Jamia's Aapa Jaan: Gerda Philipsborn

Among all tall yet relevant names, this one name: Gerda, almost sounded odd. Who was this person, and why was an entire hostel and daycare centre named after her?

Written by: Khansa Juned

In 2022, Jamia Millia Islamia, a central university, located in Delhi, finally decided to resume offline classes. As a student of Jamia, I couldn't wait to get back on campus and make up for all the college life we lost out because of the pandemic. And so, much of my months were spent exploring this vast repository of history called Jamia Millia Islamia. Of the many names that I saw and learnt about here, one caught me unaware. Gerda Philispborn!

Now, among all these tall yet relevant names, this one name: Gerda, almost sounded odd. Who was this person, and why was an entire hostel and daycare centre named after her?

For this, we need to turn back the pages of history to the year 1895. Germany was undergoing the process of industrialisation, and the Jews were unaware of what awaited them, oblivious to the events about to unfurl, which would change their life forever. At that Kiel, a seaport on Germany's Baltic coast, lived a well-known Jewish family. On April 30, 1895, it is here that baby Gerda Philipsborn took birth. She was brought up in comfort and luxury and was the youngest of four.

Growing up, her love for music transformed into a career in opera. She trained as a singer in Munich, studied under the famous conductor Bruno Walter and performed in Munich, Rostock, and other cities. However, her interest in performing gradually waned. It was her greatest desire to work for a better world, to help others, the less fortunate, and especially children. She worked with Dr Siegfried Lehmann, a young children's doctor who, in 1916, founded the Jüdische Volksheim: a community centre located in a Berlin ghetto, which sheltered Jewish refugees flooding in from war-torn Eastern Europe. Here, she looked after refugee children and orphans and aimed to provide training to older people. Occasionally, she was found donated objects through the streets of Berlin by hand or on a cart like an ordinary labourer.
But wait, how do the dots connect to Jamia? Well, it's a long story, and for that, you need to bear with us a little longer. Well, Jamia was born in the freedom struggle against British colonial rule.
Eventually, one of its founders, Zakir Hussain, reached Berlin to pursue higher studies. And there, he met Abid Hussain and Mohammed Mujeeb. Soon, the trio became acquainted with Sarojini Naidu's younger sister Suhasini Nambiar, who used to arrange evening parties to bring Germans and Indians together.
At one such party, the trio met Gerda Philipsborn. In the words of Mohammad Mujeeb, it was the start of “ a friendship whose depths no one could fathom….”

Often, Gerda used to listen to Zakir Hussain talks about Jamia and his future plans for the University. In these conversations, she used to express her desire to be of service to the University. Anyway, she had always been inspired by Gandhi's non-violent freedom struggle and invariably wanted to visit India. Zakir Hussain discouraged her since he believed adjusting to a different and gruelling lifestyle wouldn't be easy for her.

But  Zakir Hussain had his job to do. So, after meeting Hakim Ajmal Khan in Austria, the trio returned to India and dedicated themselves to Jamia. By the year 1932, Zakir Husain was the vice-chancellor of Jamia. One winter morning,  he receives an unexpected telegram. “Gerda was arriving in Bombay!”

It was the dreadful time of Hitler’s reign in Germany. His hatred towards the community was evident, which soon forced Jews to migrate in large numbers. Gerda was one of them. As per Syeda Hameed, she could have gone anywhere, but she chose to come to India. Back then, Jamia was located in Karol Bagh, an isolated suburb of Delhi with no proper electricity or running water and very little hope of cleanliness or comfort.

On January 1, 1933, she formally became Jamia’s Rukun (staff). Gerda was given the responsibility of taking care of the children. And so she did. From introducing regular health checks for children to organising additional extracurricular activities such as theatre and arts & crafts, she did it all.  She took up a part-time job in a German firm and set aside its salary with the college’s treasurer for the Kindergarten children.

Soon, Gerda became the beloved AAPA JAAN of the Jamia fraternity. She not only worked for the welfare of children but also encouraged the participation of females in Jamia-related events. Once, Turkish ideologue Halide Edib Khanum came to campus. She wanted the wives and daughters of the faculty members to join the event. But because of the absence of a separate section, they couldn’t. So, Aapa Jaan immediately arranged a separate enclosure for them, and things were sorted. Also, in 1933, on Jamia’s Foundation Day, a Women’s Jalsa was held, where she and Saliha Abid Hussain made speeches. And to her absolute joy, 400-500 women were in attendance.

All these years, she kept serving Jamia. In 1942, she signed a pledge of Hayati Rukn - the life member of Jamia, for a meagre salary of not more than Rs 150 per month. She was the only woman and non-Indian to do so. She lived in the same style as the other teachers surviving on a meagre salary, travelled across the country in third-class rail to collect money for the school, and nursed ill children in her bedroom.

She devoted herself to the task and responsibilities assigned to her. In fact, when she was taken into custody during the second world war for being a german and was kept in Ahmednagar jail, the only thing she was worried about was who’ll undertake the responsibilities assigned to her in Jamia. With time, her health started deteriorating, and the people of Jamia were worried about her.

Eventually, she was admitted to a hospital in Delhi, where she was diagnosed with cancer. Even in her last days of life, she refused to return to Europe and chose to stay in Jamia.

As she was dying, Zakir Hussain writes:


The last part of the book has just arrived. What I have said and how I said it owes mainly to you. If you allow me, I will dedicate this book to you.

At this time, you are in intense pain. With your love and dedication, you have created a place in the hearts of the entire Jamia, the extent to which you may not realise yourself. If your pain could be shared, they would happily distribute it among themselves and not let you bear it alone. But all this is in no human hand. We pray that whoever has given you this pain will also give you the strength to bear it and accept it. We pray this trying moment becomes bearable.

Your Friend,

Zakir Husain, 11 March 1943

During the last days of her life, she requested Zakir Hussain to read Quran and expressed the desire to be buried according to the Islamic rituals.  She left us on 14th April 1943, and her grave lies in Jamia’s graveyard. Mohammad Mujeeb writes of her last moments. ‘On April 14, 1943, her breathing had become uneven. She had many visitors, more than usual. After a few hours, she gained consciousness and found four or five people standing around her bed. ‘You have come here. Why? Today must be the grand finale of National Week’. We convinced her that the finale had taken place the day before. She was relieved, and then she smiled and closed her eyes. That was the end. Jamia was sunk in mourning.’