The unknown legacy of Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh
Firing gunshots, muffling shackles, and indiscriminate cries of terrified people, Germany was becoming the hotspot of what the world will remember as the most dreadful holocaust of history. Millions of Jews were held hostage inside concentration camps, experimented on, and left to die without the warmth of their loved ones. Almost six million of those were murdered. But history also remembers the brave souls who stood against evil and glorified the best version of humanity. One such name was Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh.
Though being an Indian, she was born and raised in Britain. She was not only an active suffragette but secretly assisted and saved many Jewish families in Nazi Germany during Second World War.
Early Life and a Conflict of Dual Identity
Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh was born on 27th October 1871 at 17 Princes Gardens, Knightsbridge, London, the second daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh and his first wife, Bumba Müller. Her father, Duleep Singh was the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and ascended the throne of Lahore in 1837. He was the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire. Soon the kingdom was annexed by the East India Company and they dethroned the young king following the Anglo-Sikh wars. He was sent in exile to England.
In England, the young king was placed under the guardianship of Dr. John Login and his family. It was here that he converted to Christianity, an event that sparked widespread disappointment in the members of his community. He soon married Bumba Müller, a woman of Egyptian descent. Though they lived in England, the couple frequently visit India to remember King’s heritage.
Catherine was born in 1871 and was their second daughter of Duleep and Bumba. Her elder sister was Bamba Sofia Jindan, a younger sister Sophia Alexandra, and had three brothers Victor Albert Jay, Frederick Victor, and Edward Alexander. She also had two half-sisters from Singh’s second wife, Pauline Alexandra and Ada Irene Beryl.
Queen Victoria, the former queen of England was very fond of Duleep Singh and thus became godmother for his three daughters. She transformed their estate into a palace and the sisters led a quiet comfortable life until Singh decided to regain his throne. He came back to India and attempted to reclaim the throne however he was caught and imprisoned. During this time, his children stayed under the guardianship of Queen Victoria. In 1889 after the death of their mother, Bumba, the siblings moved to Folkestone, at 21 Clifton Street. The Queen wished them to remain in the guardianship of Lady Login however the Company decided to place them under Mr. Oliphant.
Under the guidance of Mr. Oliphant, she attended Somerville College, Oxford along with her elder sister. It was here that Catherine learned swimming, violin, and singing. Around the same time she also befriended her governess Miss Fraulein Lina Schäfer of Germany. The governess was 12 years older than her. Their bond quickly germinated and they remained special to each other till the very end.
Her Work as a Suffragette
Catherine always volunteered in humanitarian works and was also an active participant in the women’s rights movement. In 1912, she became a member of Constitutional Women’s Suffrage Works and along with her sisters supported Suffragist Movement. She was also a member of Fawcett Women’s Suffrage Group and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
During World War I, she moved to Schäfer in Germany with Miss Fraulein Lina Schäfer. Their special bond was not approved by many of the residences however their efforts to help certainly changed opinions. Despite being at the risk of being called a traitor, they aided several Jews to escape to the United Kingdom. And during World War two, housed the majority of them. Their continuous efforts to save Jews from the Clutches of Nazis resulted in the safety of hundreds of families that safely fled the war.
Amid this in 1937, Lina Schäfer suddenly died. After her death, Catherine was deeply saddened, and in her will requested to be buried alongside her friend Fraulein Lina Schäfer. With growing tension and frequent attacks by the Nazis, Catherine felt that it was not safe for her to stay any longer in Germany without Schafer. Many of her neighbors disapproved of the presence of an Indian woman. One of her friends, Dr. Fritz Ratig advised her to leave the country, and thus in 1937, she sold everything and secretly fled to England via Switzerland.
Even before she left, she helped several Hornstein and Meyerstein families escape Germany. She assisted in providing them a safe passage to England, funded their travel, and even housed them. For her efforts, she was also recognized as “Indian Schindler.” She housed several refugees with her in the palace and helped them rebuild their lives in a new country. The children were sent to school by her car, sweets were distributed on their birthdays and she would even throw birthday parties for them so that they can forget what happened back in their hometown.
Catherine died in 1942 due to a heart attack. Her cremation was only attended by her younger sister Sophie, due to World War Two. In her will, she requested to be buried alongside her friend Lina and gave her estate and jewelry to her sister Bamba and Sophie. Though in the will, she didn’t mention anything about her bank account and vault in the Swiss bank, which was revealed much later.
She and Lina together held a joint account in the Swiss bank and the assets it contained were totaled to be 137,323 Swiss Francs. As the princess and her sisters had no children, the money was given to the Supra family living in Pakistan who were the caretaker of the princess’s sister Bamba. In her will, Catherine gave everything to Bamba and upon her death, Bamba gave everything to the Supra family. This way the assets were distributed among the surviving members of the Supra family.
Despite her tremendous contribution in aiding the Jews, Catherine Hilda’s legacy remains unappreciated. From being an active supporter of women’s rights, her disapproval of intersectional oppression and a queer woman of color, Catherine’s story has so much to offer. The way she celebrated her identity in a world full of gender sensitivity, especially living in holocaust-struck Germany, in itself is phenomenal. Nonetheless, she was an icon of the LGBTQ movement and had lived a remarkable life.