Gerda Svarny (born Polenezer)
Gerda Svarny was 12 years old when she escaped to England. Her mother died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Gerda studied art at the Czechoslovak School of Applied Arts in Chelsea and became an accomplished artist.
The film One Life has reignited interest in Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved the lives of 669 predominantly Jewish Kindertransport children.
Complementing the film, starring Antony Hopkins as Sir Nicholas, is an online exhibition for the National Portrait Gallery. Simon Hill HonFRPS, President of the Royal Photographic Society, was commissioned by the film’s makers Warner Brothers to photograph 11 Kindertransportees, now in their eighties and nineties.
The exhibition, One Life: Portraits of Kindertransport Refugees, honours not only the children’s remarkable stories of survival as they escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, but of the lives they made as adults in the UK. They include Lord Alfred Dubs, who went on to become a Labour politician and peer, and Vera Schaufeld MBE, who was recognised for services to Holocaust education.
Tanya Bentley, curator of the Contemporary Collection at the National Portrait Gallery, said: “The National Portrait Gallery tells the stories of those who have shaped – and continue to shape – the nation, so it is our privilege to work in collaboration with Warner Brothers Pictures to celebrate the lives of the Winton Kindertransportees and the courageous actions of Sir Nicholas Winton.
“It has been a privilege to curate this exhibition of Kindertransport portraits captured by Simon Hill HonFRPS which also includes recorded testimonies of the Kinder, giving audiences the opportunity to learn about the rich and varied lives of those Sir Nicholas helped bring to the United Kingdom.”
Hill explains the commission had its roots in the touring exhibition Generations: Portraits of Holocaust Survivors, a collaboration between the RPS, the Holocaust Memorial Trust, Jewish News and others. The exhibition was shown at IWM London, IWM North and RPS Gallery, Bristol. Hill’s contributions to Generations – among 50 contemporary portraits of Holocaust survivors and their families made by RPS Fellows and Honorary Fellows – were spotted by Warner Brothers.
Both projects have left an indelible mark on the photographer, who describes the chance to meet and photograph the Kindertransportees as “an enormous privilege”. He explains more about the experience here.
Dr Peter Schiller
Peter Schiller was seven years old when he travelled to England with his older brother. He trained as a doctor in London, then as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. He has always held on to his identity as a ‘central European Jewish refugee’.
How did you become involved in One Life: Portraits of Kindertransport Refugees?
In the summer of 2023, the RPS Generations project came to the end of its run at IWM London. The 12 portraits I’d taken for this project were then published by various Jewish media organisations. When the Warner Brothers communications team met the surviving Kindertransport refugees, they were shown my Generations portraits and that, I think, is when the idea began to form. Warner Brothers contacted me and we met online to discuss how we might do something similar for the Kindertransport refugees.
The Warner Brothers film One Life – released in cinemas on 1 January – tells the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved the lives of 669 Kindertransport children. What is the link to your portraits?
The subjects of my photographs were all child refugees who escaped the Nazis on trains organised by Sir Nicholas. Some of the youngest refugees were only three years old, given up by their families to secure the children’s survival. For many of these children, their parting at the railway station in Prague was the last time they would see their parents and older siblings. So many of those who remained in Czechoslovakia would later be murdered by the Nazis in the concentration camps.
Dr Lisa Midwinter
At three years old, Lisa Midwinter was one of the youngest refugees. She was one of the few children who would eventually be reunited with both her parents. Her photograph appears on the cover of a scrapbook kept by Sir Nicholas Winton detailing his rescue mission.
How did you prepare to photograph your subjects for such an important story?
As with all my portrait projects, at the outset I asked for biographical information on each of the subjects. This allowed me to discover more about them – what they had experienced as children, how their lives had been shaped, what career they had eventually pursued and, perhaps most importantly, to gain some insight into their deeper self. This allowed me to define my creative intent for the client to review. Together, we developed an approach and style that would convey the personality and humanity of each sitter. Then, it was simply a matter of delivering the shoot.
How many Kindertransport portraits did you make, and which was the most memorable for you?
In the three minutes I had with each of the 11 sitters, my brief required me to take three different photographs – one with the sitter looking directly at the camera, one looking off camera, and one with a memento they brought with them on their journey from Prague. So that is 33 photographs in total – in just over half an hour. Do I have a favourite? No, not really. Each sitter was such an interesting person, so kind and with such genuine compassion. I hope the photographs – simple in their style and execution relying so heavily on achieving a certain quality of lighting – allow this character to shine through.
Reverend John Fieldsend MBE (born Hans Heinrich ‘Heini’ Feige)
John Fieldsend was seven years old when he escaped the Nazis via the Kindertransport. He became separated from his brother and would later learn that both parents had perished in the Holocaust. He was an engineer, then an RAF officer, and eventually an Anglican priest.
What was the most challenging part of the Kindertransport project for you?
That’s easy to answer – the challenge was definitely to deliver for each sitter three different portraits in three minutes, and that included the time to set the lights. I find people absolutely fascinating and I really do like to talk with them, often at length, to find out more about them. I could have spent hours talking to each of the sitters but I had a job to do and only three minutes to do it so, yes, the time constraint was definitely the most challenging part of the project.
What lasting impressions have you taken away from meeting the Kindertransport survivors?
It was such an enormous privilege to be in the presence of these remarkable people who withstood one of the darkest chapters of human history. Each of them radiates a resilience that is derived from such incredible strength, wisdom, and an unyielding determination to bear witness to the past. Their eyes, weathered by the weight of history, speak volumes about the resilience that transcends trauma and serves as a poignant reminder of the capacity for hope and renewal. At a time when British politics has such an ugly fixation on ‘stopping the boats’ of modern refugees, the story of Sir Nicholas Winton and his Kindertransport children – and the contribution each has subsequently made to British society – is one we should learn from and never forget.
The Rt Hon Lord Alfred Dubs
Alfred Dubs was six years old when he escaped the Nazis on the Kindertransport. He went on to become a Labour politician and peer, and a leading human rights campaigner. He was the sponsor of legislation that offered safe passage to child refugees from Europe.
One Life: Portraits of Kindertransport Refugees by Simon Hill HonFRPS, for Warner Brothers Pictures, is a digital exhibition staged by the National Portrait Gallery.
Hill discusses how to create a photography project or body of work in Framing Creativity, published in the January-March 2024 issue of the RPS Journal.
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