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Jewish member of India’s Nehru dynasty dies at 108

Fleeing anti-Semitism in Hungary, Shobha Nehru, nee Magdolna Friedmann, wound up marrying into the family of India’s first PM

Shobha Nehru. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Shobha Nehru. (Screen capture: YouTube)

A Jewish-Hungarian woman who escaped European anti-Semitism and married into India’s most prominent political dynasty died last week at age 108.

Shobha Nehru, born Magdolna Friedmann in 1908, originally hailed from a family of wealthy assimilated Jews in Budapest, before moving to India after marrying BK Nehru, a cousin of Indian independence movement leader and the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, placing her at the center of politics on the subcontinent.

She died of age-related complications, her family said, according to local press in India.

Shobha Nehru met her husband at the London School of Economics, where she was sent at age 20 as anti-Semitism began to gain ground in Hungary leading to the introduction of quotas for Jews in Hungarian universities, according to The New York Times.

Despite the misgivings of both families, the two eventually married, and Nehru left her family in Hungary to move to India.

As the Holocaust broke out, many of her family and friends managed to narrowly escape, while Nehru herself remained in India dealing with the chaotic and violent ethnic partition taking place between what would go onto become India and Pakistan.

In 1949, Nehru returned to Hungary in order to visit Budapest with her three sons.

“She used to go out every day, to meet her friends,” The New York Times quoted her son Ashok as saying.

“Many of them had disappeared. Many had been raped by the Russians or killed by the Germans. They were harrowing tales. I remember her coming back crying,” he added.

While she would remain in India for the rest of her life, Nehru also lived for a brief stint in the United States, as her husband served as the Indian ambassador to the US from 1961 to 1968.

A dinner at the Indian Embassy in Washington DC. (L-R): Shobha Nehru; Indira Gandhi; US president Kennedy; first lady Jacqueline Kennedy; Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru; Rose Kennedy; and Indian ambassador BK Nehru. (Public domain, White House, Wikimedia Commons)
A dinner at the Indian Embassy in Washington DC. (L-R): Shobha Nehru; Indira Gandhi; US president Kennedy; first lady Jacqueline Kennedy; Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru; Rose Kennedy; and Indian ambassador BK Nehru. (Public domain, White House, Wikimedia Commons)

The late British historian Martin Gilbert recalled that he was surprised when Nehru, who he always assumed to be Indian, asked him to recommend some reading on the history of the Jews, until she told him of her childhood in Hungary.

Even though she moved away from Budapest at an early age, Nehru maintained her attachment to Hungarian Jewry. At diplomatic events, she told Gilbert, she would not shake the German ambassador’s hand.

“I have a feeling of guilt,” The New York Times quoted her as saying. “I wasn’t there. I was safe. The guilt feeling is still with me. Why should I not have suffered?”

In addition to Jawaharlal Nehru, Shobha Nehru was also related to the longtime former Indian prime minister Indira Ghandi by marriage, and was the aunt of Rahul Ghandi, who is viewed as the heir apparent to the Nehru-dominated Congress party, which ruled India for much of its history.

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