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by Anita Kashyap
There are people whose existence one takes so much for granted, who — even if one does not see them very often — become so much a part of one’s own life, that one just cannot imagine that one day they will be no more.
Gerda Philipsborn was one of them and the news of her death has come as a great shock to her many friends. Those of us who used to see her, whenever opportunity brought us to Delhi, will find it difficult to believe that we will not be able to call on her at any odd time at her little house in Karol Bagh.
Her life is like a strange story and one can only wish that someone gifted with narrative powers will write the story of her life and describe its beauty and its richness.
She was born as the child of a rich and well-known Jewish family in Berlin and was brought up in comfort and luxury, apparently destined to become a society girl, make a suitable marriage and lead the life of a great lady.
Pictures of her as a young girl show her as an outstanding beauty. She disappointed her parents by not following their wishes but by starting a musical career. She had a lovely voice, studied music under the guidance of the great conductor Bruno Walter. She became a first class opera singer and sang classical parts at different places in Germany, like Munich, Rostock and others. She had great success. Again a life of brilliance and worldly comfort — though different from what her parents had planned for her — lay before her.
Again she felt that this was not what she was meant for. Her generous nature, her great heart, could not find any lasting satisfaction in a life which centered around herself.
It was the friendship with Heinrich [sic] Lehmann, the well-known Zionist, which showed her the right way in which her true nature could live to its fullest.
In the years after the last war thousands of Jewish Refugees from Eastern Europe had come to Germany, particularly to Berlin where they were living in deplorable conditions. With H. Lehmann and others Gerda organized the VOLKSHEIM in Berlin where the poor Jews found not only shelter and food but a cultural centre and a real home.
H. Lehmann was one of the founders of Ben Shemen, the children’s town in Palestine. It was Gerda Philipsborn who went twice to England to collect money for Ben Shemen among the wealthy and aristocratic circles with whom she was connected (she was related to Lady Irving [sic]) and whom she never in her life approached for herself but only for others.
For several years she lived a life devoted to social service among the poorest of the Jews in Berlin. How and why she came to India and did not go to Palestine as her friends hoped she would, cannot be related here in detail. Suffice it to say that she had always been interested in India, especially in the educational problems of this country and that she felt that she was needed here more than among her own people in Palestine where others could take her place. Once she had made up her mind about going to India she learnt to speak Hindustani fluently and write Urdu and took her training as a Kindergarten teacher. In 1932 she came out to India and has never left this country again.
On her way here she spent several weeks in Palestine with her friends and had the great satisfaction of seeing among the happy and healthy children in Ben Shemen many of those who had been miserable little refugees in the Volksheim in Berlin.
Her unfaltering energy and devotion to the Jewish cause had achieved something though probably in her great modesty she scarcely acknowledged the important role she had played in this achievement.
In India she joined the staff of the Jamia Millia Islamia, the Muslim national college in Delhi, whose principal and several staff members she had met in Europe as students.
Though formally engaged as Kindergarten teacher and in charge of the hostel for the smaller boys she did any work which was required of her.
With great idealism and complete self sacrifice she devoted herself to her tasks. She lived in the same style as the other teachers, in a hot and dusty street in Delhi without any comfort, on a salary which for any other European woman of her upbringing would not have been sufficient as a small pocket money. She refused any assistance from her relatives in Europe and from her friends in India. She insisted on being poor because she thought that only by not living an iota better than any of the Indian staff members could she become really one of them and not be regarded as a European outsider and a Memsahib. She certainly succeeded in winning the complete trust and confidence of everybody in the school from the Principal to the smallest boy, but she ultimately paid with her life for the deprivations she forced upon herself.
It is impossible to describe the complete self-disregard with which she devoted herself to the cause of the school. Again one must hope that somebody will describe her life in Delhi for almost twelve [sic] years. How she travelled always 3rd class the length and breadth of India to collect money for the school. How for weeks she nursed a typhoid child in her own bedroom. How in all these years she never left the sweltering heat of the plains during summer and refused to go to the hills because even in the holidays there was always urgent work for her to do. How when the first signs of her illness appeared in the year before the war, she refused to go to Europe because she just could not leave the school. And how she was always ready to help others, never thinking of herself.
When I once asked her if she did not find it sometimes hard to live almost entirely without money and in such dreary poverty she replied: Yes, I find it hard whenever I have got guests whom I cannot entertain as I would like and whenever I want to make people some presents which I cannot afford.
It was a great joy for her when after years of hard struggle the college could build new spacious buildings in Okhla near Delhi.
Again like in Ben Shemen she could see the result of her efforts and again it is doubtful if she realised that the Jamia Millia Islamia would not have become what it is today if it were not for her almost fanatical devotion.
A great happiness shone in her eyes when I saw her last in Okhla surrounded by a crowd of little boys who could now live in happy, healthy surroundings and who all demanded her attention with shrieks and shouts of Bari Bhaen.
She was a Bari Bhaen, a Big Sister, to all of them as she had been to the Jewish children in Berlin and Ben Shemen.
She is buried in Okhla near her beloved school. There will be many people in different parts of the world to mourn her loss, in England, in America, in Palestine and in India.
There will be many whose life has become poorer by the realisation that a great heart has ceased to beat and the most perfect friend has gone for ever.