The International Dr. G.W. Leitner Trail
Marcus Roberts & Silvia Dovoli (Oxford University Jewish Country House Project)


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Dr Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner (1840 - 1899) was born a Hungarian Jew, and the research for this history now shows that he became a Jewish Christian. His step-father was in fact a convert to Christianity from Judaism and was employed as a medical missionary to the Jews in Constantinople by the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews. His scholarly father had also set him upon a unique multi-cultural educational path which determined the course of the rest of his life, as he sent him to be educated in a number of different religious and denominational schools. This gave him the opportunity to learn the languages of the region (and classical languages for religious use), and allowed him to move easily between languages, cultures and to honour their faiths, for the rest of his life.

He was a remarkable, if enigmatic, nineteenth-century figure, and perhaps one of the most interesting intellectual figures of the Victorian era, albeit now forgotten. He made a name for himself in India, where he was an outstanding linguist and explorer who conducted pioneering research and original fieldwork into oriental languages. He is regarded as the first white European to visit certain tribal territories in Afghanistan (at considerable personal peril), and carried out both original research into the dialects and languages of the region and archaeological excavations, one upshot being a unique collection of Gandharan (Greco-Indian sculptures). He was one of the first Westerners to appreciate their quality and integrity, as great works of Indian art, and he vigorously promoted them across Europe as such for much of his life, countering the prejudice that they were inferior derivatives of Greek art. There is evidence he was a founder of Lahore Museum, which gathered one of the largest and earliest collections of this art genre.

As a pioneering educator, he championed native peoples, by promoting the use of their classical and contemporary Indian languages as the main medium of Indian education, and urged that they should also be able to receive a religious education in their own faith, as part of the curriculum. He also condemned the deliberate destruction, by the British, of the native education system of the Punjab, which had been in advance of the British system and which had also fostered the education of women. He was the founder of the University in Lahore and remains honoured for that role, and also founded nearly a hundred schools (many of which were for young Muslim girls in the Rawalpindi circle) and other institutions, in the region, as well as publishing numerous highly influential journals and periodicals, which promoted Indian intellectual life and social welfare and all of which taken together, facilitated the intellectual tide that moved aside British rule and allowed Indian Independence.

Back in England, he founded the unique 'Oriental College' in Woking (an extension college of the University in Lahore) which anticipated SOAS in many respects. It was intended to have a unique inter-faith campus, with a mosque, synagogue, Hindu temple and church, but this was sadly never completed. However the mosque was built and has the proud claim of being the first purpose-built mosque in Europe. Leitner was a pioneer of inter-faith understanding, well before the 'official' birth of the movement at the 1893 'Parliament of World Religions' at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His plans for an interfaith college campus were unique and far ahead of his time. If this was not enough, though the Oriental College, he played a role in the promotion of Islam in Europe, and was thereby part of the emergence of the modern idea of the ' Islamic World'.

Leitner's Family Background and Early Years and Education

Leitner was born Gottlieb Sapier (Saphir) in Budapest on 14 October, 1840, into a Hungarian (Habsburg) Jewish family. His family had an Orthodox Jewish and Yiddish-speaking mercantile background, but also embraced the Jewish enlightenment and secular education. His father Leopold was a woollen merchant, and his Uncle Moritz Saphir was a noted Viennese intellectual, satirist and journalist who converted to Lutheranism and had harsh and amusing words about the condition of his Jewish birth, 'corrected by the operation of Baptism'. The course of his life was fatefully interrupted, and its course changed, when his father died when he was still very young. This precipitated the family uprooting itself from Hungary and settling in Turkey, though it would appear that Leitner had his initial education in Hungary.

The death of his natural father was undoubtedly a defining moment in the life of his family and led to Leitner's mother moving with her family to Constantinople, in 1848, in order to remarry. This is most likely to have been a prearranged wedding, but another contributory factor may well have been the 1848 Revolution in Hungary, during which many Hungarians took refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Conventional histories say that Leitner's mother remarried a military physician and Christian medical missionary, a Dr Johann Moritz Leitner, who adopted Gottlieb, and Gottlieb took his name, and that Leitner's ado converted to Protestantism. In actuality, Bill Rubinstein's research has shown that Dr. J. M. Leitner was also born a Hungarian Orthodox Jew, in 1800, and trained as a doctor and went to Constantinople, initially as a military doctor for the Austrian government. Rubinstein's research has also shown that Gottlieb Leitner was also an uncle of British Cabinet Minister, Leo Amery--who vehemently hid his Jewish origins, but decisively supported the Balfour declaration.

Delving into the remarkable history of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews reveals further important information about Leitner's step-father. Dr. J. M. Leitner converted from Judaism to Protestantism and was baptised in October 1844, having read one of the gospels in the house of a Jewish friend. He is stated by the London Society to have been the first Jew to have been converted in Constantinople, and this would have given him considerable status. He first worked for the society in Galata, Turkey, but when funding failed in 1848 he went to Broussa (Bursa) where he built up a successful private practice. Later, in 1853, he was employed by the London Society as a medical missionary to the Sephardic Jews in Constantinople at Balat (where a school for 90 pupils was also established). They lived close by a major Jewish community of 70,000 'Spanish' (Sephardic) Jews, as well as a smaller refugee community of Kertch Jews from the Crimea. The redoubtable Rev. H. A. Stern, doyen of the London Society, had in that year taken over control of the Constantinople mission and it follows that Dr Leitner was appointed as his co-worker: certainly they became close friends. By his own step-son's account, Dr. Leitner was highly respected figure, and certainly not least by the young Leitner himself, who remembers him with pride and respect in his Lecture on Turkey and also describes his father as a scholar. Stern offered the observation that Dr Leitner had originally been destined to become a rabbi, which implies that he had studied Jewish learning at a high-level (and most probably had received a traditional Jewish religious education). He was evidently highly knowledgeable in traditional Jewish learning and conversant in Jewish mystical texts such as the Zohar, and he could engage in debate about these texts, for example by alluding to a proto-Trinitarian passage, concerning three mystical self-subsisting, but united and inseparable, degrees . At the same time, he was an advocate of modern scientific scholarship, and this forms the background of young Leitner's study of languages. We might conclude from this that Leitner grew up in complex Jewish and Jewish-Christian surroundings, and that while growing up in Turkey, as an ostensible Christian, the reality may well have been that Leitner and his family had a Jewish identity on the margins of the local Jewish community, albeit as 'outsiders looking in'.

The Medical Missions ran by the Society (from what we know of their operations in the East End of London) provided high quality, free medical help, at the cost of having to attend a sermon and short service before medical consultations commenced. It was Dr Leitner himself who, in the accounts of the London Society, would deliver the impassioned sermons to his patients and potential converts (and his obituary insists that he was a passionate individual). The Jewish Intelligence of 1856 reveals that he had treated 2,584 patients including the Chacham Bashee, one of the two assistants to the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, who along with the Chief Rabbi formed the highest Rabbinical court in Turkey. But local resistance to proselytising meant that the mission, other than the medical work, consisted in trying to establish schools for local Jews, with limited success, and passing out thousands of religious texts and tracts.

The Rev. H. A. Stern, Leitner's co-worker and director, was one of the leading lights of the mission in Turkey, and who famously, led the ill-fated mission to Abyssinia, enduring extraordinary privations and adventures for his faith. Both Jews and non-Jews, we are told, would flock to hear him when he gave lectures in London. Dr. J. M. Leitner died on 7 April, 1861, aged 61, as a direct result of his labours for the mission. He developed a liver disease following a fever caught while on a missionary tour, and lingered for three months before he expired. Many of the London Society missionaries died prematurely in foreign lands. The Rev. H. A. Stern was later to baptize the son of Leitner's younger sister, Leo Amery, and so the family connection continued in the long-term. Furthermore, we know from letters and diaries that Leitner's son Henry grew up with Leo, and that Leo and his mother spent summers at Woking, Leitner even funding Leo's education. It is highly notable that Leitner grew up in a missionary context and would have had contact with the Sephardic Jewish community, and it seems likely that his father's education plan not only designed to develop his natural talents, but was potentially preparing him to be a missionary / interpreter / translator, too.

It is important to observe that converts to Christianity, via the London Society, were not required to repudiate a Jewish identity entirely and the society promoted the continuing use of Hebrew and the creation of congregations composed of Jewish Christians. So it would not be right to suppose that young Leitner was required to repudiate all of his Jewish heritage or consciousness. The society promoted itself by using the languages of the local Jewish communities - Yiddish, German and Hebrew. The preserved memorials of the London headquarters, now housed in Spitalfields Church (which in the 19th century was also described and used as a 'Spitalfields Juden Kirche' and offered services in Yiddish) include much in Hebrew, and converted Jews were referred to as 'Christian Israelites' and 'Hebrew Christians'. We may speculate that Leitner may well have regarded himself as having a continuing Jewish identity as a Jewish Christian, though his sympathies with Islam, complicates this picture.

Returning to Leitner's early years and education, he states in his Lecture on Turkey that he was resident in various parts of Turkey from 1848 to 1858 and that his father seemed to have had a progressive plan of education for him, as he specifically wanted to encourage young Leitner's talent for languages. His father's plan was to send him to a wide variety of denominational and ethnic schools, as part of a 'liberal' education plan, seemingly to give him a variety of 'idiomatic' language experiences and knowledge, but backed by 'the approved system of our European scholars'.

Leitner will have lived in all the places his stepfather worked, but spent most of his childhood in Balat in Constantinople, where the Medical Mission was situated in a district of Jews who had originally fled to the neighbourhood to escape the Inquisition at the invitation of Sultan Bayezid II and were bitterly opposed to Christianity. Balat is described today as a 'down-to-earth neighbourhood of narrow cobbled streets and colourful houses' and a cosmopolitan district which had resident Jewish, Greek and Armenian communities. It still has many surviving religious buildings, such as the Greek Ecumenical Patriarchate basilica, synagogues and Byzantine churches.

He went to a variety of educational establishments near to the Mission in Balat, facilitated by his father's name and reputation as a doctor, detailed in his later Lecture on Turkey. While Leitner does not say as much, he may initially have been sent to the Mission School in Balat for Jewish children whose parents were 'inquirers' into Christianity, but this is speculation. However, according to his own statements, his education certainly included an Armenian School and later a Greek school and college. Leitner implies, and his biographer confirms, that he received advanced instruction in the Greek system at the Greek National College in 'Fannar'. The college he alludes to was quite probably the one still in the Greek quarter of Fanar in Constantinople (now Istanbul), located near the Cathedral of St George, which was the centre of Orthodox Christian culture under the Ottomans and combined a middle and high school for the ethnic Greek inhabitants of Constantinople.

All of these establishments must have been in close proximity to the family home. The review of his life also notes that he was sent to a German school as well. The one type of school he was not sent to was a Jewish school (except for possibly the missionary school for Jews), and it is the only school in his Lecture on Turkey that he describes without having any direct experience of it. This was perhaps due to the antipathy that the local Jewish leaders felt towards the activities of the missionaries, which are alluded to in the reports--the community, survivors as they were of the Spanish Inquisition, were not very likely to have appreciate having Christianity thrust upon them! However, it seems that Leitner had continued exposure to Hebrew, as the London Society used Hebrew and Hebrew publications and included Hebrew elements in Christian services to make them more familiar to Jewish converts and inquirers. Furthermore we know, through his biographer, that one of Leitner's languages was Hebrew, and his step-father was almost certainly fluent in the language. It is also likely that Leitner learnt Ladino, the ancestral language of Sephardic Jews - essentially a form of medieval Spanish - as Dr Leitner's target Jewish group were all local Ladino / Spanish speakers. There is some evidence for this, as Leitner had a spell translating medieval Spanish documents when in London at the Public Record Office. Ladino would have been an excellent preparation for this, as old Spanish is similar to Ladino in the way that Yiddish is similar to medieval German.

Leitner states in his Lecture on Turkey (a claim repeated in the review of his life) that his step-father subsequently used his connections (and the respect in which he was held) to get him into Islamic school in Constantinople, which was a difficult feat. It is in the Islamic School that Leitner first became fully immersed in Islamic culture and learning, later going to the Muhammadan Theological School at Constantinople in 1856 (most probably the Sahn-─▒ Seman Medrese, or, possibly the Cafera─ča Medresseh?). He learned Arabic and memorised large sections of the Koran and even styled himself at some time with an Arabic name, Abdur Rasheed Sayyah, Sayyah, meaning a 'traveller' and during his tour of Dardistan in 1886, disguised himself as a 'Bokhara Mullah'. Further inquiries reveal another unexpected fact: while he was studying at Islamic school and college, a large proportion of his study would have been the study of the Jewish philosopher, theologian, thinker, and doctor, Moses Maimonides (Rambam), who lived and worked in an Islamic culture and whose writings reflected Islamic intellectual tradition (falsafa) as well as Greek thought. The study of Maimonides ('al-Isra'ili') continues in Islamic colleges in Istanbul to this day, as described to me by a Turkish American Imam, who studied there. His spell in Islamic school made a powerful impression on Leitner and influenced the course of his life. It is possible that Leitner may have found in Islam a way to study part of Jewish tradition, mediated through Islam and most certainly forged a deep sympathy for Islam.

Leitner's pre-university education was completed by his attendance at the English Protestant College in Malta from 1853-4 (though another source suggests that his family went to Malta in 1856). His education there rounded off his multi-faith and multi-lingual education, in both contemporary and classical languages. Further research for this study, reveals that, contrary to the statement of his biographer, the school and college were at this precise time explicitly not only a school and college, but a missionary training organisation with both Jews and Muslims in its sights. It is interesting that the biographer sought to obfuscate this matter. In a report of 1854, the exact period the Leitner was there, the Malta College was described as a strictly Evangelical institution, with a multi-national group of students of 'natives from different regions of the East' which included converted Jews, and while it provided a very high quality of education, it principally aimed, after six years of instruction, to produce zealous missionaries, scripture readers and interpreters. It also had two auxiliary colleges / bodies of students, one to educate Europeans in the East and another to educate wealthy "Orientals", but again with missionary work in mind, though some students professed to be there to learn English.

As a fifteen year-old Leitner would have entered the college, rather than the school, as this was the age of entry. The author of the report stated, 'It is, indeed, a delightful thing to see how glad the young men are to talk about Christ and express their hopes of future usefulness in his service.' He also opined that, 'the people of England will aid them in the good cause of preaching salvation to the heathen.' There is every indication that Leitner was being prepared by his step-father for work as a missionary, or missionary / translator / interpreter, to the Jews and Muslims, in Turkey - given one of the key stated objectives of the school was to produce '...Missionaries, Scripture-Readers, and Interpreters', and the school stated that it saw all of the European boys as prospective ministers. This gives an entirely new perspective on his formative years and his time studying Islam. We may note another potentially important formative influence at the school, as the directors of the school advocated teaching the pupils in their vernacular, rather than English, as this had proved, from the experience of American missionaries, to be more educationally effective. The school also advocated, as a secondary objective, imbuing the pupils with the benefits of a 'scientific' and literary education and proposed an ambitious 'College' programme for scholars of 15 years old and above, involving several sciences as well as literature in classical languages, four European languages as well as Oriental languages. The lower 'School' taught 8 languages! This is much the same shape of education that Leitner was later to approve in his work as an educator in India. Researchers have attempted to try to understand the origins of Leitner's educational philosophy and approach, without reaching clear conclusions, but it is likely his cultural, linguistic and educational experiences and his missionary up-bringing in Turkey and Malta hold the key. Malta, which was then a British possession, was regarded by the missionaries as a valuable point to access the Levantine Jews and Muslims. If that is the case, Leitner evaded this destiny, whether by chance or choice, by going to Europe to complete his education in European universities.

After his year in Malta, Leitner took a temporary, first job in 1855, when he obtained by competition the post of Chief Interpreter, "First Class Interpreter", in the ordinary work of the department of the British Commissariat at Shumla, headquarters of the Ottoman army, with the rank of full Colonel in the British Army, during the Crimea War. This strongly implies that he was by this time highly fluent in most of the languages of the region, and knowledgeable about their cultures, and would have had invaluable local knowledge.

We might digress to give more details of Leitner's younger sister, Elizabeth, whose married name was Elisabeth Amery. Bill Rubinstein's research reveals that she too converted to Protestantism by the activities of Christian missionaries to the Jews and moved to St John's Wood, London, though the precise story remains to be determined. Her son, Leopold Amery, became a noted Cabinet Minister who hid his Jewish origins, but drafted the Balfour Declaration and supported Jewish causes. What is of further note is that Elizabeth remained in the continuing orbit of the London Society, as her son, the young Leopold, was later baptised in India by the Rev. Henry Stern, previously mentioned, and was a leading light of the Palestine Place mission, in Bethnal Green, the central institution for the London Society and one that played an important role in more general Jewish cultural assimilation in the East End of London. Leitner's sister was also a fluent Arabic speaker, all of which explains Leo Amery's tour de force in reciting the Koran, both perfectly and fluently, at the opening of the Regent's Park Mosque during the War! As Adolph Saphir was also converted through the activities of the London Society, it is now clear that the Leitner story is clearly interwoven with that of the London Society, and that one must consider that background against his later commitment, not to missionary work, but in the application of a missionary zeal to his multi-faith and multi-cultural work, in supporting the various religions, languages and cultures he encountered in India.

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