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Shobha Nehru, the Life of a Hungarian in India

zita kisgergely

It sometimes happens that we stumble across a life so dramatic that it seems worthy of film itself. Such is the case with Shobha Magdolna Friedmann Nehru, a Hungarian Jew who escaped Hungary before the Holocaust, married into one of India’s most prominent political families, was active in social causes, and lived well past 100.

‘Fora’ as she was known, was born on Dec. 5, 1908, into a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family that had changed its name from Friedmann to Forbath in order to better assimilate into Budapest society. Anti-semitic laws later forced the family to change it back, as they witnessed pogroms aimed at killing Jews and discouraging the rising wave of Communism. In Nehru’s childhood days, the otherwise scenic route to Lake Balaton became littered with hanged bodies.

Unable to enter a Hungarian university as a Jew, she went abroad to the London School of Economics, where she met her future husband, fellow student B. K. Nehru. Despite misgivings from both families, they married and moved to India. Not long after, her own family was forced to give up the family home, separate, and scatter in many directions in order to escape the Germans.

Not much of her childhood identity remained after she moved to India but for her nickname “Fora.” She was a woman who was able to take on the roll of Indian wife and matriarch, assimilating into new new family and Indian culture almost completely.

In India, Nehru became a mother and a quiet humanitarian. She was befriended by Indira Ghandi, who was in fact her second cousin. Nehru rose to the occasion when she thought human rights were being rolled back under Ghandi’s reign as Prime Minister. She pressed the leader to reverse a policy of sterilization that was being imposed on local men.

She later played a part in helping Hindu refugees who were fleeing the partition of Pakistan, opening crafts shops that sold the wares of refugee women. The idea was replicated across India as the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, and survives today.

It was not until 1949, after the World War II ended, that she returned to Hungary, with her three children in tow. There she reacquainted herself with the city, only to hear tales of death and destruction.

Later in life, as the wife of a high-level dignitary, Mrs. Nehru moved from Washington, to the northeastern state of Assam. From there they moved to London. Testimony indicates thatthoughts of Hungary’s Jews remained with her throughout her life. It was reported that at official receptions, she refused to shake hands with the German ambassador.

Shobha Magdolna Friedmann Nehru died earlier this week at age 108. She was a rare bridge between the disparate cultures of Hungary and India, and a rare person.

Source: the New York Times