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Lesser’s Boarding House

  • During the 1940’s Max Lesser ran one of the very few German-Jewish boarding houses in Bombay – in the art deco “Soona Mahal” on Marine Drive.
  • Lesser’s Boarding House
  • HotelGerman Jewish boarding house
  • During the 1940’s Max Lesser ran one of the very few German-Jewish boarding houses in Bombay – in the art deco “Soona Mahal” on Marine Drive.

    Word Count: 25

  • During the 1940’s Max Lesser ran one of the very few German-Jewish boarding houses in Bombay in the art deco “Soona Mahal” on Marine Drive.

    “For the time being you have a room in a German-Jewish boarding house. Later you can look for what you like,” announced Walter Kaufmann to his friend Willy Haas as he greeted him in Bombay’s harbour in 1939 (Haas 1957, 220). Kaufmann was referring to Lesser’s Boarding House, one of very few German-Jewish guesthouses in the city. It was situated in the Soona Mahal, an art deco building on the famous Marine Drive, facing the Arabian Sea. Together with the neighbouring Sea Green boarding house, the coffee house on the ground floor, and the popular seaside promenade, Lesser’s Boarding House was part of an important network of contact zones for European émigrés, refugees from German National Socialism, British ex-pats and locals in a new and happening part of the city.

    Lesser’s Boarding House was owned and managed by Max Lesser (born 1882 in Dresden). After his iron and machine business in Dresden was expropriated by the Nazi government and he was released from imprisonment in the Buchenwald concentration camp, he arrived in Bombay in April 1939 with his wife Elli (also Elly, née Brühl, born 1890 in Berlin). He had attained a visa with the assistance of Francis Klein, the husband of his niece Gerda; both of whom were living in Bombay. Max and Elli shared the daily work of operating the guesthouse until her suicide on 9 Dec 1941; she fell from one of the building’s balconies. During the Second World War, the boarding house was requisitioned for British Army officers for two and a half years. When he regained possession, Lesser voluntarily returned the boarding house to the Station Staff Officer, who used it exclusively to house Army officers for an additional six months. Back in private business in 1945, Lesser succeeded in earning a high monthly income; for example 6800 Indian Rupees in 1946.

    Lesser’s Boarding House offered accommodation to Jewish refugees escaping Nazi torture and violence, but also to German and European ex-pats, possibly including Paul Zils. And during the Second World War it housed British Army staff on vacation from the fronts in the Indian East or Burma. Historical records also reveal that single women were residents. The “international zones” of boarding houses such as Lesser’s were the only places where single female refugees, without family affiliation, could find independent, affordable and safe lodging and catering facilities in Bombay outside the network of Jewish Relief Association (JRA). Lesser’s was actually an informal part of the JRA as Max was an active member, doing social work for many years in the Jewish Immigrant Home, the Jewish Cemetery in Chinchpokli and taking part in Jewish religious services.

    The temporary community of guests at Lesser’s reflected an extended notion of family in times when the biological family was continents away. Sharing meals and strolling along Marine Drive together every evening generated a strong emotional bond between the refugee residents. Lesser’s Boarding House also functioned as a kind of extension of the JRA through the infrastructural assistance it offered to the arriving Jewish refugees. Lesser’s and other German-Jewish boarding houses also served as cultural translators, providing an introduction to the rules, values and duties of British-Indian colonial society.

    As soon as the refugees arrived in India, they were exposed to colonial customs, for example, having personal domestic staff caring for them. “For dinner at the big table you bring your servant, who stands behind his master's chair to serve him; apparently a colonial custom. After all, an imposing scene - these men dressed in snow white with turbans and colourful belts in the second row,” reported Ernst Schäffer in 1934 (Shaffer 1971, 19). And in 1939 Kaufmann confirmed to Haas: “A young servant has already been hired for you. You can’t live here without private servants, not even in a German boarding house” (Haas 1957, 220).

    While Lesser’s may not have openly made distinctions about the national, racial or cultural backgrounds of its residents, other guesthouses and boarding residences in the Soona Mahal imposed strict “Europeans Only” policies. The exclusion of non-Europeans reveals the inherently racist structures that underpinned colonial society, even in a building that provided comfort to refugees fleeing fascism. For all its professed cosmopolitanism, colonial Bombay reproduced class, caste and racial divides. While white refugee women were welcomed into the rented rooms of the Soona Mahal and could partake in its embrace of modernity, many local people were limited to the public space of the promenade outside its doors, unless, of course, they were staff.
    All English translations by the authors.

    Word Count: 780

  • Soona Mahal, Marine Drive, Bombay (now Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Rd  Churchgate, Mumbai).

  • Historic postcard view of Marine Drive with the Soona Mahal on the far right and Sea Green opposite (Private Collection Rachel Lee).
  • Drawing of Marine Drive from the roof of the Soona Mahal by Walter Langhammer (© Vardha and Dinesh Thacker Collection, Mumbai. All Rights Reserved).
    Portrait Max Lesser, around 1945 (Reprinted from Geni, Max Lesser).
    Portrait Elli Lesser (Reprinted from Geni, Elli Lesser (Brühl).
    List of approved companies of exiles from July and August 1941 in The Calcutta Gazette, no. 13, 25 September 1941, white background: p. 489, grey background: p. 490 (reprinted from Franz 2015, 140).
  • Art Deco Mumbai. “Discover Soona Mahal along Mumbai’s Marine Drive.” Google Arts & Culture, Accessed 1 May 2021.

    Franz, Margit. Gateway India: Deutschsprachiges Exil in Indien zwischen britischer Kolonialherrschaft, Maharadschas und Gandhi. Clio, 2015.

    Gangar, Amrit. The Music That Still Rings at Dawn, Every Dawn: Walter Kaufmann in India, 1934–1946. Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, 2013.

    Haas, Willy. Die literarische Welt. Erinnerungen. Paul List, 1957.

    Lesser, Max. “Ein Freund in Not.” Aufbau, 5 July 1946, p. 28.

    Shaffer, Ernest N. [Ernst Schäffer]. Ein Emigrant entdeckt Indien. Information und Wissen, 1971.

    Word Count: 90

  • “Elli Lesser (Brühl).” Geni, Accessed 15 May 2021.

    “Max Lesser.” Geni, Accessed 1 May 2021.

    Grant of Natural Certificate Under the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914, to Mr Max Lesser, A German Jew (National Archives of India, New Delhi, 1946), HOME/POL(E)1946/32-331.

    Naturalisation Certificate Max Lesser. From Germany. Resident in India. Certificate O3971 issued 16 April 1947 (The National Archives, Kew/UK, 1947), HO/334/256/3961.

    The Times of India (Mumbai) Archive, via Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin: Accessed 30 March 2021.

    Word Count: 91

  • Margit Franz; Rachel Lee
  • 1939
  • Max Lesser, Elli Lesser, Willy Haas, Walter Kaufmann, Paul Zils

  • Bombay
  • No
  • Margit Franz; Rachel Lee. "Lesser’s Boarding House." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 14-09-2021.
  • Willy Haas
    EditorScript WriterCultural Critic

    The former editor of Die Literarische Welt fled to Bombay in 1939. In India Haas worked as scriptwriter for Bhavnani Productions – and had further impact on modern Indian film.

    Word Count: 28

    Paul Zils

    Paul Zils became a central figure in the realm of the Indian documentary film history. Before his emigration to Bombay in 1945, he had worked at Ufa in Germany.

    Word Count: 28

    Jewish Relief Association Bombay
    Relief Organisation

    In 1934, the first refugees from National Socialism founded a Jewish aid association in Bombay called the Jewish Relief Association (JRA) to help refugees in financial and other difficulties.

    Word Count: 28

    Walter Kaufmann

    The 12-year exile in Bombay shaped Walter Kaufmann’s life and work; his signature tune for All India Radio is played till today.

    Word Count: 23