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Hedi Stadlen (Keuneman) 1916-2004 : 

Indefatigable political activist

by B. Skanthakumar

Hedi Stadlen, better remembered in Sri Lanka as Hedi Keuneman, died under tragic circumstances on January 21, 2004 in London, aged 88. She had been "hidden from history" until the pioneering efforts of Kumari Jayawardena in her under-appreciated study of western women in colonial South Asia, The White Woman's Other Burden (1995).

Hedi Stadlen lived in Sri Lanka for five years during the Second World War where she was an indefatigable political activist who identified herself with the colonised people, living among them and sharing in their struggles for social justice and freedom.

Born Hedwig Magdalena Simon on January 6, 1916 in Vienna to Else Reis and the economist and banker Hans Simon, her studies in science at Vienna University were interrupted by the virulent anti-semitism of the 1930s that drove her family to leave Austria for the safety of Switzerland and later the United States.

Hedi Stadlen continued her studies but switched to Moral Sciences (philosophy) at Newnham College in Cambridge under the tutelage of Ludwig Wittgenstein, graduating with First Class Honours in 1939, but as a woman, was excluded under university rules from the award of her degree!

There was time for radical politics and she spent her weekends in London working for the cause of Indian freedom in Krishna Menon's India League.

As she later explained to Kumari Jayawardena, "the racial discrimination suffered by the Jews in Austria made me feel sympathetic to the victims of colonial rule and strengthened my determination to identify with the fight for the freedom and independence of colonial peoples" (The Sunday Island, January 6, 1991).

Cambridge University

It was at Cambridge University that she met and fell in love with Pieter Keuneman "whom another contemporary, British historian Eric Hobsbawm, enviously recalled as "dashing, witty and remarkably handsome" in his recent memoir Interesting Times (2002).

Pieter Keuneman was President of the Cambridge Union, editor of the student magazine The Granta, and one of two sons of a Supreme Court Justice in Ceylon (as it then was).

However, it was the maelstrom of international politics that threw them together as capitalist crisis, the Spanish Civil War, fascist victories in Germany and Italy, and the powerful counter-example of the Soviet Union attracted them as it did many others of their generation to the British Communist Party. Hedi and Pieter Keuneman were married in Switzerland in September 1939.

They proceeded to Sri Lanka the following year where the Left movement had recently divided on its approach to the anti-colonial struggle in the wake of the Second World War.

Both joined the United Socialist Party that was pro-Soviet Union in orientation and advocated cooperation with the colonial government against the common enemy of Fascism.

Hedi Keuneman briefly taught between 1940 and 1942 at both Colombo University, and the Modern School initiated by another Communist emigrant and India League veteran, Doreen Wickremesinghe.

She was particularly active in the "Friends of the Soviet Union": an international solidarity campaign with the socialist lodestar. She distributed pro-Communist literature including Pieter Keuneman's The Soviet Way (1942), published leaflets, and addressed meetings in Colombo and elsewhere among English-speaking supporters.

She also authored a pamphlet Under Nazi Rule publicising Hitler's tyranny, "especially highlighting the oppression of German women under Fascism" (Kumari Jayewardena).

Co-operative societies

Food rationing followed the outbreak of war and co-operative societies were formed to distribute affordable food stocks.

Hedi Keuneman was elected president of one such association, monitoring food stocks and prices in central Colombo, and popularising local, cheaper, food cereals such as bajiri, earning herself the sobriquet "bajiri nona."

In 1943 when the Communist Party of Ceylon was formed, Pieter Keuneman became its first General Secretary.

He recollected (Sunday Times, October 11, 1992) their austere living as Hedi and he subsisted on boiled del fruit and sambol, living modestly in Borella, so as to be near the CP office in Cotta Road (now Dr. N. M. Perera Mawatha).

Pieter Keuneman also edited the CP's English-language weekly newspaper, Forward, that Hedi would sell.

The artist Ouida Keuneman, then a schoolgirl at Methodist College and decades later to marry Pieter Keuneman, remembered first meeting Hedi when a beautiful woman with shoulder-length black hair, barefoot, and in a red sari insisted on selling her the party paper on her way to school (The Island, February 9, 1997).

With the end of the war in 1945, Hedi Keuneman travelled to Europe to meet her mother as Communists were barred from entering the United States, where her father had died in 1942.

She chose not to return to Pieter Keuneman and therefore to Sri Lanka.

Instead she began a new relationship with an old friend from Vienna, Peter Stadlen, whom she subsequently married in 1953, and lived with in the North London suburb of Hampstead.

Willing collaborator

He was a concert pianist whom injury obliged to turn to music criticism chiefly for the Daily Telegraph. Hedi Stadlen was his willing collaborator, influenced no doubt by her own musical heritage as grand-niece of the composer and conductor, Johann Strauss.

Following her husband's death on January 20, 1996, she volunteered until two years ago at a school for children with learning difficulties, helping them with their reading.

While Hedi Stadlen never rejoined the Communist Party, her obituaries in the Independent, Guardian, and Times recognised that she never renounced her socialist convictions.

Erased from official history and institutional memory, Hedi Stadlen was one among those western women, who, inspired by socialist internationalism betrayed their origins of class and colour, taking on more universal identities and allegiances.

Hedi Stadlen is survived by her sons Nicholas, a commercial law barrister, and Godfrey, a senior civil servant in the Home Office, and their five children.

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