It’s hard to know where to start explaining this artwork, its by far the most personal thing I have produced.
Trump banned refugees from the USA on World Holocaust Day. Something in me shifted slightly, a little shudder, a quiet alarm. Because my family have been the people denied entry, the unwanted, the stateless, hopeless victims of circumstance and prejudice.
I grew up with white privilege; I looked and sounded like everyone else on our suburban Norfolk housing estate. But that’s not quite so, the fact is my Paternal Grandmother is a holocaust survivor, a German Jew and immigrant with English as her third language. Her whole family was dispersed or murdered and driven to despair in 1930’s Berlin. The shadow this terrible inheritance has cast on our family does not block out the sun, but its always been there in the background and it has certainly coloured my world view.
We have the letters sent from my Great Grandparents (trapped in Berlin, not allowed to work, with all their assets confiscated, soon to die themselves), to their children (my Gt Uncles) who have managed to escape on the Kinder transport. My Gt Grandparents situation is heart wrenching and pitiful, but they also give colour and light to a city and life we will never know.
A large character in these letters is that of Tante Frieda, (Gt Grandfather Leopold’s sister, my Gt, Gt Aunt) who owned a fur coat shop in Paris and one thread of the correspondence relays the story of her passage with her family on the SS St Louis. They had escaped the Nazi’s to start a new life in Cuba; they had visa’s and Frieda had got away with her daughter Henny.
The doomed SS St Louis is a tragic tale of 900 Jewish refugees who managed to escape the persecution of the Nazi regime, just before the outbreak of war, on a lovely cruise ship no less! But they are refused entry to Cuba (they all had visas) and then the USA, sitting for weeks moored out in the harbour. Running out of food they are forced to return to Europe, the passengers are desperate and suicidal. England, France and Belgium agree to split the passengers on the ship between them; but of course, they have just fled Europe, so they know this is only a temporary rest bite from persecution. They all drew lots for which country they would disembark to. Tante Frieda drew France and her daughter Henny the UK. For whatever reason they decided to swap – Frieda going to the UK and Henny returning to France. Frieda survived the war and indeed went onto live a long life. Unfortunately France fell to the Nazi’s only weeks after Henny disembarked and she perished at Auschwitz; along with the majority of my Jewish family.
These ladies really caught my interest, I am not quite sure why these characters stand out especially to me, but of all my murdered and brutalised family, it is their story I cant help but follow. So I did what every modern woman does and googled the subject. I had no idea so much effort and love had gone into retelling Jewish history – The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) is a fabulous resource, and in it huge archive I found photo albums of the passengers on this ill fated voyage.
Whilst looking through photos of the passengers roller skating, drinking, laughing and relaxing I left the computer unattended and my children suddenly shouted, ‘mummy, mummy there is a photo of you in the past!!!’ and there she is, an ‘unnamed’ woman from 70 years ago who looks so strikingly like me that my own children thought she WAS me I REALLY wasn’t expecting this, it freaked me out a bit. Could this be Henny?
Whether or not the unknown woman in the photo is Henny I can never know for sure. But whoever she is, she is most definitely the muse for ‘ A World Without’. The piece depicts a young, hopeful woman. Her body is made up of all the other passengers on the SS St Lois I could find photographs of and by painting each of the portraits I am honouring and bearing witness to their lives and their senseless murders – as most of the passengers ended up in the gas chambers and concentration camps within months of returning to Europe, all that hope destroyed.
The figure is a traditional leaded stained glass panel; stained glass has been used for centuries to commemorate the dead and the big events of history and this is my modest addition to this cannon. Each piece of glass has been hand painted and fired in the kiln and then made up using traditional leading techniques. This has take hours of work and research; a careful meditation and remembrance of people who were dehumanised and disregarded.
There are millions of us around the world who only have to go back a generation or two before we all find out we are refugees or immigrants and this artwork is a small act of re-humanising the other. This art work is a quiet request to look at our shared history, understand where you come from and stand up now to reject hate and offer love to those with less than us. History has the lessons for us, if we choose not to head them than we have truly learned nothing.
Huge thanks to my family, Gt Uncle Se’ev (our last remaining holocaust survivor), Cousin Hagit and my Dad for all their knowledge.
Kind thanks to USHMM for their help and resources, photographs are courtesy of their photographic archive.