Interview: Mira Hamermesh

As a teenager, she left her doomed family behind in Nazi-occupied Poland to escape to Palestine. For 69 years, during which time she became a successful filmmaker, she has refused to talk about her story. Now she’s breaking her silence

By Simon Round, December 17, 2009
Mira Hamermesh, back in her home city of Lodz, is pictured by a cattle truck used by the Nazis to transport Jews to concentration camps

Mira Hamermesh, back in her home city of Lodz, is pictured by a cattle truck used by the Nazis to transport Jews to concentration camps

It took documentary-maker and artist Mira Hamermesh a long time to speak about her wartime experiences. Sixty years went by, and even her closest friends were unaware of her compelling escape from Nazi-occupied Poland to Palestine.

When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, she escaped with her brother — their journey took them through the Soviet Union to Lithuania and ultimately to Palestine. Her parents and the rest of her family stayed, were incarcerated in the Lodz Ghetto and died at the hands of the Nazis.

After the Second World War, Hamermesh settled in London where she made a career as a celebrated documentary maker and artist. Years went by but she remained silent. “They were not years and years of life, they were years and years of filmmaking. I was very busy,” she says.

Eventually, she decided to write a book, The River of Angry Dogs, about her experiences. So when did she start to talk about what happened? “I have never spoken about it — to anyone. Ever,” she says. “If you lose a member of your family, one is sad, but to lose a whole family…” She leaves the sentence unfinished. After a moment’s reflection, she adds: “It would have been a killer. It would have fractured my psyche.”

Many of her English friends remained unaware of her background and her family’s fate, and were surprised when she returned to Poland this summer to join a gathering of Lodz Ghetto survivors, on the 65th anniversary of its liquidation. She visited her mother’s grave and met survivors who remembered her parents. Hamermesh’s mother died of starvation, and her father was deported on the last transport from Lodz in 1944.

In her north-west London flat surrounded by many of her own paintings, Hamermesh recalls the Lodz of her childhood as cosmopolitan and vibrant. “It was a rogue city, born with the industrial revolution. There were very few native Lodz people — they all came from the shtetls to work. It was a bit like New York. Nearly half the city was Jewish and you could go through a whole week without dealing with Poles unless you were a professional — a doctor or lawyer.” Hamermesh’s family enjoyed a middle-class existence. “There was a maid, there were holidays abroad, there was a telephone and a radio and we had a nice flat in the centre of town.”

But everything changed with the German invasion on September 1, 1939 when Hamermesh was 14. “War is exciting for children. If you see films by British filmmakers, you see that kids have a great time. They love everything. I was the same.” But her view of the invaders rapidly began to change. “When they stopped the Jews from going to the cinema, that’s when I decided I had to leave. I wasn’t on my own. I tried to organise something with friends but slowly everybody pulled out. But I had a sister in Palestine; she was the magnet. I couldn’t see any problems about getting there. I was a bookish child and maybe had little idea about the realities of life. When you are a dreamer you don’t see the complications. Romania was neutral still. From there, my sister had gone by ship to Palestine. I thought I would do the same.”

Hamermesh remember s vividly her traumatic farewell to her parents as she set out on her journey with her 17-year-old brother. “My mother said: ‘I’ll never see you again.’ But I never had a thought that I would not return. I left instructions for my mother to look after my dog and my notebooks. My father used to say: ‘Wars are wars — they have a beginning and an end.’”

Her journey turned out to be anything but straightforward. But helped by the fact that she spoke fluent German and Polish, Hamermesh managed to reach the city of Lvov, a Polish city occupied by the Soviets. From there she managed to reach Lithuania where she boarded a ship bound for Palestine. It was there, after being reunited with her sister, that her parents’ fate became apparent. “As survivors began to arrive in Palestine, I heard stories of what had happened in Poland. Eventually I learnt to stop looking for them, I stopped asking the Red Cross for information.”

In 1946, Hamermesh, by then regarded as a painting wunderkind, won a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and never went back to Palestine. Her trauma was subsumed in her creativity. She would not talk about what happened to her or her family. Rather she painted and later attended film school… in Poland. “There was no film school in Britain at the time. I crashed through the Iron Curtain.”

a family photo with her parents, brother and sister

a family photo with her parents, brother and sister

Among her documentaries was a trilogy about conflict — Maids and Madams, about everyday life in apartheid South Africa, Caste at Birth, a film about the Indian Untouchables, and Talking to the Enemy, on the Israeli — Palestinian conflict. These films led her once again back to Poland and a project close to her heart, called Loving the Dead, “a film about how the Poles co-exist with the ghosts of the Jews in their country”. Hamermesh is unhappy about what she sees as the simplistic and lazy description as Poland as an antisemitic country.

“There is always this emphasis on antisemitism in Poland. What you don’t hear about is that in every small town there is a non-Jew who devotes himself to remembering the Jews, who decided there will be a plaque, who decides what happens to the cemetery.

“Britain is a very antisemitic country. I’m not defending Polish antisemitism, but it is sad that a country like this one with an honourable history during the Second World War is blighted by this antisemitic virus. Poland is one of the most interesting and certainly one of the most pro-Israel countries in Europe.”

The rise in Holocaust denial was one reason why Hamermesh decided to make the pilgrimage back to her homeland. “My passion was to publicise the Lodz Ghetto. The Lodz Ghetto was uniquely fascinating and dramatic and tragic. I was never there, except in a vicarious sense, but its story is an important one which should be known more widely.”

In doing so, Hamermesh overcame her “denial” of her and her family’s past. But the guilt she feels as a survivor remains. “Everyone has survivors’ guilt. In every tragedy one has it. If you are on a plane which crashes and you are the only survivor you carry the ghosts of those who died. You have to be made of concrete not to be moved by some sense of ‘why me’?”

‘The River of Angry Dogs’ is published by Pluto Press, at £12.99

Last updated: 5:21pm, January 6 2010