anti-Semitic feelings increased, to a more Hungarian Forbath. The family, however, did not hide its Jewishness, although there was not much Jewish practice in the home, particularly among the younger members. Fori’s father, Armin Friedmann, did go to the synagogue on the High Holidays, but Anil said his mother told him that Armin’s two daughters, “who also didn’t believe in all this religious stuff, used to stand outside the synagogue, stamping our feet in the cold.”

According to an article published online by the GandhiServe Foundation, Fori’s parents had a family business in toys and furniture. The Jewish quotas imposed by Hungary’s universities meant that Fori could not continue her studies at home. Her parents sent her to France in 1932, when she was 24 years old, and then she went to Oxford for further education. She was studying English when she first met her husband-to-be, BK (Braj Kumar), at a dance at the London School of Economics, where he was studying. She had already seen him in the school library and had asked a friend about the “good-looking guy” in the corner.

BK and Fori fell in love and decided to get married — but BK’s family had two conditions that had to be met before they would allow the match. It was not that they were against their son marrying a European Jew — but they wanted to be sure that Fori knew what she was getting into and that BK would be able to provide for her.

The conditions were that BK had to pass his Indian Civil Service exams and that Fori had to live in India for a year without BK to see if she could manage to live in such a different environment, and if she could be happy there. The Nehru family did all they could to welcome her when she moved to India in 1934 for that trial year. Anil Nehru reports that his mother recalled that she was “overwhelmed by the love that I received.”

“The family enveloped me in love,” she told her son. “They dealt with me very gently and magnanimously.” Fori stayed with her fiancé’s family in Lahore, Allahabad, Kashmir — as the family moved around the country, she moved with them. During this time, BK’s father taught her Hindi, which she mastered; she’d already learned some written and spoken Hindi from a Hungarian scholar back in Budapest. Learning the language helped her to get used to her new surroundings. She also studied the Bhagavad Gita and learned yoga; she later would say that her hair remained black for a long time because of her yoga.

Anil and Chand Nehru talked about Anil’s mother, Fori Nehru. (Meylekh Viswanath)

Once BK had completed his exams and Fori had finished her “internship,” they were ready to be married — but there was another obstacle to be overcome first. The Nehrus wanted a Hindu wedding, but the priests would not agree to perform a religious ceremony. The Nehrus were Kashmiri Brahmins, but the bride was not a high-caste Hindu. The approval of Mahatma Gandhi, however, tipped the balance, and couple finally were married in Lahore in 1935, according to Hindu rites.

Gandhi’s approval was remarkable. Later, when another Nehru — Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who later became Indian’s prime minister — wanted to marry another non-Hindu, Feroze Gandhi, a Zoroastrian (and no relation to the Mahatma), he would not give his consent. To be fair, though, it is not clear what made the Fori-Nehru alliance more acceptable in Gandhi’s eyes. It may well have been that Fori was relatively quiet, and Feroze was a political firebrand.

In contrast to Feroze Gandhi, who remained a Zoroastrian, Fori made every effort to fit in. Her marriage ceremony was Hindu, and her three children — Ashok, Aditya, and Anil — were brought up as Hindus, not as half-Hungarian-Jewish kids, as Fori’s oldest son, Ashok, puts it. The Nehrus were not big on ritual, though, and as Ashok recalls, “the family celebrated Hindu festivals but we never went to temples to worship. We kids learned about the epics and traditional values through our Gandhian grandmother’s telling us one story each night from the life of Krishna, and then the Ramayan and Mahabharat. This continued from the time that our grandparents had to migrate from Lahore to Delhi after Partition in 1947 until 1949, when Pa was deputed to the U.S. the first time.”

Almost from the beginning, Fori always wore a sari. An exception to that rule was when she wore a lotha — a tribal Naga skirt. That was when BK was governor of five separate north eastern Indian states —Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, and Nagaland.

Fori probably was more of a practicing Hindu than her husband and sons. Ashok said, “In our immediate family, my father was an atheist, we three sons were non-temple-going Hindus — we can do that in the Hindu way of life, there’s no compulsion — and my mother was perhaps the only practicing Hindu, praying in the morning and at night to the beautiful dancing bronze Ganesh at my brother Anil’s home in Chandigarh.” She also visited the temple at Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, with its central image of Vishnu (Balaji), perhaps four times, and had a photo of the Balaji image along with several small images of Ganesh in a small puja shrine at her home in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh.

Although Fori was Hindu, that didn’t mean that her kids had no exposure to Jewish practices. Fori’s mother, Regina, followed her daughter to India and lived with her in the late 1930s. Though technically an enemy alien during the war, Regina was never interned, as were many of her fellow Jews of German origin, because the Nehrus vouched for her. She spent the war years in India, then went to the United States and finally joined her son in Australia, living there until she died. But while she was in India, staying with her daughter’s family, her grandson Anil remembers that she used to light Shabbat candles and talk to them about “Jewish things.” Ashok remembers snippets of a Hungarian nursery rhyme, but comments that “the words probably wouldn’t make sense to a Hungarian!”

Shobha Nehru did not forget that she also was Fori. And even if she didn’t speak much of her European experiences, neither did she shut them out. Anil recalls an anecdote that his mother recounted that happened during World War I, when she was barely six year old. The family was taking a train on holiday in northern Italy, when her father got off at a station and came back with the news that the Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated and that he thought it would lead to a world war. Fori also talked about growing up in Budapest and going to school with her friends. She would also go ice skating on Lake Balaton, where the family had a holiday home. Lake Balaton was a resort about 85 miles southwest of Budapest, popular among both the Hungarian aristocracy, and middle classes. Fori’s family was relatively well-off — they had a house on Varsányi Irén utca and she and her sister used to go around the city in a horse carriage — although later her father lost much of his wealth in the financial crash of 1928. Fori remembered being given “hot toast with butter and grated garlic” to ward off the cold, after coming home from a morning of ice-skating.

She remembered her childhood as a happy time,

Although neither Fori nor her mother, safely in India, were directly affected by the Second World War, other members of her family were not so fortunate, though most survived.

Her father was lucky. He remained in Hungary throughout the war; a fierce German housekeeper took care of him and would not allow anybody to come into the house to ask any questions. He felt secure enough to go out of the house to have a shave every day. Fori’s uncle Joszef, her mother’s brother, also survived the Nazis. He was a good bridge player, and a Hungarian commandant who played with him kept him alive during the war. After the war Joszef stayed on, but he left before the Communists came into power. Fori’s sister and her husband moved to Australia. Another cousin escaped the communists by jumping into the Danube and feigning death.

After the war, Fori went back to Hungary for a couple of visits. In 1949, on the way to Washington, where BK had been posted to the Indian Embassy, she took her three sons to meet their grandfather and stayed in Budapest for a couple of months. She would go to catch up with old friends each evening and often would return in tears. So many of them had disappeared during the war or had suffered from the German occupation and later from the Russian invasion.

Fori also revisited Budapest in the early 1960s, going again to see her father, and once again, much later, went back with her husband. She never forgot her native Hungarian — she also spoke French, Italian, and German, and of course English — but she never learned Yiddish.

Fori was a remarkable woman, who completely remade herself as an Indian while never forgetting her Jewish past. In fact, late in her life, when she met the British Jewish historian Martin Gilbert, a classmate of her son’s, she asked him for reading material on the history of the Jews. She felt her ignorance of that subject keenly. In response, Gilbert wrote a book, “Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5,000-Year History of the Jewish People and Their Faith,” published in 2002, based on his correspondence with her.

Being Jewish is, first and foremost, being a part of the Jewish people, and Fori felt this kinship until the end. As she told Martin Gilbert, “I have a feeling of guilt. I wasn’t there. I was safe. The guilt feeling is still with me. Why should I not have suffered?”

Dr. Meylekh (P.V.) Viswanath of Teaneck teaches finance at Pace University.

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