Diary of a semishiksa: waiting to be unmasked
Such telegrams feature in the exhibition — some with heavy lines crossed through them by prying censors. But what are, perhaps, even more striking, are the pieces that were never even dispatched — namely, Unposted Letters, a series of drawings created by Franciszka as a means of self-expression and asserting identity in a time of great uncertainty. Each drawing is a haunting mix of simple sketching and complex metaphor. Among them, a woman, wearing a gas mask, struggles to smell a flower; a dog nurses a dying cat as doodlebugs fill the sky; a young girl, with missing limbs, looks vacantly into the distance beneath attacking planes. Below her, a simple message is scrawled: “Help!”
“Franciszka was a painter, but she didn’t paint at all during the war, because, somehow, she couldn’t,” Reichardt says. “She Jasia Reichardt as a child (above), with an illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and sketches, all by her aunt Franciszka Themerson. didn’t somehow believe in the future. She had no idea what was going to happen, and she didn’t know what was happening to her family in Poland or if she would get Stefan out. These drawings were the most immediate way of saying something about her life. Some have titles, some don’t.”
Metaphor, she says, “was the Themersons’ language. Both Stefan and Franciszka said everything in their work that could be understood if one looked and thought about what was written and painted.
“They knew that their work was important and, without anybody saying anything about the subject, I also knew that. This is why I spent 20 years working on their archive, which is now in the National Library in Warsaw.”
On the subject of her avantgarde aunt and uncle, Reichardt is vocal and effusive. But turn the talk to her own story within the family narrative, and she speaks with modesty and hesitance, despite having experienced tremendous upheaval herself. In 1942, as Stefan landed on British shores, Reichardt, then nine, fled the Warsaw Ghetto, and spent the next three years living in Catholic orphanages under an assumed alias. She never saw her parents again; in 1946, when news of her survival finally reached the Themersons, she was brought to London to live with them. In an unknown land, she took solace in the smell of oil paint that filled their home — a reminder of her grandfather’s studio in Warsaw. Then, having enrolled at boarding school and still not confident in speaking English, she found familiarity by attending music concerts, recitals and art exhibitions — reminders of her artistic upbringing.
Having been a young girl who, in her own memoir Fifteen Journeys, she describes as being too afraid to be left alone, she quickly became fearless, independent, and unquenchably curious, taking herself to the theatre or off to the Royal Albert Hall to hear the proms at the age of 12.
“I just wanted to see life,” she says. “I wanted excitement and I wanted to learn. I was an intellectual. I am under-educated and never went to university, but give me a subject and I will learn it. I am still learning today.”
Reichardt’s early education was, it seems, most strongly informed by living with her resolutely freethinking relatives. In the late 1940s, they launched Gaberbocchus Press, the first avant-garde press in Britain, which published the first English translations of many experimental European writers. Then, in the 1950s, they launched a members club for artists and scientists to meet and share ideas. This, as it turns out, was a pivotal time for Reichardt, who found herself fascinated by “the border lines of visual arts.”
She explains: “In the 1950s, when I first started writing about art, you could imagine the art world as a circle where, in the middle, sat sculpture, drawing and painting. On the edges, you had theatre, literature, dance, science — it was those edges that I was interested in.”
This show, she says, is vastly different from anything else she has ever produced, and — despite telling a very personal narrative, has at times proven to be her most challenging. For example, the very use of the word “Holocaust” in relation to her family’s experiences is something that, until now, has made Reichardt feel both apprehensive and uneasy.
“I would have done such an exhibition without mentioning the word ‘Holocaust’ because facts speak for themselves,” she says. “If, for instance, you have a timeline of the war, you don’t have to elaborate. I like understatement.”
It is no surprise, then, that she believes the strength of the show comes from its “lack of certain elements, because everything was lost.” Indeed, the very fact that there are hardly any pictures of Reichardt as a child, or that some letters were never sent, tells volumes of a once tight-knit family ripped apart.
Understatement is, after all, a powerful tool. If a picture speaks a thousand words, just imagine what a censored telegram, or an unsent missive, or an unseen drawing is trying to say.
ICANNOT REMEMBER ever not knowing that I was half-Jewish. I knew that only my dad was Jewish and that it was a key part of who he was. I grew up on tales of “How Mamma was shot at as she escaped across the border,” and of my great-aunt’s will in which her “bequest” to my dad was “…that he shall never visit the following countries: Russia, Germany, Lithuania, Poland etc.”
Although my mother wasn’t Jewish herself, she seemed to be drawn to Jews — her two best friends, both half-Jewish Germans, had survived the war in Germany on false papers but almost starved. Other children might have grown up on fairy tales; we were told about how Lise had wept with fear and rage when her precious jar of pickled eggs was stolen from its secret hiding place.
When my (Scottish) mother raised her glass of wine, she would utter a rousing, “L’chaim!” For years, I assumed this must be a traditional Gaelic greeting (maybe it was Loch something….?). My dad said “Cheers!”, so how would I know otherwise?
At my secondary school, they occasionally put on a Jewish assembly as an alternative to the main assembly. I was intrigued but didn’t go; I didn’t feel entitled. Surely other girls would point at me and denounce me as “not a proper Jew”?
When I first met my husband Ben, I knew that he was Jewish but I didn’t know if he knew that I was only a halfie, not the real deal. I feared it would be over-freighting our first date with presumptions if I tried to explain: it would be tantamount to saying — “So, we might get married and have children, and if so, you should know they won’t count as Jewish. No pressure or anything. Do you fancy a starter?”
Not long after we got together, at a fancy dinner in New York, I got talking to one of those great feisty old Jewish dames that New York seems to have in abundance. “You’re Jewish?” she said, eyeing my rebellious hair. “Yes – well, only half,” I admitted (always fearful that my nemesis might leap out from behind a screen to unmask me as “not a proper Jew”).
She leant in close and squeezed my arm: “They would still have shoved you in the ovens, girlie. If the Nazis would have counted you, you count.”
When Ben finally (finally!) asked me to marry him, we talked about whether I should convert. We’d heard of a Reform rabbi reputed to be “very sympathetic towards mixed marriages.” Ben didn’t see it as a mixed marriage, and nor did I, but we had to start somewhere.
During our chat, it became clear that her “very sympathetic” stance had slipped somewhat. Avoiding my eyes, she said “Well, it’s a bit of a shame… so many Jewish women out there, all desperate for a nice Jewish man…” I was so stunned, I couldn’t speak (a rare event). After we left, Ben turned to me and said, “I can’t believe she said that!”
We then went to see a Liberal Rabbi, who was genuinely encouraging. He explained that some people with patrilineal descent could simply affirm their Jewish status. He quizzed me on my background. Eventually, he said, “Hmm, you’re sort of borderline.” He suggested I take a term or two of their normal conversion course, and join their class for Beginners’ Hebrew. I’d be happy to. Could I write an essay about how I perceived my Jewish identity? Gulp. Of course.
In the meantime, I learned the blessings for Friday night, surprising (and delighting) Ben with them — uttered extremely haltingly — one evening over the candles, challah and wine.
I suspect that I will always have a foot in both camps — belonging and not belonging. There will always be elements of Judaism that I love — things I find inexplicably moving but can’t quite put my finger on why: my husband putting on his tallit as the service is about to begin, singing L’chah Dodi at shul on Friday night as some of the children invisibly open the doors to welcome in Shabbat.
Semi-shiksa encapsulates how I sometimes feel about myself: that I’m not a proper Jew, that I’m female trayf, even though I have a certificate signed and stamped by a Rabbinical Board. Some people at shul know that I’m half-Jewish, some probably don’t; most almost certainly wouldn’t mind either way.
I know that there will be some Jews to whom I will never count as a proper Jew; I can live with that. The more important struggle may be learning to accept myself, whoever I am. Whatever you think, I wish you a rousing: “Loch A’im!”
Zelda Leon is a pseudonym.
Would girls point at me as not a proper Jew?