16 March 2023
From vocal to visual, with family scraps
Artist Sophie Herxheimer, creator of the artwork for the British Library’s new Voices of the Holocaust website, reflects on her approach to contextualising and representing the voices of Holocaust survivors.
This collection of interviews with Holocaust survivors encompasses themes of war, suffering, imprisonment, exile and loss. But there are also things that made me laugh, many surprises, sharply conjured memories and images - and a lot of detailed insight about Britain, and its relationships with refugees and European politics, much of which still resonates today.
The British Library’s learning team approached me about the idea of creating a different way in to this dark chapter of history: something to replace the grainy photographs of hollow-eyed victims of atrocity that so often accompany this type of material.
We discussed how we could better reflect the dignity, courage and long term contributions of the people in these interviews, their often long and settled lives in the UK – their legacy as parents, workers, friends and neighbours, whose identities were not ossified in victim mode.
We thought of the liveliness of these extraordinary testimonies which help to shed light on who we all are, and what really happened, as well as the contribution these immigrants made to post war British culture.
My father, aunt and grandparents arrived in London in November 1938 from Berlin, saved by an inventive job offer for my doctor grandfather, from the hastily set up Council for Academic Refugees (it’s still going!). The family spoke German at home in North London, but never spoke of Germany or the war years. Nor was our Jewishness referred to, we were head-down, assimilated, secular Londoners; on my mum’s side too, though her forebears were from a much earlier wave of immigrants from Russia.
My first step towards realising the commission was to listen. The next steadying thought I had was to devise a palette that would immediately suggest an atmosphere, and use colour to loosen any oppressive sense of worthiness, horror or ‘explanation’. I mixed gouaches based on the furnishings that I remembered from my paternal grandparents’ house. It had a strong middle European flavour, with its whiskery upholstery, heavy wooden furniture and fern green window frames.
Coffee was a colour too. So was herring, paprika and beer. I painted paper in these shades and went through my collage scrap bags for period ephemera. (I hoard scraps, like any self-respecting child of a refugee.) I found pages from 1930s journals, family letters and postcards that I have in a beribboned bundle, some books written in German Gothic script that I’ve picked up on scourings of charity shops and cupboards.
I began to compile and cut out images for each themed banner, paying careful attention to the voices and their stories...
1. 'My dad was still shaving...'
Henry Kuttner remembers the November Pogrom of 1938
Download Henry Kuttner transcript
2. 'Quite a big troop ship...'
Willy Field on being sent to Australia
Download Willy Field transcript
3. ‘You could smell - rotten cabbages - and beetroot...'
Edith Birkin on conditions in the Łódź Ghetto
Download Edith Birkin transcript
I was searching not only for particular images from the recordings but also for vocal tone and texture, e.g. hesitation, indignation, mirth, age, accent. These were all keys to the sensations I wanted to convey (texture is an essential tool when making work to be seen online).
I like to fight the flatness of the screen with chunky textural heft. It’s another enlivening way to disrupt the surface and get beneath it. I composed the banners with reference to a mid-century graphic aesthetic - a lot of which was pioneered in the Bauhaus, during Germany’s short-lived, but eternally influential, Weimar period.
Using photocopied strips cut from family correspondence, with its fluent handwriting in varied scripts and gestures, as well as the soft ephemerality of its faded paper, added immediate authenticity, as well as offering structure to my collages. I used the writing to make the shapes of stripes, rays, squares and buildings.
I could cut figures from different pieces of found material, e.g. a ‘situations wanted’ page of The Times, 1939: “Educated Viennese Jewess seeks domestic work…” or a page from a child’s comic my father had grown up reading, which was seamless Nazi propaganda written into sentimental stories about ‘sacrifice’ and ‘the fatherland’. I also used scraps of printed wrapping papers if they seemed evocative, or had adjacent colours, or suggested period through pattern.
I hope by making these collages from largely discarded materials, to also echo in a small way the resourcefulness and practicality of the people in the recordings, who had to use whatever they could find, including imagination, to emerge from the horrors of war and persecution.