Jewish refugees' passage to India

Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945
March 3, 2000

This is an important book because it puts India on the map of a sad bit of history. The story of Jewish exile in America and England, and even in other parts of Europe, is well known, but India's role as a shelter from the terror is not. The number was not large, only 1,000, and official policy was not at all free from problems and obstacles. The British government in India was generally suspicious, and the Indian Congress leadership generally indifferent to the tragedy. Nevertheless, it is good to know that a few of the Jews who escaped mass murder by fleeing their countries came to India.

Research on Jewish emigration to India began in Germany with the publication of the 1991 yearbook of Stuttgart University, Wechselwirkungen . This collection of essays edited by Anil Bhatti and Johannes Voigt takes that research further.

Their book is divided into three parts. Essays in the first part by Joachim Oesterheld, Majid Siddiqi and T. R. Sareen discuss government policy towards Jewish immigration; the responses of Gandhi and Nehru; the stance of the Muslim lobby; and the complicated question of identity in the context of those coming as refugees during 1934 to 1945. There is also Shalva Weil's scholarly essay on a much older Jewish emigration to India, from the 18th century, showing how these older Jewish communities became hosts to the Central European Jewish refugees in India of the 1930s and 1940s.

The second part focuses on individual Jewish emigres to India. There are colourful essays on Walter Kaufmann by Agata Schindler, on Willy Haas by Bhatti, on Alex Aronson by Martin Kämpchen, and on Margarete Spiegel by Voigt. These three men and one woman of German origin are part of our young memories. Aronson stayed several years in Tagore's Shantiniketan, and Spiegel was in Gandhi's ashrams for one and a half years. Kaufmann lived for 12 years in Bombay working with the music department of All India Radio. He brought Haas to India as a screenwriter for Bombay film productions.

The last section, "Receptions and reflections", makes an interesting attempt to analyse the relationship between history, creative writing and contemporary society with regard to Jewish exile in India, as seen in Anita Desai's novel Baumgartner's Bombay , and the Marathi writer Vishram Bedekar's prose narrative, Ranangan .

Jewish Exile in India should be well received by both specialists and general readers, given the subject's vitality internationally. One hopes it will also lead to further, varied research on the Holocaust.

Uma Das Gupta is professor, Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta.

Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945

Editor - Anil Bhatti and Johannes H. Voigt
ISBN - 81 7304 237 3
Publisher - Manohar, New Delhi
Price - Rs300
Pages - 195

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