Shobha (or Fori, as she was known) Nehru spoke impeccable Hindi and wore her sari with the natural elegance of the high-born Kashmiri Pandit whom most assumed she was. But although Fori, who has died at the age of 108, became associated through marriage to India’s most influential political family, her roots were firmly European and Jewish.
For many years very few people even knew of the life she had left behind for the love of Braj Kumar (BK) Nehru. They had met in 1930 in England where she had been sent after university quotas were introduced for Jewish students in her native Hungary. Neither Fori’s nor BK’s family were keen on the match but in the end they both relented and agreed that she would spend a trial year in India before making any decision. In 1934, Fori boarded the Lloyd Triestino SS Victoria to India. One year later, she and BK Nehru married.
When she would eventually go back to Europe several years later, it was with a different name — Shobha — chosen for her by her in-laws (although the name Fori remained) and as a sari-wearing upper-class Indian woman.
Born Magdolna Friedmann into a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest, her father Armin ran a successful toy and furniture business and her mother Regina née Hirshfeld, was a member of the Bettelheim family, one of the very few Jewish families who had acquired the right to use the aristocratic prefix “von”. Although Armin attended synagogue, Magdolna “didn’t believe in all that stuff”.
The family had changed their name to the “less-Jewish-sounding” Forbath but, as antisemitic feelings grew, they were forced to change it back to Friedmann. By then, however, Magdolna had acquired the nickname “Fori”, which would stay with her for the rest of her life including in India.
Even before Fori was sent abroad at the age of 20 to continue her studies, as a child she had already caught a glimpse of the horrors to come. On a train journey to the family summer house on Lake Balaton, she recalled her shock at seeing “people hanging from trees”.
Far worse was to come but her family managed to survive the Holocaust. Her father was saved by his German housekeeper; her brother, an officer in the Hungarian army, was hidden by a fellow officer and then swam to safety across the Danube; while her mother managed to escape to India.
Fori may have been safe in India but adjusting to her new life was not easy. She had to undergo a crash course to learn to “behave like a Nehru” and she was told to “keep a stiff upper lip”.
She would soon need it, as the tragedy of Partition was about to unfold. As a member of the Emergency Committee, Fori was tasked with arranging trains to take Muslims from Northern India to Pakistan. Once, after discovering that all the passengers on a train she had just sent had been slaughtered in the Punjab, she was so shaken that she didn’t send another train for a week.
Mahatma Gandhi was a great friend of the Nehru family and became a great inspiration to her. While looking for ways to put into practice his principles, she realised that India’s rich and varied handicraft sector could be channelled to create employment for many displaced people, especially Punjabi women. What started as a refugee women’s welfare organisation in Delhi became the Central Cottage Industries Emporium and would lead to the All India Handicraft Board being set up.
Fori’s charm and keen interest in foreign affairs became useful in her role as a diplomat’s wife — BK was India’s ambassador to the US from 1958 to 1968 — but she also had a fearless side. Fori was the only person who dared confront Indira Gandhi — who didn’t take criticism kindly — about the injustice of some of her policies, such as forced male sterilisation.
Her identification with her adopted country was such that, when she asked historian Martin Gilbert — a university friend of her son Ashok — to suggest reading material on Jewish history, he was stunned to discover that the woman he had believed for years to be Indian was in fact a Hungarian Jew. Gilbert’s response was to write Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5,000-Year History of the Jewish People and Their Faith in 2002.
Fori’s son Ashok recalled returning to Hungary with her in 1949. His mother, he remembered, would go out every day to see old friends and invariably come back in tears for those who had disappeared, or had been raped or killed.
Which is why over the years at official receptions she went to great lengths to avoid shaking hands with the German ambassador. “I wasn’t there. I was safe,” she would tell Gilbert years later. “That guilty feeling is still with me.”
BK Nehru died in 2001. Fori is survived by her three sons, Ashok, Aditya and Anil; four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Shobha (Fori) Magdolna Friedmann Nehru, born December 5, 1908. Died April 25, 2017