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


Bookmark this page |  E-mail this page to a friend

Pages < 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   > 


We have previously noted that Leitner's formal achievements were numerous. He was an explorer, linguist, philologist, archaeologist, art collector, museologist, with many books and publications to his name. He was a profound student of religions, inter-faith figure, pioneering and campaigning editor of numerous publications and journals, founder of many schools, an administrator, the founder of a university, a library, and not least, the founder of the 'Oriental College' in Woking, and the first purpose-built mosque and Muslim cemetery in the UK.

More generally, he was a humanitarian and philanthropist and he worked to benefit humanity with a rare tolerance, regardless of origin or religion, and this was achieved by his work and through his genius for languages, linguistics, art, religion and education.

Leitner was revolutionary in many ways: he clearly believed that education was about genuine cultural and religious interchange, and he validated other cultures, religions and identities, and the empowerment of regions and countries through education, well before the notion of pluralism and the inter-faith movements were established in the late 19th century and into the 20th century. He also operated, not just on a local, or national, scale, but acted with an international and global scope and consciousness, which gives him a very modern feel.

It may be argued that Leitner's Jewish background and identity, combined with his linguistic genius, and his experience of being an outsider because of his Jewish origins, was vital in what he did, who he became and what he achieved. It seems that the British regarded him as 'German' and primarily as part of the German intellectual and technocratic elite who had come to apply their services to the Raj, in research and building institutions, and were welcomed by the British for these services. In fact, in his application for Naturalization (assuming there is not a confusion with a Leitner of the same name), Leitner described himself as 'Austrian', which represents yet another obfuscation about his origins. The British found that they needed to use his unique linguistic and cultural knowledge in India, even though they did not like his Liberal stance, while his outsider status and lack of sympathy for the colonialists, as well as ability to adapt to local languages, religion and culture, meant that he gained the trust of Indians and was able to work closely with the local communities to achieve objectives which they wanted. It also seems that his experiences growing up in Turkey and in Malta significantly influenced his views on education and inclined him to highly regard the value of classical and local languages as vehicles of education and a natural way forward, as well as the need to engage with and understand different cultures. Also, watching his step-father's well-meaning struggle to impose unwanted Christianity and culture on the Jewish descendants of survivors of the Spanish Inquisition, against the facts of their history, culture and hostility, may have encouraged him not to try and impose a European type of education on native Indians, without first taking note of their languages, needs and aspirations. Leitner spoke specifically of the need to translate European education by a process of adapting and transforming the European idiom of education into an Eastern idiom, so it is inaccurate to say that Leitner was simply trying to shoe-horn the system of western education into India, something more sophisticated and genuinely mediating was taking place.

Leitner was also in many way typical of Jews who had assimilated, but were still inevitably influenced by their Jewish heritage. Pertinent factors are that he came out of a Jewish multilingual (and multicultural) background, with a high level of literacy and education and an ability to take full advantage of the educational opportunities on offer. His family had embraced and experimented with alternative (assimilated) Jewish identities, and they used and were part of an extended international Jewish network (which took him and his family to Constantinople). These were all critical factors in his personal trajectory. When he established himself, he also conformed to the activities of Jewish super-elite, as he was engaged in merchant banking and acquired substantial wealth, moved socially amongst an international elite. He engaged in high levels of philanthropic activity and charity, as well as in his desire to collect art and artefacts, curated at the highest standard, using international connections and networks, as well as in the acquisition of an estate in the country and the building of substantial buildings, expressing an international architectural taste, to display his art in.

Leitner has now been largely forgotten and story has unjustifiably faded from public view, even though his life and work in promoting tolerance and mutual understanding are needed ever more in this increasingly global and interconnected world in which religion can still be a source of conflict, rather than understanding and harmony. Leitner, was a true global citizen, promoting inter-faith relations and multi-culturalism, across boundaries and continents, promoting national self-determination and allowing all to realise their full potential.

Post a Comment
Submit to this trail