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July 11, 2012 6:57 am

India Buys Rare Gandhi Letters Belonging To Jewish Bodybuilder

avatar by Atara Arbesfeld

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A statue of Gandhi in West Indies. Photo: Ian Mackenzie.

In a private transaction held at Sotheby’s before the scheduled auction, the Government of India has purchased thousands of papers relating to Mahatma Gandhi and a South African Jewish companion of his, according to the Agence France-Presse. The Indian government paid 700,000 pounds (the equivalent of approximately one million dollars) for the treasured documents, said Sanjiv Mittal at the Ministry of Culture.

The original owner of the archived letters, Hermann Kallenbach, was a Jewish architect and bodybuilder who became a close friend of Gandhi after they met in Johannesburg in 1904. The letters were discovered by Indian historian Ramchandra Guha at the home of Isa Sarid, Kallenbach’s grand-niece. Spanning a timeline of forty years beginning from 1905 and ending at 1945, the letters are mostly from family, friends and followers of Gandhi. The documents reference his early political ambitions and the illness of his wife Kasturba. Within the archives, were also thirteen letters written to Kallenbach.

The collection will be housed at Delhi’s National Archive, in order “to study the thoughts of Gandhi on various matters,” said Mittal. “Since we already have some letters exchanged between Kallenbach and Gandhi, we thought this would help us fill up the gaps in our collection,” he added.

The prized collection was predicted to sell for between 500,000 and 700,000 pounds (about 777,000 to 1.1 million dollars) at the auction. The government negotiated with Kallenbach’s surviving family for weeks in order to acquire the papers, according to Indian media reports. Meanwhile critics in India have complained that private auctions of Gandhi’s belongings insult the memory of their leader who rejected material wealth.

Kallenbach was born in 1871 into a German-Jewish family in East Prussia. He arrived in South Africa in 1896 to join his uncles in Johannesburg and became a naturalized citizen. A skilled athlete, Kallenbach was an ice-skater, swimmer, cyclist and gymnast in addition to his success in his profession as an architect. He acquired a significant amount of land throughout the country. When he met the earnest revolutionary leader before he was famous, Kallenbach donated a thousand-acre farm to Gandhi and his family, which became known as the “Tolstoy Farm,” named after the Russian writer who influenced Kallenbach. In the wake of Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, Kallenbach became an ardent Zionist and headed the South African Zionist Federation, but died in 1945 before living to see the Jewish State come to fruition. Though he disagreed with Gandhi on Zionism, they remained friends until Kallenbach’s death. Gandhi died in 1948, the year the State of Israel was established.

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