Dorothy Bohm, photographer who fled Nazis, dies at 98

A distinguished photographer who made a huge contribution to the cultural life of the UK


“As long as I am alive”, Dorothy Bohm once told the JC, “I will be a photographer. I will never retire”.

She was true to her word: her death has been announced at the age of 98, by which time she had carved out an enviable reputation as the woman who knew everyone and had taken the most extraordinary series of pictures, each one with her hallmark treatment of light.

Dorothy Israelit was born in June 1924 in Konigsberg, then in East Prussia, now known as Kalingrad in Russia. Her family were wealthy Lithuanian businesspeople who moved to Lithuania in 1932 in the van of the rise of the Nazis.

But eventually, when she was 14, there was nowhere left for her to run. Her brother Igor was already studying in Manchester, so her parents decided to send Dorothy to Britain, too. As they were saying goodbye, Dorothy recalled, her gadget-mad father, Tobias, took off the Leica camera he was wearing around his neck and gave it to her, telling her: “It might be useful to you”.

She told the JC: “I arrived on the eve of my 15th birthday. A traumatic experience because I had watched what Nazis were doing and the whole family was under great threat. After all these years it is still traumatic for me to remember those days”.

She learnt English in a year, and then went to study photography at Manchester College of Technology. That’s where she met her future husband Louis Bohm, a young Polish Jew studying chemistry. His sister and mother had been killed in the Warsaw Ghetto. She recalled: “The greatest luck of my life was this man. He wanted to marry me. All he had was a college scarf and a rusty bicycle. I said to him ‘no, you have to finish your PhD and it is only if you will agree for me to be the breadwinner, can we get married’. So at 21 I had the cheek and I managed it.”

The couple married in 1945 and she, with Louis’ encouragement, opened her first business, Studio Alexander, on Market Street in central Manchester.

The couple moved to London in the early 1950s and in 1960 she was told by the Red Cross that her parents, whom she had not seen for 20 years, had survived both the Holocaust and a Siberian labour camp. They were able to join her in London in 1963.

Louis became an industrial scientist and made a comfortable living for him, Dorothy and their two daughters. She said: “I was fortunate that my husband's income enabled me to photograph for the joy of photographing. I have been a lucky person, particularly with the men. Louis — I can say that almost all the happiness in my life is due to him: the children, the fact that I can photograph without having to worry about making money”.

Dorothy Bohm became an associate director of the Photographers’  Gallery in London and published numerous books of her work; she also exhibited regularly in Britain and in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

She made a point of talking about her Jewish and British identity. She said: “I don't think there is a better country in the world. Being Jewish has never been a disadvantage. I have a lot of non-Jewish friends but I always make sure they know I am.

'I'm not religious but I'm proud of being Jewish because despite everything Jews have contributed a lot to civilisation. I always say I have had a guardian angel because my life has been incredibly full of circumstances which somehow I was able to resolve, so I am a very lucky person”.

Michael Newman, chief executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees, (AJR) said in tribute: “We were deeply saddened to hear of Dorothy’s passing and send our sincerest condolences to her family. Dorothy was a distinguished photographer who made a huge contribution to the cultural life of this country. As well as her remarkable collections, she leaves a rich legacy. The AJR is honoured to have captured Dorothy’s story as part of our AJR Refugee Voices archive.”

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