Escaping the Holocaust, many Jews found refuge in India. Margot Cohen tells the story of one couple who remade their lives in a gentle, generous Bangalore
She was a nightclub diva, who stepped out with a live python curled around her shoulders. He was a popcorn king, whose entrepreneurial spirit was complemented by his regard for maize farmers in fields.
They made a striking pair, lighting up cosmopolitan Bangalore in the 1960s and 70s. Tatiana Chinnove (as she is named in British colonial records) fled the convulsive Soviet Union of the 1930s, leaving behind an anguished love life and a stint in a Siberian labour camp. Gerhart Martin Jacoby escaped Mussolini’s Italy and the death trap of Nazi Germany. The young man told his family that he was on his way to Australia, but he got off the ship in Bombay and never returned to the gangplank.
In 1940, they met—improbably—in a British-run parole camp in Purandhar, Maharashtra. Unlike most other wartime exiles, they didn’t treat India as a mere transit point. Their new friends in Bangalore called them Tania and Jackie, and learned not to ask intrusive questions about the past. They are long dead now, and the gracious bungalow where they lived and worked has been replaced by a bland glass-panelled office building. Outside of Bangalore, few people have heard of them.
But what remarkable lives they led. Jackie introduced popcorn to India in the late 1950s, filling a briefcase full of popcorn maize and pitching it to Karnataka farmers as a way to stabilise their income. He also sold popcorn machines all over India, while Tania experimented with different toppings to add a spicy tang. Single-screen theatres became stalwart customers of the red-and-silver machines dispatched from Bangalore.
Four decades later came the advent of large-scale industrial farming of popcorn maize in South America. Popcorn from Argentina and Brazil has propelled the rapid spread of upscale multiplex cinemas across India since 2004. Ticket sales didn’t bring in much money, but popcorn did. Indian multiplexes currently make about 70 per cent of their profits from popcorn and soft drinks. The clients prefer the imported varieties, which leave far fewer unpopped kernels in the dregs. Never mind that Indian-grown popcorn maintains its crunch for much longer.
“The popcorn you find for sale today is rubbish,” bristles Ingrid Everall, Tania and Jackie’s daughter, who once appeared at an Indian maize festival with a silver crown and popcorn kernels swinging from her earlobes. Named after her father’s favourite actress, Ingrid Bergman, she turns up her nose at the latest “gourmet” popcorn. Ingrid appeared as an extra in David Lean’s A Passage to India, even marrying a man who helped build the sets. A few of the scenes in the film were shot in the genteel Bangalore Club, where Jackie spent countless hours playing bridge. His and Tania’s story might have made a more compelling film.
Born on the first day of the New Year in 1916, Jackie grew up in Dresden, Germany, where his extended family operated a textile mill and owned a large laundry near the baroque 18th-century Frauenkirche in the city’s central square. His father Georg fought for Germany in World War I, as did 100,000 other German Jews.
In 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler became chancellor, Jackie’s sister Ellen decided to move to Italy. Two years later, 19-year-old Jackie joined her there. Tall and enterprising, he polished his English while finding work in the hotel industry. But as Mussolini drew closer to Hitler, Jackie, like millions of others across Europe, sought safe passage out of the maelstrom.
Visas were in pitifully short supply. By the late 1930s, Shanghai was the only destination available to Jews that did not require a visa. In British India, refugees were mostly seen as just another headache, as revealed in Jewish Exile in India: 1933–1945, co-edited by Anil Bhatti and Johannes H Voigt. Notably, Jawaharlal Nehru argued in favour of accommodating more Jewish refugees. According to historian Yasmin Khan, writing in The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War, by December 1938 Nehru was “urging his old friend, the provincial chief minister in United Provinces, to offer government positions to skilled Jewish refugees and stressing the urgency of offering them help.”
At the same time, Nehru condemned the Zionist influx into Palestine, arguing that Arab land rights were being ignored. Many Indian Muslims concurred. But in Bombay and Calcutta, European Jewish migration was championed by various Jewish communities with roots in India, notably the Baghdadi Jews. In 1934 they formed the Jewish Relief Association (JRA), negotiating with the British colonial government to guarantee a limited number of visas. The JRA had a Steamer Subcommittee, dispatching volunteers to greet refugees at the Bombay port. The organisation also put together an Employment Subcommittee, which built on its network to locate suitable jobs for professionals and others whose skills might be useful in India.
Just seven days after the publication in Italy of the Manifesto of Race, which set the stage for the enactment of anti-Semitic laws, Jackie managed to get his German passport stamped with a single-journey visa to India and Australia. Had he waited two more months, he would have been expelled from Italy and perhaps cast back into Nazi territory. Jackie and his sister secured tickets on a cargo ship from Livorno to Bombay. They sailed on August 11, 1938. The ticket proved so precious, Jackie saved it for 55 years and handed it down to his granddaughter, Nicole Limmer.
One year later, the British declared war on Germany following Hitler’s invasion of Poland. In India, the colonial regime rounded up 850 German “aliens”. Most of them were released within five weeks. Some returned to jobs they had held previously, in textile mills or elsewhere. But Jackie was transferred to a prison cell with only a small window cut into a high wall. Family accounts cite a “joke” that he cracked, which incited suspicion that he might be a spy, not a pathetic refugee. “If the British win they’ll make me Viceroy, and if the Germans win they’ll make me Chancellor,” he reportedly said. Jackie passed his days in prison by attempting to learn Urdu. He later told his granddaughter that he made friends with the guards, and persuaded them to smuggle in books.
Ultimately he was cleared of suspicion. The British transferred him to the camp in Purandhar, where other Jewish refugees had already been sent. It had no running water or electricity, no access to news via radio; the exiles were given an allowance and told to cook their own meals. But the hilltop air was pleasant, and special outings to Bombay were occasionally permitted. The isolated camp inhabitants remained oblivious to the famine decimating Bengal and other war-induced hardships suffered by Indians across the country.
One day, in 1940, a 28-year-old Russian refugee with green eyes and long legs arrived in Purandhar. It was Tania. “She was a single, attractive woman. The wives in the camp were all wary of her,” recounts former Air India stewardess Zarine Downer, whose father Cawas Dalal, a Bombay police force veteran, served as the deputy camp commandant. Tania was beautiful, but she could barely communicate with anyone. While Russian was her mother tongue, she didn’t know English or German. So Jackie, conveniently single and four years her junior, took the initiative to give her English lessons. Standing 6 feet 2 inches, with a self-assured air, he warded off other potential suitors. “He took her under his wing,” says Downer.
Compared to the previous men in Tania’s life, Jackie seemed like a true mensch. Tania had fled a tyrannical father and got married at 20 to a Russian pilot, according to an account she later narrated on tape for her family. He crashed his plane and died on his first solo flight just six months into the marriage. Two years later, she fell into the arms of a bisexual Armenian cabaret performer whom she met in Moscow. They married and had a son, but when Tania discovered her husband in bed with a man she swiftly bundled up her son and left.
Tania’s son died of meningitis in Tbilisi, Georgia. She married the local doctor who had treated her son but was besieged with lecherous advances from her father-in-law. Horrified, her husband challenged his father and was later killed, though the exact circumstances of his death remain unknown. She also learned that Stalin’s henchmen had executed her father and two uncles as suspected White Russians.
Both Tania and Jackie had a talent for survival. She endured a year in a bone-chilling labour camp in Siberia, where she was dispatched in 1932 after Moscow authorities found her wandering around without proper identification. An assignment in the camp’s laundry offered some extra warmth. When she ran away from her lascivious father-in-law in Georgia, Tania found a job as a nanny on a boat to Odessa. On board, she met two Polish officers who agreed to accompany her on a hazardous trek to Persia, the goal of many Polish refugees who were escaping Soviet persecution. Old newsreels record their exhaustion and relief.
It is unclear why the British authorities opted to send her to the parole camps in Maharashtra after interrogating her in Persia in April, 1940. While her name appears in the index of the British colonial archives, the actual document relating to her confinement in Purandhar is untraceable.
Jackie got out of Purandhar before Tania. He landed a job at the Parsi-owned Grand Hotel in Bombay.
In India, Tania and Jackie would put the war behind them, moving on to raise two daughters and start a profitable business. For Tania, glamorous ballroom dancing in Bombay led to nightclub hopping in Bangalore, as she became a regular at hotspots like Three Aces and Blue Fox. It was a determined exercise to live in the present. “My grandmother’s motto was ‘carpe diem’,” says Limmer. Jackie’s more sedate pleasures included classical music and supervising German theatre productions. He learned Hindi and Kannada. He swam every day. He enjoyed group vacations with family friends in Ooty, complete with strawberries and cream and special chocolates. “We never talked about his past,” says Joan Fernandes, wife of the late Praxy Fernandes, Jackie’s longtime bridge partner at the Bangalore Club.
Jackie avoided all discussion of Judaism and the Holocaust. Privately, he was devastated when he learned that his father Georg shot himself in the head just as the Nazis were on the verge of capturing him in Berlin, and that his mother Antonie was dragged to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and finally murdered in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. “South Asia has been a place where individual Jews could leave behind their Jewish roots and identity,” writes Kenneth X Robbins, co-editor of Western Jews in India: From the Fifteenth Century to the Present. (One such person was Mirra Alfassa, a French Sephardic Jew who transformed herself into “The Mother,” a spiritual guru in Pondicherry.) The Moses family, who operated a large shoe store on Commercial Street in Bangalore, knew Jackie was Jewish but also knew he would not turn up for the religious functions organised for the handful of Jewish families in town.
In Bangalore, Jackie built a reputation as an aggressive bridge player. “Jacoby loved hands that called for spectacular play,” recalls bridge columnist Ajit Saldanha. On the rare occasions that he would pass, he would emit a coy “miaow”, effectively declaring that he was a pussycat that day, instead of the usual tiger. This penchant for risk became evident in other areas of Jackie’s life. In the 1940s and early 50s, he and Tania enjoyed fine dining, horseback riding, and other perks of his employment in classy hotels in Bombay and Mussoorie. But they were restless, and bent on procuring a high standard of education for their young daughters, Ingrid and Sylvia.
So they made their way to Canada in 1954. Intending to make a down payment on a small hotel in Montreal, “they got diddled out of their money,” recounts Ingrid. Like generations of Jews before him, Jackie transformed himself into a travelling salesman, peddling pots and pans from door to door. Tania cleaned houses and helped Jackie demonstrate the efficacy of casserole dishes in front of Canadian housewives.
Their pleasures were small. One evening, strolling in Montreal, Jackie delighted his daughters with some popcorn bought from a street vendor. “How come we don’t have popcorn in India?” asked 11-year-old Sylvia. It was a Eureka moment, briefly recorded a decade later by the New York Times. Jackie and Tania decided to bring one briefcase full of Chester Hybrid seed back to India, and leave Canada behind for good. Upon their return, they applied to become Indian citizens.
Hoping to benefit from the country’s flourishing film industry, Jackie and Tania set up the Golden Corn Machinery Company. Unschooled in agriculture, Jackie combed through books on planting. In nearby Chikballapur district, the rich red soil and moderate climate boded well. Still, it was still a hard sell in the countryside. “It was something new. Many farmers were doubtful whether it would work out,” says Gerard Phillips, who followed in his father’s footsteps and went to work with Jackie. “They were used to poultry maize,” says trader Suresh Kumar, who still focuses on popcorn in his company Nandi Trading Co. “People were shocked at this new variety of maize.” But farmers liked the guaranteed price that Jackie was willing to pay and, eventually, tens of thousands of South Indian farmers would adopt popcorn, outpacing the absorption capacity of Golden Corn and trading on the open market.
Jackie and Tania’s business unfolded in a spacious rented bungalow, surrounded by a garden with lush bursts of bougainvillea. Located at 100 Richmond Road, the property was aptly called “The Anchorage”. In a room off the kitchen, women employees stuffed bags full of popcorn. Young men delivered it around Bangalore by bicycle. On the verandah, Jackie met traders and showed off models of his popcorn machines. He had asked his employees to tinker with an American model and come up with something slightly different. He never bothered to get it patented. It was a classic example of Indian jugaad in the hands of a transplanted German entrepreneur. He exported the machines to Sri Lanka, Hungary, Poland, Germany and the Persian Gulf.
Tania, while working alongside Jackie, was also a figure in Bangalore’s fledgling “scene”. The entrance she made at Blue Fox in the mid-1970s is part of the city’s cultural history. “She wore a tight leopard-print dress with thigh-high boots and carried a snake called Delilah,” recalls fashion designer Prasad Bidapa. “She was part of the glamour of Bangalore. She always had that little air of mystery around her.” By the time Tania became a regular at Blue Fox, she was already in her late 50s, but her deportment was ageless. Hair dyed a copperyred. Posture erect, confident, almost regal. Lipstick blazing, legs accented in each outfit. Musky perfume. A low, gruff, almost mannish voice. A zest for dancing that stretched from the foxtrot to the waltz to disco. Her dance partners could be young or paunchy, but they had to be polite. “Keep a distance. No smoochysmoochy!” was Tania’s refrain. “She was like a ballerina. She would throw her head back, kick her leg,” says Desmond Rice, first the DJ then the manager of Blue Fox. “She would say, ‘Desmond, I don’t want this sleepy music, this funeral music, this music for the dead.’ And I would say, ‘OK Mama’.”
Occasionally the tight miniskirt would yield to something more dramatic. She asked her daughter Ingrid to catch fireflies, which she then sewed into a black netted dress with long sleeves. Glow-in-the-dark Tania “was a shooting star,” recalls Renu George, a former actress who now runs a Bangalore art gallery. On other nights, a Spanish shawl camouflaged Delilah’s contours. And where was Jackie? Generally, he stayed off the nightclub circuit. He didn’t need
Tania by his side during bridge tournaments at the Bangalore Club, so why would he cramp her style in Blue Fox? Friends noted that they seemed to have a pact, not to “interfere” in each other’s lives. But they were still a couple. And many observers credit Tania as Jackie’s “driving force”, adding a splash of ambition to his contentment with his new life in India.
Tania died in 1980; Jackie outlived her by 13 years.
Like all refugee accounts, the Jacoby story comes embedded with so many alternative scenarios. The “if” list is endless. Part of the luck of their story was the country they made their own, a country that was young and, in many ways, generous. This is no small thing in the current world climate of refugee resentment and televised bodies washed ashore.
Bangalore then was a city that showed great tolerance for individuality and eccentricity—not only tolerance, but affection. By the time they hit their stride, Tania and Jackie were no longer outsiders. In India, they felt safe to be themselves.
This essay was published in April-June 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly.