I am a contemporary textiles artist and through the support of an Arts Council England artist development grant (DYCP), I am currently exploring family archives surrounding my grandparents’ Holocaust narratives. Growing up, I had limited opportunity to talk to my grandparents about their experiences, but I learnt from their testimonies posthumously. Recognising its importance, my aunty supported my grandfather to document what he could. He condensed six harrowing years of his life in ghettos, labour camps and concentration camps into three A4 pages. My grandmother recorded her oral history testimony through AJR Refugee Voices which provided an overview of life growing up in Nazi Germany and her experiences as a Kindertransport refugee. These testimonies evoke complex feelings, many unanswered questions, and a sense of disbelief that these are my grandparents’ words.
Eighteen months ago, I was presented with the opportunity to delve deeper into my family history. Whilst an artist on the residency "Narratives" headed by Venture Arts, I encountered a collection of documents housed within the archives of The Wiener Holocaust Library, Yad Vashem, Manchester Jewish Museum and World Jewish Relief. These included concentration camp forms, a Displaced Persons Card, a Kindertransport passenger list, and post war documents. I also uncovered letters and photographs sent over to my grandmother from her parents in Germany. This collection was momentous yet overwhelming, and I created the piece “Processing Documents 1939-64” to help explore my feelings surrounding the enormity of this collection. I digitally printed every document onto fabric, striped them down line by line and wove them together to create a 4 metre textiles sculpture.
Reflecting on the residency highlighted my readiness to explore these significant archives, and I applied for the Arts Council England DYCP grant. My application was successful, and it is currently enabling me to emotionally engage with family archives and to develop technical skills in transferring archival imagery onto fabric.
Since starting this project I’ve made some unexpected and significant findings. By identifying my grandfather’s last known address in Poland within a post war document, I discovered twelve Radom Identity Cards belonging to my grandfather and his relatives. These are housed within the Polish archive Archiwum Panstwowego w Radomiu. My grandfather was one of the only members of his family to survive and we knew little about them other than a few people’s names. Connecting faces with names felt poignant especially as my mother resembles two of her aunties. She felt a void growing up without extended family and finding these documents has brought her closer to the family she could never meet. Attempts to locate more identity cards to reflect my grandfather’s large family, have been unsuccessful and this highlights the gaps of knowledge within my history. I digitally printed the 12 identity cards, and have screen printed the portraits onto fabric and will work into these in the future.
I have also discovered testimonies of those who lived on the same street as my grandfather including that of his cousin. In the absence of my grandfather’s narrative, these paint a richer understanding of his experiences during his years in Radom. I’ve digitally printed a map of Radom onto fabric and have begun embroidering my findings into this. This piece feels less about historical accuracy and more a reflection on my practice as a researcher as I attempt to piece together history by interweaving information gathered from testimony, online research, and archival extracts.
Exploring my grandmothers’ archives has felt different to my grandfather’s due to her more detailed testimony and collection of photographs and letters. These have helped humanise not only her experiences as a Kindertransport refugee, but also those of her parents who remained in Germany until their deportation to Jungfernhof concentration camp in Riga. One significant photograph captures my grandmother boarding the S.S Washington from Hamburg Port. I questioned why this poignant moment was documented, and through exploring the handwriting on the back of the photograph, discovered it was likely to have been captured by her mother. This has evoked many unanswerable questions including “how did she find the strength to take this picture?,” “did she think this could be the last time she saw her daughter?” and “was my grandmother aware this picture was being taken?” I try to relate to my grandmothers’ feelings captured within this moment and acknowledge my desire to go back in time and talk to her. Developing screen printing skills enabled me to print this image onto fabric. I then extracted my grandmother line by line, repositioning her on a new piece of fabric. Focusing intensely on this image has drawn me closer to a scene which remains alien, and I find it hard connecting the teenager in the photograph with the grandmother I knew.
One final piece I’d like to share is the most representative of my journey as a practice-based researcher. Digitally printed onto fabric are a total of sixteen deportation, transport, concentration camp and missing persons lists. Four display my grandfather’s details and twelve relate to my grandmother’s family. The absence of my grandfather’s family is representative of the chaos he refers to in his testimony, where his family was torn apart in Radom Ghetto and deported to Treblinka. Conversely, the presence of several members of my grandmother’s family highlights the more systematic way they were gathered and deported from their homes in Hamburg. Seeing my grandmothers’ parents together on a deportation list brings comfort, and I wish I could have shared this discovery with my grandmother. I have highlighted the names with fluorescent stitch, reminiscent of a highlighter pen scoring details within documents.
This collection summarises my quest to uncover my past, specifically in the absence of my grandparents, the witnesses. Through all my explorations, I have broadened the experiences of my ancestry beyond my grandparents, and I am now beginning to understand and process the gravity of loss that affected my family. This is helping make the incomprehensible feel more tangible. Archives have proved invaluable in aiding this, and I have been amazed by how much is publicly accessible online. My family’s archive has expanded significantly, and I am aware there is still so much undiscovered and details which will never be known.
I would like to thank Arts Council England for enabling me to embark upon such a transformational period of development. Over the next few months and beyond I will continue responding to the archival discoveries creatively and you can follow my journey online.