Josef Herman’s “Refugees”

Last month I visited the Ben Uri exhibition on Smith Square, Westminster. The exhibition was ‘Art Exit: 1939 A Very Different Europe’. The aim of this exhibition was to shed a light on the experiences of those who were vilified in Europe 80 years ago.Walking through this exhibition, one is able to get a sense of the sheer fear and anguish that some of these artists, who were fleeing oppression, felt at this time.

Whilst all of the pieces were both touching and thought-provoking in their own right, the painting that intrigued me the most was “Refugees” by Josef Herman.

Herman was born in Warsaw, Poland. He was forced to flee his native land in 1938 due to the rising Nazi oppression of Jews. After staying in France for two years he began his new life in the Welsh mining village of Ystradgynlais, whilst his hometown was being torn apart by the Nazis.

Back in his hometown, some of his family were not so lucky and did not escape as refugees, like Herman. It has been said, that the girl in this picture, may represent Herman’s sister. David Herman, Josef’s son, recently explained the resemblance between the woman painted and his aunt: “These people bare uncanny resemblance to my father’s sister, who he painted in a family portrait,” Herman said. “His family, including his sister were not refugees, they were left behind in Poland to be killed by the Nazis.”

The painting that David Herman is referring to is titled, “My Family and I”, also done in 1941.

Perhaps this painting expressed Josef Herman’s wish for his sister to have emigrated to Britain with him.

Herman’s own experience of fleeing the ever-growing threats of anti-Semitism in Poland and Belgium, enabled him to perfectly paint the scene of horror and potential bloodshed seen in this painting.

The theme of terror is amplified by the dark and dreary navy backdrop. Snow covers the streets. The refugees in this painting were in dark, cold place, literally too.

What’s more the child in the bottom left has a facial expression reminiscent of “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Francisco Goya (as said in the painting description). The allusion to the dark and gruesome artwork of Goya, truly displays the horrific content and context in which this painting was produced. The world of Goya’s paintings were laws and morals are abandoned, as a father recklessly and barbarically tears the head of his own son, is also etched into Herman’ painting. Similarly, here laws and morals seem to have been abandoned, as people are no longer seen as such. Like Saturn, the Nazis are seen to be barbaric and reckless.

Another important feature of this painting is the inclusion of the black cat. It can be seen on a rooftop behind the refugees, with a dead mouse held in its mouth, blood dripping ominously. Herman’s use of the cat killing the mouse, precedes the death of million of Jews, like Herman’s sister, at the hands of the Nazis.

Interestingly, Herman also chose to use a black cat in his portrait “My Family and I”. This time the black cat lurks on the windowsill, but with no dead mouse drooping from its clench. The consistent use of the black cat is strange and would seem not to be a mere coincidence. So why would Herman paint a black cat in two paintings, when they depict vastly different scenes.

Does the black cat demonstrate the effervescent Nazi menace, which is always present, but which may at times slip into the background? Or does the black cat simply meant to be a figure of luck and superstition. Potentially pointing to how Herman was lucky to escape, and his sister not. Whatever the answer, it sparks up a variety of questions.