Life & Culture

Poignant pictures of a lost world

Gerty Simon's photos captured the people of Weimar Germany - including a very young Judith Kerr. But then the photographer and many of her subjects sought refuge in the UK


"Under the Nazi regime I found myself as a Jew in particular danger, because as a photographer, I had taken numerous photographs of Social Democratic and anti-fascist personalities and exhibited them in public.”

So wrote Gerty Simon, seeking refuge in the UK in 1933. She’d left Berlin where she seems to have known everyone in Weimar high society — not just politicians, but also artists, film makers, dancers, musicians and writers. Lotte Lenya, Albert Einstein, Käthe Kollwitz and a very young Judith Kerr — later to become a beloved British children’s author — all sat for her. Her association with politicians and so-called “degenerate” artists — as well as her role as a creative and independent woman, all put her in danger in an increasingly repressive environment.

She settled in Chelsea, and re-established herself as a photographer remarkably quickly, taking pictures of people like Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Aneurin Bevan. Newspaper reports called her the “famous photographer.” Her work was successfully exhibited in 1934 and 1935.

And then Gerty Simon fell out of the limelight. “She does seem to have been completely forgotten,” says Barbara Warnock, Education and Outreach manager of the Wiener Library, where Simon’s photographs go on display at the end of this month.

Simon was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Bremen in 1888, moving to Berlin after World War One. Her husband, like her father, was a lawyer. They had one son, Bernard, who was 12 in 1933, when his school, a progressive boarding school transferred to Kent, and Simon followed. Her husband remained in Berlin, unable to continue as a lawyer and judge, but finding work as a notary. The family was not reunited until 1939, and father and son were both imprisoned as enemy aliens. At 19, Bernard was even sent to an internment camp in Australia — despite having lived in the UK for seven years.

There’s a suggestion that Gerty Simon suffered ill health, and another that she moved on to oil painting, but no one really knows why she stopped taking photographs. She died in 1970, four years after her husband, and her photographs passed to her son. When Bernard died in 2015, they were inherited in turn by his partner, Joseph Brand.

“He wasn’t sure what to do with them, so he contacted the Association of Jewish Refugees. They suggested the Wiener Library,” says Warnock. Unfortunately, the glass plate negatives that Simon used had been destroyed, but there were hundreds of prints, along with letters and other evidence about Simon’s life.

The Library has appealed for help in identifying around 70 of Simon’s sitters. They have set up a Flickr page with the images, and any fragments of details they have. Some have already been identified as a result. Gerty Simon’s poignant photographs evoke a doomed world. It is extremely moving to see them after 80 years of obscurity.


Berlin/London: The Lost Photographs of Gerty Simon is at the Wiener Library May 30 to October 15


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