The life of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and member of the Nazi Party who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories, was immortalised in the Steven Spielberg 1993 epic historical drama called the Schindler’s List. (Above image of Princess Catherine Duleep Singh and Jewish family courtesy Peter Bance/Instagram/V&A Musuem)
While there were others like Oskar Schindler, who saved members of the Jewish community from the horrors of the Holocaust, one personality who is often forgotten is Princess Catherine Duleep Singh, the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh and his first wife, Bamba Müller.
Considered the ‘Indian Schindler’, Catherine saved many Jewish families from the clutches of Nazi Germany by paving their way for a safe journey to England in secrecy, giving them funds and even housing them at her property in Buckhingamshire during the course of World War II.
An icon of the LGBTQ movement and a strong proponent of the Suffrage Movement in the United Kingdom, Catherine lived a remarkable life, which not many know about.
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The youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Maharaja Duleep Singh was only five years old when he ascended the throne to the Sikh Empire in 1843.
Successive defeats in the Anglo-Sikh Wars, however, allowed the British East India Company to annex the Sikh Empire and depose the young Maharaja, who was barely 10 years old at the time. Cutting him off from his former subjects to prevent any sort of chance of a rally of support to reinstate him, the British put him into the care of surgeon Dr John Login in Fatehgarh.
As a matter of British policy, he was to be culturally anglicised, and grew up living and learning under missionaries. By March 1854, he was exiled to the United Kingdom.
During his time in England, Duleep Singh, who was allowed to keep the honorific ‘Maharaja’, grew close to Queen Victoria. In fact, such was Queen Victoria’s fondness of Maharaja Duleep Singh that she became godmother to his children.
Catherine was born on 27 October 1871 in Knightsbridge, London, and was the second daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Emperor of the Sikh Empire, and his first wife, Bamba Müller.
But the Maharaja faced difficulty in returning to India. While he was attempting to go back, his daughters Sophia, Catherine, Bamba, were given accommodation in Faraday House, Hampton Court Palace, by Queen Victoria.
Maharaja Duleep Singh eventually passed away in 1893 at the age of 55 in Paris, seven years after his last attempt at visiting Punjab failed.
Following his death, Queen Victoria put Catherine and her two sisters under the care of Arthur Oliphant, whose father was Duleep Singh’s equerry, and his wife. It was under their care, when Catherine first met her governess, Fraulein Lina Schäfer from Kassel, Germany, who was 12 years her senior, marking the start of a special and intimate relationship. In 1890, Catherine attended Somerville Hall, Oxford, and about five years later, was introduced to British high society at Queen Victoria’s debutante ball, alongside her sisters, Sophia and Bamba.
Right to Vote For Women & Germany
Her sister Sophia is recognised as a more active member of the Suffrage movement in the United Kingdom, which campaigned for the right to vote for women among other issues, alongside the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst as members of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Catherine also played an influential role in the movement as a member of the Fawcett Women’s Suffrage Group and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
She used her status in British high society to raise funds for the Suffragists.
At the opening of one of her campaigns in 1912, she said, “At this critical stage of our cause, no effort and no sacrifice can be too great. We want all your help, [if we] are going to win our cause during this present session.” In 1928 all British women over the age of 21 were granted the right to vote.
In 1908, Catherine and Lina Schäfer moved to Germany to live together, although Sophia described their relationship as “intimate”. From the start of World War 1 through to the 1920s and ‘30s, the couple lived in Munich and Kassel with Lina describing their relationship akin to “two little mice living in a little house”.
The couple often spent their days taking long walks, gardening and cooking, and Catherine wrote to Sophia describing how she was “having a very good time of it” and enjoying herself “thoroughly”.
However, as the 1930s approached, and the Nazis began seizing control of Germany, things began to get difficult for the couple neighbours talking about how the “local Nazis disapproved of the old Indian lady”. Despite the risks, she continued to live with Lina, and even helped Jewish families escape until the latter died in August 1937 at the age of 79.
With Nazism taking total control of German politics and society, and the looming threat of war, Catherine felt she had no longer any reason to live in Germany after Lina passed away.
Her neighbour and accountant, Dr Fritiz Ratig, is believed to have warned her to leave Germany given how the Nazis publicly condemned homosexuality. By November 1937, she had sold off everything and fled to England via Switzerland. Before leaving, however, she did help a couple of German Jewish families find safe passage to England.
Much credit for discovering Catherine’s remarkable work in saving Jews from the clutches of the Nazis goes to author, historian, art collector Peter Bance, who personally tracked down and interviewed many of the families whose lives were saved and their descendents around the world. His recollections of Catherine’s critical contributions found their way in his book titled, ‘Sovereign, Squire and Rebel: Maharajah Duleep Singh and the Heirs of a Lost Kingdom’.
“One such family [saved from the Nazis] was the Hornstein Family, formerly of Kassel in Germany who were saved from the clutches of Gestapo Chief SS Reinhard Heydrich and brought to England by the Princess [Catherine] in 1939,” writes Bance in an Instagram Post.
As the Essex Cultural Diversity Project notes in their description of Catherine’s efforts:
Before Catherine left Germany she helped several Jewish families escape from the Nazi Holocaust. In 1938, Catherine’s friend Dr Hornstein was arrested and interned at Oranienburg concentration camp near Berlin. Catherine acted as the Hornstein family’s guarantor and helped secure his release. Hornstein had been arrested after ‘Kristallnacht’ (Night of Broken Glass), when Nazis attacked Jewish homes, schools and businesses as part of a ruthless, violent state-sanctioned pogrom. Catherine also helped violinist Alexander Polnarioff and the Meyerstein family escape from the threat of death in a German concentration camp. The families came to stay with Catherine at her home near her sister Sophia at Coalhatch House, Penn, Buckinghamshire.
Even after World War II commenced, Catherine took in a series of German-Jewish refugees until her demise in 1942.
As Bance notes in this podcast with Rambling Singh earlier this month, “At one point, there were so many Jewish Germans living at her house in Buckinghamshire that the local people in her village were getting a bit scared asking where all these Germans were coming from because England was at war.”
Besides Jewish refugees, Catherine also gave shelter to children evacuated from London, which had come under heavy bombing from the German Luftwaffe. Among these children were Shirley Phinster and her two brothers from the London Borough of Ealing. The only condition Catherine placed for taking in evacuees was that they should be accompanied by an adult. Shirley’s mother, a school teacher, accompanied students from her school, which included her own children. All of them were given space to live in Penn village, Buckinghamshire.
In her conversations with Bance, the late Shirely spoke of the time they spent with Catherine and how it was full of happiness and exuberance. The evacuee even recalls a Jewish violinist saved from Nazi Germany who “would entertain the school children on my birthday and played the violin for the Princess [Catherine] every evening at dinner”.
Sadly, on 8 November 1942, Catherine died following a heart attack. She was largely forgotten following her death until July 1997, when Swiss banks published a long list of 5,000 unclaimed accounts since the end of World War II, which largely belonged to victims of the Holocaust.
These included an a vault last operated in the 1930s at the UBS AG bank in Berne and a joint account belonging to Catherine Duleep Singh and Lina Schaefer, according to this 2001 India Today report. A tribunal eventually declared that Catherine’s estate amounting to £100,000 should go to the family of Karim Baksh Supra from Pakistan, who worked for Princess Bamba Sophia Jindan Sutherland, the eldest sister. None of the sisters had children.
Having said that, the legacy Catherine leaves behind is outstanding, for she ensured that future generations of Jewish families continued to flourish long after the Nazis were defeated.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)