It’s not often that we discover such strong historical and cultural links between three countries—India, Israel and Lithuania—peppered with some of the fascinating minds of the 20th century.
Last month, the embassies of Israel and Lithuania launched a new book by Israeli scholar Dr Shimon Lev called “From Lithuania to Santiniketan” detailing the fascinating life and times of a Lithuanian-born Jewish traveller Schlomith Frieda Flaum.
The book is reportedly divided into three parts—an introduction by Dr Lev, excerpts from Flaum’s original works about Tagore and India, which were translated into English from Hebrew, and copies of the letters Flaum and Tagore exchanged from 1922 to 1940.
Flaum was born in Lithuania on March 18, 1893. So what drove a young Jewish woman and teacher to the shores of India in the early 1920s? It was a chance encounter with one of India’s greatest literary figures Rabindranath Tagore, who was delivering a lecture at a Jewish synagogue in New York. Flaum was then an unmarried trainee doing a course for teachers at Columbia University. Fascinated by Tagore, she set sail for India in 1922.
Flaum spent two years at the Visva Bharati college founded just a few months before she arrived at Shantiniketan, the prestigious seat of learning founded by Tagore, teaching German to students while learning bits and pieces of Sanskrit and Bengali.
She left behind an account of Tagore, India and life in Europe for the Jewish community at a very difficult time in their history, offered with what many academics consider a femicentric view of the world at a time when such a worldview wasn’t widely accepted.
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According to academics who have studied her works what remains truly insightful is her memorable account of Tagore and Shantiniketan during the early days of Viswa Bharati where “you feel the heartbeat of Bengal, the land of poetry and imagination.”
She details of a time “when India was brimming with the ideas of transformation, and the West was rediscovering Asia with India at its navel,” according to this Lithuanian Embassy tribute to Flaum.
During her stay at this popular seat of learning, she also met other leaders of the freedom movement, including Mahatma Gandhi, Annie Beasant and Sarojini Naidu. Even after leaving India in 1924, she met Tagore again six years late in Berlin. In 1946, she wrote Tagore’s biography in Hebrew.
So enamoured was Flaum with Tagore’s intellectual and creative genius that she “reached the state of mind Indians describe as a state of permanent ecstasy.” Besides her extensive travels around the world, she was also pioneering new methods of teaching as an educator.
Flaum died in the Jewish homeland of Israel on January 2, 1963, poor, lonely, miserable and forgotten. But thankfully, her works live on across the decades.
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)