Di­ary of a sem­ishiksa: wait­ing to be un­masked

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - EX­PE­RI­ENCE ZELDA LEON

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?

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