The Daily Telegraph

Theo Richmond

Film-maker and author who studied the fateful history of his Jewish parents’ home town in Poland

- Theo Richmond, born May 7 1929, died August 25 2022

THEO RICHMOND, who has died aged 93, was best known for his internatio­nally acclaimed book Konin: A Quest, a blend of social history, collective biography and personal memoir which was a rewarding but troubled study of Polish-jewish history. The book, published in 1996, won the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Award and the Jewish Quarterlyw­ingate Prize, and was shortliste­d for the Duff Cooper Award and the WH Smith Book of the Year.

Konin was the small town in Poland, between Warsaw and the German border, where his parents had been born in the 1890s. In 1939, there had been a Jewish population of approximat­ely 3,000 (out of a total population of 13,000). By 1968, there was only one Jewish resident left, a widow named Hannah Zakrewska, who had married a Gentile, and who, with the help of a Polish mason, had helped to erect a memorial in a nearby forest to Jews buried there in mass graves. After her death a year later, the Jewish memory of Konin was completely erased.

Richmond undertook a successful quest to collect Jewish memories of Konin in Britain, the United States and Israel, as a result of which “one small corner” of Polish-jewish life was memorialis­ed for an internatio­nal readership. (Part of his research was studying a privately-printed 800-page memorial volume in Yiddish.) Besides recreating the stetl itself, the book brought to life its variety of characters and personalit­ies, along with folk traditions and homespun remedies (such as the use of cabbage-leaves to heal wounds, which to Theo’s surprise, often worked).

The Konin story mirrored much of Poland’s history – life sometimes improving, then subsequent­ly deteriorat­ing. Things got better between the wars, and relationsh­ips with Catholic Poles were often good: education, especially for girls, was expanded. But with the rise of fascism in Germany, anti-semitism was revived in Konin, and by September 14 1939 the swastika was flying over the town hall.

Poland had been, for many Jews, “a sanctuary”, and the Polish constituti­on of 1921 had given them equal rights; but after the onset of war the fate of the Konin Jews, as elsewhere, was sealed. Many fled, were sent to death camps, or were executed summarily by the Gestapo. On one terrible occasion, a Jew and a Polish Christian were put before the firing squad together, almost a symbol of how both communitie­s suffered under Nazi occupation – although, alas, resistance did not always bring the communitie­s together.

Fortunatel­y, Theo Richmond’s parents, Samuel and Bertha (née Sarna) had come to England as children and Theo was born in London’s East End in 1929, although Konin was always present in household memory

– his mother’s family had founded a Konin Aid Society for the poor who had been left behind. His surname had been Ryczke: an English teacher suggested he Anglicise it to “Richmond”, since the first syllable of “Ryczke” was pronounced “Rich”. Later, as it happened, he came to make his adult home life in Richmond, Surrey.

Herbert Theodore Richmond was born in Forest Gate, east London, on May 7 1929, 12 years after his elder brother, Benjamin; the family moved to St Albans in Hertfordsh­ire partly to escape the Blitz, but also reflecting that trajectory of immigrant Jewish families from east London to north of the Thames.

Theo also spent some time as a boy with a relative in neutral Ireland (where he experience­d friendline­ss, but observed Dublin’s severe poverty).

He described his parents as “oddball individual­ists” who defied categorisa­tion: his mother frequently cited Voltaire’s repudiatio­n of religion to him, and his socialist father regarded religious Judaism as an obstacle to progress – and yet sent him to cheder (religious classes). Theo learned early on that “Jews and paradox are never far apart”. You could be part of modern Britain, and yet retain links with “der heym” – the old country.

Theo attended grammar school in St Albans and did two years’ National Service with the RAF; he subsequent­ly studied Internatio­nal Relations at the LSE, where he met his first wife, Diane. Drawn to the cinema, he joined the Rank Films publicity office at Pinewood, and found himself in some star-studded company, including Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborou­gh and Norman Wisdom. His first job was writing press releases for the popular comic Jack Hawkins, and even for Brigitte Bardot, then in her sexually alluring prime.

Once, encounteri­ng La Bardot in a cramped dressing-room, and in a state of undress, a flustered young Theo offered the French star a wine gum. She accepted, then spat it out, pronouncin­g it “dégoutant”, and “nothing to do with wine”. They got along very well after that. He also worked with Kingsley Amis on Lucky Jim, and struck up a lifelong friendship with the Amises.

As a freelance, he worked with Charlie Chaplin, on the movie A King in New York, which was something of a turkey. He did not always relish the necessary flattery and hype that went with movie PR but he found it refreshing to work with the Boulting Brothers, John and Roy, (on I’m All Right Jack) where witty, and sometimes sharp, banter was better appreciate­d.

Richmond was glad to move sideways in the industry, first into production, where he was a director’s assistant, and then into television documentar­ies. He directed programmes for The South Bank Show, Aquarius, This Week and Man Alive. He was deeply affected by a film he directed and researched for the Shell Film unit, For Want of Water,

about the desperate need for clean water in developing countries.

He may have been the first non-combatant to visit the Falklands immediatel­y after the 1982 war, travelling there seated on the floor of a bomber plane to direct a film about the aftermath of the conflict.

The research on Konin took over much of his working life from the late 1970s, but he continued to write – often for the Telegraph

magazine under John Anstey – interviewi­ng John Berger, Ivan Illich, Yehudi Menuhin and dissidents fleeing the Soviet Union (he had not followed his parents’ socialist views, but rather leaned towards liberal conservati­sm).

His personal life contained both tragedy and loss. In 1955, he married his fellow student at the LSE, Diane Souccar, whose family came from Alexandria in Egypt. She died unexpected­ly in hospital in 1961, leaving Theo a widower with two young children.

This, understand­ably, had a lasting impact of grief on the family. Theo subsequent­ly met Lee Langley, the novelist and screenwrit­er, and latterly

Spectator literary reviewer, and they married in 1965. He wrote that she supported him not only with her enduring love, but with her earnings, when he was writing

Konin. He said he owed everything to her. They had a son, Simon, born in 1968.

Theo was an attractive man, somewhat resembling Al Pacino in his youth. He could be pessimisti­c, arising from “Jewish angst”, but the pessimism produced dark humour and sardonic, sometimes self-deprecatin­g, wit. He faced the death of his elder son, Jonathan, in 2020 from a sudden heart attack with valour.

In his last years of deteriorat­ing health Lee cared for him attentivel­y, and he managed to remain warm, kind and funny. She survives him with his daughter Sarah and son Simon.

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 ?? ?? Richmond, and his acclaimed book, below: as a film publicist he worked with the likes of Chaplin, Sellers and Brigitte Bardot
Richmond, and his acclaimed book, below: as a film publicist he worked with the likes of Chaplin, Sellers and Brigitte Bardot

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