In this unmarked grave at Jamia, lies Gerda Philipsborn, buried and forgotten (Died 1943); Aug. 14, 2014 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)

Here Lies Gerda Philipsborn, Buried and Forgotten

Recently, Jamia Journal was approached by a foreign author-researcher seeking information on Gerda Philipsborn.

For those who are unaware, Gerda Philipsborn is a prominent figure in the early history of Jamia Millia Islamia. Philipsborn was a friend of Dr. Zakir Husain in Germany, who later moved to India and joined Jamia as a teacher during the tenure of Dr. Zakir Husain.

According to Jamia’s website, Philipsborn was also a member of the Anjuman-e-Jamia Millia Islamia, a group of Jamia employees who pledged to serve Jamia for at least 20 years on a salary of not more than Rs. 150 per month, and who are also known as Life Members of Jamia. And judging by the list of Life Members provided on Jamia’s website, Philipsborn is perhaps the only woman and non-Indian Life Member out of a total of 26 members.

After serving at Jamia for 11-years, Philipsborn died of cancer in 1943.

Fortunately, Jamia did not let her service go unappreciated and unremembered. From what we know, Jamia has named two buildings after Gerda Philipsborn: a girls hostel and a children’s day care center. An honor very few people who have served Jamia can claim.

But coming back to the researcher seeking information on Philipsborn; we were asked if we could help find out where Philipsborn was buried, and if she was buried in Jamia, could we take a photograph of her grave and email it.

What seemed like a simple task turned into a real challenge.

We first approached the Jamia Premchand Archives and Literary Center, because from what we know, they keep an archive of Jamia’s institutional history.

From the good people at the Jamia Archives, we found out that Philipsborn was indeed buried in the Jamia cemetery. However, they did not know the exact location of her grave. And to get the exact location of her grave, we were directed to get in touch with the Buildings and Construction Department, because apparently, they are in-charge of the upkeep of Jamia’s graveyard; which we hate to say it, they are not doing a great job of it.

We then approached the Buildings and Construction Department. Not so surprisingly, the people we talked to there, didn’t even know who we were asking about, let alone know where she was buried. However, someone at the buildings department suggested we get in touch with Prof. Syed Ghazanfar H. Zaidi, the Dean of Faculty of Fine Arts. It was alleged, for reasons we did not know then, that if there was anybody who knew where Philipsborn was buried, then that would be Prof. Zaidi.

However, before we approached Prof. Zaidi, we thought we’d search the graveyard for her grave ourselves. We figured, Gerda Philipsborn is a prominent figure in the history of Jamia, so it stands to reason, her grave site must too be a prominent site. So we went through the section of the graveyard which the people at the building department called the VIP plot. We looked over every grave in that particular section of the cemetery but unfortunately could not find a grave with her name on it. Though a little disappointed with our search, we were not surprised. Jamia’s graveyard is quite big with probably close to a hundred graves, if not more. Then on top of that, the writing on a lot of tombstones have faded away thus making it very difficult to read the names on it. And then there are some graves who have lost their tombstones altogether, making it impossible to know whose grave it is. So failing to find her grave, we were left with no other option but to go see Prof. Zaidi.

We approached Prof. Zaidi in his office at the faculty of fine arts. And to our pleasant surprise and relief, Prof. Zaidi confirmed that he indeed knew exactly where she was buried.

Before we go any further in the story, we would like to make a special note of Prof. Zaidi’s generosity and kindness.

In our now several years of reporting in Jamia, we have met very few Jamia faculty and staff members — probably only two or three — who have been kind enough to go out of their way to help us. And Prof. Zaidi is one of those rare and great personalities at Jamia. Anybody who has spent some time in Jamia will be well aware, meeting an official in Jamia is not an easy task. The higher up you go on the administrative ladder, the harder it is to see the official. And the dean of a faculty is like on the second rung of the ladder, just under the vice-chancellor who is on the top. We were not very optimistic that we would get to meet him in our first attempt. But as luck would have it, Prof. Zaidi did agree to see us, in spite of the fact, the clerk at the dean’s office told us he was busy organizing some upcoming event and might not have time for us. But Prof. Zaidi did see us and confirmed he indeed knew the exact location of Philipsborn’s grave.

Since we had already searched the graveyard once and failed, we asked Prof. Zaidi if he would be kind enough to show us exactly where it is, whenever he had free time of course. It was obvious we could not expect the man to drop everything for us and take us grave searching. But to our utter surprise, Prof. Zaidi got up from his seat and said, all right, let’s go right now. And just like that, with no ifs or buts, he was ready to help us. Our respect for Prof. Zaidi knows no bounds.

So Prof. Zaidi took us to the cemetery and showed us her grave. Though Prof. Zaidi had already informed us of this earlier, we were no less shocked when we saw it with our own eyes — Gerda Philipsborn lies in a dilapidated looking unmarked grave with no inscription of any kind whatsoever.

We wondered how Prof. Zaidi knew it was her grave when it had no name on it.

Prof. Zaidi told us, that is was not always like this. There was a time when Gerda Philipsborn’s grave was among the most prominent grave sites in that section of Jamia’s cemetery, with a prominent tombstone and everything. However, over the years, as Jamia started to run out of burial space, they broke it down and reduced it in size to make space for other graves. But why did the grave not have a tombstone or even an inscription with her name on it was something he did not know.

We later did learn how Prof. Zaidi knew all of this. It just so happened, Prof. Zaidi’s father, Syed Mujtaba Husain Zaidi, was also a Life Member of Jamia, and is also buried a few feet away from Philipsborn.

But returning back to Philipsborn; the irony of the situation was too stark for us to go unrealized. Here lay in front of us a woman, who had the good fortune of having two buildings named after her in Jamia, but had the misfortune of not getting a name to her own grave.

In the end, we took a photograph of her grave and sent it to the author-researcher writing the book on Gerda Philipsborn’s family, thus completing our task and keeping our word.

It is disheartening to know that when the chapter on Gerda Philipsborn will be written, there will be this photo of her grave with a caption that will most likely read:  In this unmarked grave at Jamia, lies Gerda Philipsborn, buried and forgotten.

In this unmarked grave in the Jamia cemetery lies Gerda Philipsborn (Died 1943.); Aug. 14, 2014 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)
In this unmarked grave at Jamia, lies Gerda Philipsborn, buried and forgotten (Died 1943); Aug. 14, 2014 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)

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  1. A much appreciated work. Thank you Khalid for publishing the story on JJ. I know the difficulties you faced as you shared your harrowing experience earlier in your effort to help a foreign writer-researcher.

  2. Great work

  3. a diligent and committed work like this will take JJ places. All the very best.

  4. I know very little this story, and nothing about JJ — I believe I know the anonymous “author-researcher of the family.” Yet, the moving way this story is told, the many details, the care that all of the people involved took to find this wonderful woman’s grave — all of this adds up to a moving tale for everyone. Thank you all for giving us this beautiful story.

  5. Forgotten no longer.
    A Physicist’s Lost Love: Leo Szilard and Gerda Philipsborn

  6. “Forgotten no longer,” indeed! She almost returns to life in Gene Dannen’s impeccably-researched story of her life at Jamia and her influence on the renowned physicist.

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