Persecution and survival: One family, three cities, six years of war

Stefan and Franciszka Thermerson reunited in London, 1942

Stefan and Franciszka Thermerson reunited in London, 1942 - Credit: Archant

An exhibition at the Wiener Library uses drawings, letters and photographs to follow a family’s story of persecution and survival during the Holocaust. Zoe Paskett visits the library and talks to Jasia Reichardt about the Themersons and life post war

Jasia with her grandmother Lucja and mother Maryla

Jasia with her grandmother Lucja and mother Maryla - Credit: Archant

When she was a little girl, Jasia Reichardt collected children’s magazines. She remembers a quiet and pleasant life, with a teddy bear called Sebastian who was given to her by her aunt and uncle. Her two problems were her hair and a fear of going anywhere by herself.

Soon she’d have to face one of those problems.

She was six years old when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Forced to move into the Warsaw Ghetto with most of her family, she shared a room with her mother and grandmother. Her father remained on the outside and her aunt and uncle had by this point moved to Paris.

This is a familiar story of the millions of Jewish people living in Poland during the Holocaust. There is no end to the miraculous ways in which survivors got through those years of torture, but Jasia’s story, and that of her family, is particularly striking.

Her mother’s sister, Franciszka, and her husband Stefan Themerson – who gave Jasia the teddy bear – are now known to be pioneers of the avant-garde movement not just in Poland but in Paris and London as well.

At the Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust and genocide, Jasia is taking me around her new exhibition.

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Jointly curated with the library’s own Barbara Warnock, ‘One Family, Three Cities, Six Years of War’ brings together the library and Jasia’s own collections.

“If you look at some of the things from before the war,” says Jasia, “the exhibition really covers two decades. It’s what happened before and what happened afterwards.”

Franciszka Thermerson's You Can’t Help It, Can You? [self-portrait], 1941. Pen and ink.

Franciszka Thermerson's You Cant Help It, Can You? [self-portrait], 1941. Pen and ink. - Credit: Archant

While many exhibitions have presented the Themerson’s work, none have, until now, shown the timeline of their lives in relation to the atrocities they and their families encountered. The combination of Jasia’s own collection of personal photographs and letters with the documents from the library’s archives gives a full account of those years that has never been seen before.

Jasia (neé Chaykin) was born into a family of artists and academics – Maryla, her mother, was an illustrator and pianist, and her father Sewek was an architect. The Themersons moved to Paris and Franciszka was working as an illustrator and Stefan a filmmaker when war broke out in 1939. They volunteered for the Polish army, Stefan as a soldier and Franciszka as a cartographer for the Polish Government in Exile, which soon moved to London, separating the couple.

Meanwhile, Jasia was living in the ghetto, her family being kept alive by food parcels from Franciszka.

“Despite their brave faces and trying to maintain some sort of normal continuity, it’s obvious that things are getting worse,” she says.

“We’ve been there already for over a year and now I am eight. One day, I have a bright idea and try it out on my mother and grandmother: ‘Do we have to be Jewish? It’s obviously not a very good thing? Couldn’t we be something else?’ But there is no answer, and so their silence must mean that some questions cannot be answered. A lesson learned.”

In 1942, when the liquidation of the ghetto began, she left in an ambulance with her grandmother and escaped from the hospital grounds by climbing under a barbed wire fence before being taken to a family who sheltered her. She lived in a series of Catholic convents and was baptised under a new identity, Maria Janina Teresa.

She found out later that her parents were taken to Treblinka and, along with 800,000 others, were murdered.

After the war ended, the Themersons, who were now living together on Randolph Avenue in Maida Vale, were reunited with Jasia and she came to live with them in London.

Jasia's passport photo

Jasia's passport photo - Credit: Archant

“It wasn’t a city like Warsaw,” she says. “Warsaw before the war was like a small Paris: lots of big buildings with flats. Of course, what was new for me was double-decker buses and the escalator, I’d never been on an escalator.”

After attending Dartington Hall school in Devon, a liberal arts school at which the children of Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley and Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth were students, she studied at the Old Vic theatre school.

The Themersons were painting and writing and running the Gaberbocchus Press – the first avant-garde press in England.

“Franciszka and Stefan were working, they were busy. As soon as I learned a bit of English I was walking around by myself and nobody worried about it. It was safe. I don’t think that a 12 year old girl would be let out in the evening to go to the theatre alone today. But there was nothing to stop you, it was very cheap and it was very exciting.”

The exhibition itself follows this entire sequence of events, utilising the extensive archives that sit in special rooms below the building.

The collection is astounding – Barbara shows me books, photographs, letters, identity papers, an anti-Nazi pamphlet hidden in a tomato seed packet – and is one of the world’s most extensive on the Holocaust and Nazi era.

Founded by Dr Alfred Wiener, a German Jew who began building up his collection before the Nazis came into power, the library is now home to countless testimonies, rare material and personal documents. Wiener left Germany at the start of the war and relocated to Amsterdam and later London, where he settled in Golders Green and housed his collection in Marylebone’s Manchester Square.

Now living in Belsize Park, Jasia Reichardt has enjoyed an immensely successful career as an art critic and exhibition organiser. As assistant editor for Art News and Review while living with the Themersons, she attempted “to cover every single exhibition which was on, which was possible because there were very few galleries. On a Saturday afternoon you could see every gallery in London; it would take two and a half hours.

Franciszka Thermerson's Fernando [self-portrait], February 1941. Pen and ink.

Franciszka Thermerson's Fernando [self-portrait], February 1941. Pen and ink. - Credit: Archant

“It was a very important time because that’s when ideas were being born without us being able to realise them.”

She went on to become assistant director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (where she curated a groundbreaking exhibition on Cybernetic Serendipity) and director of the Whitechapel Gallery, as well as writing a book ‘Fifteen Journeys; Warsaw to London’ about her experiences.

The timeline of Jasia and the Themerson’s lives tells the tale of years of suffering but also the overriding sense of creativity and defiance that the family demonstrated through their art.

Franciszka’s drawings “Unposted Letters” are simple and full of emotion, and the couple’s anti-Nazi film, Calling Mr Smith, resonates with a chilling familiarity of words we hear today.

The exhibition is a memory, not simply of this family, but of the millions who died and a stark warning of what can happen if we stand by and allow it.

‘One Family, Three Cities, Six Years of War’ runs until April 28. The Wiener Library, 29 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DP