Hermann Kallenbach was Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘soulmate’ – Kounteya Sinha

M. K. Gandhi, Sonia Schlesin, and Hermann Kallenbach (1913)

Shimon LevAn archive of priceless documents discovered from the Carmel Mountain in Haifa has, for the first time, revealed the role a Jewish architect in creating the phenomenon called Mahatma Gandhi.

Researcher Shimon Lev from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has extensively studied the archive, is all set to reveal to the world the story of a deep friendship between India’s father of the nation and his “soulmate” Hermann Kallenbach.

In an exclusive interview to TOI’s Kounteya Sinha, Lev says Kallenbach was Gandhi’s confidante and partner in spiritual experiments who helped field test Gandhi’s world-renowned doctrine of non-violence. Lev will tell the world hitherto unknown facts of this intimate friendship when Lithuania unveils the statue of Gandhi and Kallenbach in Rusne on October 2nd.

• How did you get your hands on the Gandhi-Kallenbach documents?

Some years back, I wrote a series of articles about a hiking trail across Israel. During my hike, in a cemetery near the Sea of the Galilee, I went to see the neglected grave of Hermann Kallenbach where his ashes were buried. I published a few lines about Kallenbach. Surprisingly this resulted in an invitation by Mrs Isa Sarid, the niece of Kallenbach, to “have a look” at Kallenbach’s Archive.

The archive was located in a tiny room in a small apartment up on the Carmel Mountain in Haifa. On the shelves there were numerous files carrying the name of Gandhi. One of the less known and missing chapters of Gandhi’s early biography was waiting for a researcher to pick up the challenge. Finding an archive like this might be the fantasy of any historian. It was over a year later that I was trusted enough and was given the permission to copy documents from the archive. It took five years more to complete my research.

• You call Gandhi and Kallenbach soulmates. Were they truly?

Gandhi and Kallenbach’s friendship was characterized by mutual efforts towards personal, moral and spiritual development and a common deep commitment to the Indian struggle. On a personal level, Kallenbach provided Gandhi with sound emotional support and enabled him to view himself through the lens of reflexive psychology, which was an important tool in his personal development. Living together in a ‘living laboratory’ entailed internal examination and constant reflection while maintaining a strict ascetic lifestyle and practicing a highly demanding level of self-discipline, processes during which the two underwent significant mental and spiritual changes.

In addition to this, he was a confidante with whom Gandhi could share even the most personal matters, such as his troubles with his wife and children. Gandhi’s letters to Kallenbach and documents in the Kallenbach Archive reveal their relationship to be an extremely complex, very intimate, and a highly unconventional one, that had elements of close friendship, political partnership, and surprisingly strong personal ties for two such dissimilar men. Above all, Gandhi and Kallenbach were soulmates.

The time during which Gandhi and Kallenbach lived together in Johannesburg constitutes one of the less written about periods in Gandhi’s life. The two lived in Kallenbach’s home in Johannesburg, the Kraal on Pine Road for nearly one and a half years. Later, they shared an isolated ‘tent’ in Mountain View on Linksfield Ridge near Johannesburg for seven months. It is of great importance that at the end of their time together in the Kraal on Pine Road and Mountain View, the two founded Tolstoy Farm, a large-scale communal and religious experiment of great significance for the Indian struggle, in June 1910. Tolstoy Farm should, therefore, be viewed as a product and natural continuation of Gandhi and Kallenbach’s application of Tolstoy and Ruskin‘s teachings in their isolated two-man ashram.

Their emphasis was on the practical implementation of simple living, manual labour, self-sufficiency and non-violence.

• Do you have some interesting anecdotes from their lives showing their proximity to each other?

Kallenbach was Gandhi’s “wailing wall.” Whenever he had crises with his wife and children, and there were many. When he discovered that his son stole lemons again, he wrote to Kallenbach that, “They drive me more and more into the jungles of India.”

Kallenbach often served as mediator and peacemaker between Gandhi and his wife and children. Gandhi’s children accepted Kallenbach as a member of the family, “an older uncle”. When Harilal, Gandhi’s eldest son, ran away from his father to Delgoa Bay on his way to India in an effort to get the formal education his father denied him, it was Kallenbach who was sent to bring him back.

A major family crisis broke out in 1913, when Gandhi was staying with Kallenbach in Johannesburg. Manilal sent a letter to Kallenbach’s office, adding a personal note addressed to Gandhi, in which he confessed that he was having an affair with a married schoolteacher on Phoenix Farm. Gandhi announced that he was undertaking a week-long fast and Kallenbach joined him. Prabhudas Gandhi, who describes this event in his book, writes that Kallenbach looked greatly reduced due to the fasting, but his face had a peaceful expression.

One exemplary episode, which can describe the atmosphere of their shared life, was the famous story, which developed later as one of the myths about Gandhi. When Gandhi was released from jail, Kallenbach went to pick him up in his new car which was as that time very unusual. Kallenbach recounted this event to Gandhi secretary Desai: “He sat in it, but not without a torment that could be read on his face. For the moment he was quiet, but when we got back home he berated me severely for my folly. ‘Put a match to it at once’ he said. Instead of destroying it, it remained in the garage for over a year and was disposed of. But for eleven years after that incident I did not have a motor car.”

Gandhi wrote several letters to Kallenbach that he should sell “the monster,” as he called the car, consistent with his opinion about the British appetite for cars. “I note your motoring experience. If you saw the craze for it here. They are an invention of the devil,” he said.

Gandhi, Kastruba and Kallenabch left South Africa in the end of the struggle for India via London. One subject which arose in their conversations during the long hours on the ship’s deck were two pairs of costly binoculars that Gandhi discovered in Kallenbach’s possession. Obviously they were useful items for such a journey but Gandhi claimed “this possession was not in keeping with the ideal of simplicity that we aspire to reach.”

Another issue was about walking by foot the 42 km from Tolstoy Farm Johannesburg when possible. Traveling by train was allowed only when it was necessary for the Farm purpose. Gandhi used to note down in his diary the names of the people who did it. Kallenbach and Gandhi used to walk the long way many time together starting as early as 1 or 2 am but usually Kallenbach would arrive one hour or more before Gandhi. The Farm residents competed to see who could cover the distance. The record was held by Jamnadas Kaka, who walked the twenty-two miles in four hours and thirty-five minutes. Kallenbach tried to break this record. To save time, he would snatch food from a wayside stall and toss down payment without stopping to take his change; this was faster than stopping to take food out of his backpack. Though he broke the record by a few minutes, Gandhi did not mark him down as the winner, claiming that purchase of non-Farm foods was against the rules.

• What was the unique historical significance in the encounter between Gandhi and Kallenbach?

I think that one of most important contributions of Kallenbach is the establishment of Tolstoy Farm in 1910. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of the experiment called Tolstoy Farm and its influence on the formulation of the spiritual and social ideologies of Gandhi. The Farm was a laboratory for testing Gandhi’s ideas and it enabled him to realize his methodologies in daily life. In Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi built his leadership facility, a capacity which was further developed during the final stage of the Indian struggle in South Africa. These undertakings prepared him for his unique brand of leadership in India. Gandhi wrote, “My faith and courage were at their highest in Tolstoy Farm”.

But what made the story of Kallenbach and Gandhi even more unique was the “second round” which took place during Kallenbach’s Zionist mission to Gandhi in 1937 when Hitler was already in power. When Kallenbach was asked by the Zionist leader and future prime minister Moshe Sharet to brief Gandhi on Zionism, and was hoping to get Gandhi support for a Jewish homeland aspiration in Palestine. Gandhi came out with his famous disturbing proclamation: The Jews in 1938, in which he called the Jews to disobey Nazi laws, to begin civil resistance and to be ready to die as a result. This was the reason why Kallenbach came in 1939 for another visit in the eve of the war.

Gandhi wrote about Kallenbach in this context, a fact which emphasizes the tension between his non-violence doctrine and what was going on in Europe. Kallenbach was used as an example.

“I happen to have a Jewish friend living with me (Kallenbach). He has an intellectual belief in non-violence. But he says he cannot pray for Hitler. I do not quarrel with him over his anger. He wants to be non-violent but the suffering of fellow Jews is too much for him to bear. What is true of him is true of thousands of Jews who have no thought of even ‘Loving the enemy.’ With them, as with millions, ‘revenge is sweet, to forgive is divine.'”

So the chronicles of Gandhi and Kallenbach’s relationship traverse the dramatic events of the first half of the 20th century and constitute the main connection between the two national movements: the Indian one and the Zionist one.

• What was unique about this relationship and why isn’t their relationship so widely known?

Of all the European supporters, Kallenbach was Gandhi’s most intimate supporter. Kallenbach was the one who shared Gandhi’s most inner feelings, fears, hopes, ambitions, sorrows, joys and spiritual world. Kallenbach was the one who Gandhi could mostly trust, and to whom he could reflect his spiritual and political journey. When Kallenbach traveled in 1911 from Tolstoy Farm to visit his family here in Lithuania, carrying the message of Gandhi, Gandhi defined them as “spiritual rope- walkers.”

There may be a number of reasons for the general disregard of Kallenbach’s contribution. The forced separation of Gandhi and Kallenbach due to Kallenbach’s confinement in a British internment camp during World War I is partly to blame. Had Kallenbach gone to India, it is probable that he would have become the administrative manager of Gandhi’s Indian ashrams. Since Gandhi became an international figure when he was in India, Kallenbach remains relatively unknown.

Moreover, the scarcity of firsthand sources regarding Gandhi and Kallenbach’s relationship makes the study of Kallenbach’s influence difficult. In contrast to the letters written by Gandhi to Kallenbach, only a handful of Kallenbach’s letters to Gandhi have been preserved. Much about their relationship can be derived from Gandhi’s letters, but the other side of the picture, which Kallenbach’s letters would have revealed, is missing. It appears that Kallenbach asked Gandhi to destroy his letters, in which he unveiled his heart.

There are some more important reasons. The first is that Kallenbach Archive which was almost unknown was kept by private hands, Kallenbach’s niece in a small apartment in a tiny room up in the Carmel Mountain in Israel. It was almost inaccessible for researchers. In addition to that one has to remember that the complete absence of diplomatic relations between India and Israel, which ended only in the 1990s, has contributed to the general ignorance about this story. But another very important reason is that in the last decades there is a new approach in the academic research about Gandhi. The assumption is that in order to understand and study Gandhi one has to study his surroundings and personal encounters.

Naturally, during the first decades, the scholars focused mostly on his role as a key leader in the Indian national struggle. This crucial point lies at the bottom of my research. Gandhi’s 21 years residence in South Africa was the period in which he fully developed to be the future Mahatma. All the components in his social-religious doctrine were developed there before he returned as a local hero to India.

• Who inspired who in the relationship and how?

Obviously, Gandhi was the one who inspired everyone else around him including Kallenbach. He was the spiritual authority—no doubt about this. Probably not many people at this early formative period, could imagine Gandhi’s great future role in India and world’s history, but his supporters were aware even at that early stage even if Gandhi was “difficult,” “very demanding” and leading an extreme lifestyle, that he is a unique person with great ambition. But not all shared this view, Kallenbach’s Jewish family regarded him as one who was gone mad and was trapped by “Gandhi’s spell.”

• How will this statue help in telling their stories?

Well, definitely it will make their fascinating story more known. I claim that it is impossible to understand Gandhi without understanding his relationships with those close to him. Between 1906 and 1909, Gandhi underwent an extremely significant transformation, the result of which was that his doctrine became fully solidified and most of the necessary components were incorporated into his political philosophy.

His partner and most intimate friend in these crucial years was Herman Kallenbach, and, therefore, the central role he played in Gandhi’s life is obvious. Kallenbach was the practical one, an administrator with many abilities and the one responsible for contact with the Indian population. He was the person Gandhi trusted implicitly; he was an important financial supporter without whom Gandhi could not have managed his struggle.

Their relationship began with an attempt to live Tolstoyan lives, including the special characteristics Gandhi added to them in South Africa, and ended with a renewed and significant meeting in which Gandhi’s non-violence doctrine was tested in its utmost extremity by the unprecedented evil of Nazism. Gandhi stuck to his position that even Hitler’s heart of stone would melt in a satyagraha struggle, but the Jewish and Zionist Kallenbach could no longer accept this and was in conflict on this issue. – Times of India, 19 September 2015

Gandhi & Kallenbach Statues

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