Voices of the Holocaust

A recent commission took me back into this dark history of the twentieth century, through the voices of some of its witnesses and survivors.

I was asked by the British Library to make 16 new web banners for heading the newly organised archive recordings and transcripts online, according to various themes. As I am an analogue creature and do not use a computer to generate my work, I cut out the proportions of the banners and stuck them on my studio wall next to the transcripts so that I could begin to assemble images that would offer ways in to each ‘chapter’.

Working on 16 web banner collages as a cohesive block – taped to the studio wall in the order of appearance (on the web.)

I was also asked to write a guest blog post about my approach to this work. Here it is – and a link to the whole incredible online resource as well. You can click on this link, or just read a slightly augmented version of it that I have pasted below – with a couple of bonus images and thoughts.

https://blogs.bl.uk/sound-and-vision/2023/03/from-vocal-to-visual-with-family-scraps-.html

Thanks to Miranda Schiller, Charmaine Wong, Chandan Mahal and the rest of the team at the British Library, who are making such sensitive connections between the material held there, generators of that material and audiences now and to come. This resource is rich, complicated and inspiring, a great help in the unlocking of history in accessible, personal dimensions.

Studio wall with work in progress

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 many themes as well as war, suffering, imprisonment, exile and loss. 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.

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.

The commissioning team at the British Library 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. 

Banner for the theme ‘Kindertransport’

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 accent, 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, by careful listening to the voices and their stories, both for particular images from the recordings, e.g. ‘my dad was still shaving’ or ‘an enormous troop ship’ and ‘the smell was disgusting, of rotting beetroot’ – and 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.

I found this postcard from Tante Paula – my dad’s ‘favourite aunt’ in Vienna – she was one of the millions who perished. I recount part of her legacy via a cardigan she knitted in my poem ‘Vosch by Hendt, Lern by Hart’ in my book Velkom to Inklandt (Short Books, 2017) there’s a link to a pdf of this poem at the bottom of this post.

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 shapes: stripes, rays, squares, 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.

Wishing all readers of my blog good rummagings – in scrap collections, web resources, family histories – and in making new knitwear from old – whatever form it takes. Below is the poem I wrote about the immortal cardigan knitted by Tante Paula, (whose name is different in the poem,) and its ever innocent wearers!


Connections in Storyland.

Over 2022 I was back on the live story collecting and drawing road, taking my ink and brushes both round the corner in south London – and all over the UK.

Fresh ink drawings pegged up under a mulberry tree in Mecklenburgh Square at a story collecting gig this summer at a party for Jewish Renaissance magazine.

To recap: this process is one I’ve written about before. It usually involves me sitting with a person and having a conversation, often on a theme, (like food) which I then draw and write live in front of them, using ink and brush and a distilled selection of their own words. Each narrator gets a copy of their story to keep, either on the day if we have a helper and access to an A3 copier, or later, by post.

Drawing at Marie’s house in Brixton

Early in the year I worked with a group of women from across the African diaspora, who are meeting to cook together and share stories with Brixton chef and teacher Marie Mingle, and doctoral researcher Natasha Dyer. We spent a day in Marie’s kitchen, and as well as doing one to one story drawing, I was invited to cook and eat with the group. I learned about some fantastic spice mixtures and recipes, as well as hearing of many tough situations that the women I met are dealing with, both here and back home. The food and company were delicious, also, bittersweet. I took home a jar of Marie’s green sauce which gives everything a lift.

Violeta’s wonderful mother
Building a house on a nurse’s wages: a topical story from Vimbai.

Still in London and still with the African diaspora, the people at UK book HQ – ie The British Library, are in the middle of a major project to connect their Sound Archive back with some of the communities the recordings represent. Chandan Mahal and Emma Brinkhurst from the BL team got in touch to see if I could do some listening with a group of Somali Londoners, together with Mancunian East African poet, Elmi, and a bunch of recordings from the 1980s – collected by ethnomusicologist John Low.

Maryam Mursal, Somali star.

To begin with, we all listened to the magnificent voice and music of iconic Somali singer Maryam Mursal . I drew her from a video clip and wrote down some of what she said, as well as what was said about her, by the people gathered for the session. Over subsequent weeks we listened together to lullabies, house building songs, herding songs and other examples of Somali music.

This is Ubah, from the Camden community group.
There were parts of conversation that were so poetic no pictures were needed.

A high spot for me was listening to the women sing and ululate live in the room where we gathered. Their voices animated the air – a spell to mend post-lockdown hearts.

‘ it’s like confetti!’
I’d brought coloured pencils along as well as ink, in case there would be kids there who might like to draw too. As it happened only the grown ups came that day, but I was glad to attempt to catch the colour in Hinda and Halima’s aleendi (woven scarves.)

As a thank you to the group and for continuity, the library produced this booklet based on the project, with pictures by me, a new poem by Elmi – many quotations and insights from the participants and a QR link to the music recordings. I think you can request one from the British Library as they have a few.

Booklet produced by the British Library Sound Archive. The painting on the cover is an attempt by me to translate the sound of a particular song into colour and form.
Elmi Ali, making me wish I’d paid attention as a child to my friend Navyn, who turned up at my primary school in 1972 from Tanzania, and tried to teach me Swahili.
From Elmi, whose grandmother was the survivor of a shocking and wild tale.

In September, I travelled to Glasgow, where the university, along with those of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh, is working with a newly set up body called the Scottish Council on Global Affairs. The SCGA has been set up to ‘deepen the debate’ around migration and citizenship, amongst other things. I was very proud to participate in such conversations, invited by two enterprising doctors of History: Rachel Chin and Sarah Dunstan. There were speakers from the worlds of law, local and international politics, grassroots migrant organisations – and many practical and potent ideas were expressed to challenge ongoing Brexit rhetoric.

Members of the morning panel at the Citizen Witness Seminar L to R: Joseph Brady, Dr Sarah Kyambi, Jennifer Todd, Dr Rachel Chin

After the talks I listened to and drew stories from some of the participants. Every story was a glimpse into the hidden worlds we all carry, of family, memory, home.

Here I am with PhD candidate Pinar Aksu, who gave a talk about the work she does with refugees and asylum seekers, helping them to raise their own voices to campaign for rights and opportunities to education and work.
A story collected from Pinar. She is a marigold too! Bright, bold and energising.
A feast to hear about the sequin runner and golden rice pudding.
Now I am referring to all blankets as kavatourts. A great word coined by Nathalie’s gran, whose own language was spurned. The day I returned from Glasgow, my train sped along under a grey kavatourt of rain.

I heard more treasures of inherited language at a recent gig at JW3 . As the event was to thank people who had supported the charity – I was asking narrators to tell me stories of things they’d been given, or learned from their parents, or things they would hope to pass on… Debby’s rather roguish dad had a family whistle, her mother: a Yiddish lullaby.

Dad, uh, how embarrassing!

Marcel didn’t know his parents, but became surprisingly conversant with the glamour of the Folies Bergère, aged four. He still speaks, with an almost indiscernible French accent, and great pride, of his astonishing rescuers.

What Marcel didn’t tell me, but another guest did, is that having become a successful dentist in the UK, he was able to pay for Olga and Esther’s care in their old age.

Here are a couple more stories from London Jews: I heard these in the summer and include them here for their thematic resonance. Language: lost and found.

I heard these two in the summer at the party in Mecklenburgh Square. Like Daisy below, part of what settled Fozi into her sense of self was the comfort of a half remembered language.
The surprise of understanding Arabic!

On another type of story jaunt – project Phakama was participating in a brand new festival in Brighton, and so myself and fellow associate artist (and dear pal) Charlie Folorunsho headed to Wildfest, in glorious Stanmer Park.

Charlie and myself at the end of our LORE workshop, photo by poet Pauline Sewards.

Charlie and I were trying out an IRL version of a project initiated by him, with support from a Phakama Digital bursary in 2021. Called The LORE, which stands for Language Of Resilient Expression, it started online as part of an artistic response to the pandemic. We’ve been joint facilitators: getting together with small groups of people online, sharing stories of the ways we have managed to cope and keep going through the challenge of covid and austerity and difficulties with health. This was our first go at presenting the workshop face to face. People came and practiced listening to and drawing each other’s stories. Charlie asked participants to reinvent the LORE, and try alternative R words that might help us survive – we heard ‘revolutionary’, ‘rebellious,’ ‘resourceful’ – please add your own, however ‘regrettable’ & join us. We hope to make a book of the LORE one day, in which we collate all we have heard and drawn from and with participants. A kind of survival kit.

Yet a different variety of live drawing was called for by poet Kirsten Luckins, who asked me to record the goings on at an inaugural Women Poets’ Festival, which she was organising with The Rebecca Swift Foundation, to be held at The National Centre for Writing in Norwich, in their epic Tudor Dragon Hall, as well as online. I travelled up with the day’s first speaker, ace poet and friend Jacqueline Saphra.

Her talk followed a guided meditation to begin the event in calm, led by poet Ros Goddard.

As my participation in the guided meditation I also let my ink and water slowly sink into the quiet moment.

Jacqueline gave an inspiring talk on rhyme, which she packed with dazzling examples from some of her favourite poems. I drew what I could catch – trying not to get so absorbed that I forgot to move my brush across the paper.

After a sonnet by American poet Jericho Brown
Some of Anne Sexton’s groundbreaking boldness

Jacqueline’s talk was followed by a presentation from Debris Stevenson who got us all to shake, and talked about what had provoked her towards her path of poetry and performance.

Debris was fired up by grime music and her dyslexia, among other things.
Can’t argue with that.

The last speaker was current TS Eliot prize shortlistee Victoria Adukwei Bulley who gave a talk on the practicalities of getting funded to make work, and showed us clips from her fascinating film, Mother Tongue, which explores language in exile and the poetry born from and inherent in that. Notice a theme?

Shaping one’s thinking through pertinent questions, with Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Translations: A mother is a kind of gold you can’t buy in the market.

There was a great buffet lunch and a fallow period to follow, in which I ran a kind of rolling collage studio – and also read peoples’ fortunes from INDEX.

My scraps find a page of their own in Norwich

The last part of the day heralded the grand announcements of who had won this years Women Poets’ Prize. There were three winners chosen from a shortlist of thirty. You can read more about the judges, all the poets and their brilliant work, on the Rebecca Swift Foundation website, as well as on social media.

The first winner to be announced was Prerana Kumar – a natural performer with a glowing poem.

The huge and ancient wood-beamed hall fell silent. Intimate worlds were spilled by the poets into the room from the stage and even from the video screens. Suddenly after all the busy whir of chat, meeting friends and jotting down ideas, we were in a different space. A mirror to the morning meditation we’d begun with – a contemplative zone.

Winner Dillon Jaxx read their poem via the video link. A fearless piece moving between family dinners to mountain and sea.

I had made over 35 drawings, and was pleased to see that many of the assembled poets had also made fabulous collage poems and zines in my portable studio. It was a truly creative day.

One of the three winners, Jennifer Lee Tsai created a beautiful, distilled atmosphere with this poem inspired by her grandfather

Huge thanks to all those who have shared stories with me, and all those who have found the imagination, space and funding to commission me to do this ongoing work which means so much to me.

And of course, thanks for reading my blog. Wishing you peace and poetry in 2023.