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.

Villaplane and Laurent: French football’s first hero and villain

The very first FIFA World Cup held in Uruguay, was opened by a match between France and Mexico on an icy winter’s day in Montevideo in front of 4,500 fans. France went on to win the game 4-1, making history as they became the first side to win a World Cup match. Right winger Lucien Laurent also placed himself in the record books by scoring the first World Cup goal in the 19th minute of the match. The French team that Laurent was a part of was captained by the talented centre-back, Alexandre Villaplane.

Villaplane (one from the top right), Laurent (one from the bottom right)

Although, Laurent and Villaplane shared a talent for football, and the French national kit, that is where their similarities end. Laurent has recently been labelled as a ‘pioneer’ by French newspaper Le Soir, whilst Villaplane is largely seen as a national disgrace for his part in the collaboration with the Nazis. How could two men who seemingly shared an unquenchable love for football have ended up on such varying paths?

Lucien Laurent was born in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Maur-des-Foussés in 1907. Between the age of 14 and 23 he played for the semi-professional club Cercle Athlétique de Paris (CAP). It may seem surprising that a semi-professional footballer was able to break into France’s World Cup squad when the current team is made up of footballing superstars, but there was not as much enthusiasm over football or the World Cup at that time. Laurent said it himself in a 1998 interview with The Independent, claiming that, “soccer was in its infancy.” Footballer’s were not even paid at the time in France, and Laurent had to take two months leave from his job as a Peugeot factory worker to participate in the World Cup.

If Laurent may be considered to not have the talent to participate in the current French football team, the same cannot be said for his teammate Alexandre Villaplane. He was born in the then French Algiers (capital of Algeria) in 1905, and he eventually moved to France at 16. He was first scouted by Scotsman, Victor Gibson who signed him for FC Sète. He excelled and his career went from strength to strength, with a move to Nimes in the French first division, as well as a selection in the North African XI to face France’s B team in 1925. Just one year later he had won his first French cap. Now, Villaplane was seen as one of the brightest prospects in French football, he was renowned as one of the best headers of the ball in the country, and he possessed intelligence on the ball and crisp passing out from the back. These traits enticed Racing Club Paris president Jean-Bernard Levy to sign Villaplane in an attempt to overpower their city rivals- Red Star. It was whilst he was playing at Racing Club Paris that he was called up to the 1930 French World Cup squad as captain of the side, it is here where he would meet Lucien Laurent.

Although France were knocked out of the group stages after losing their final two group games, the French team had made history by representing their country at the first ever World Cup, a day Vilaplane called “the happiest of his life”. However, this happiness was to be short lived, with France soon to be split apart by World War Two.

Two years after the 1930 World Cup, Laurent moved to Club Francais, as he hopped around various French teams throughout the following years. He went on to play once more for CAP, FC Mulhouse, Sochaux and Rennes before the war. His performances earnt him another call up to the French squad for the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Laurent was unfortunately not able to experience the excitement and pride of another World Cup however, as he was ruled out through injury. Laurent’s misfortune was soon to grow wider.

Nazi Germany invaded France through the Ardennes forest in May 1940. France, in response offered a weak defence and the country fell to the Germans in June 1940. Around 1.8 million French prisoners of war were captured by the Germans, who were then transported to Stalag prison camps, although most were soon sent to German labour camps to aid the Nazi war effort. Laurent was one of those 1.8 million, and he was held in a camp in Saxony, Germany, where he remained for three years. Eventually, Laurent was released on medical grounds, but upon his return he discovered his possessions had been stolen by the Germans, including his 1930 World Cup jersey. Ever the optimist though, Laurent stated in 1998 that, “all my memories were there… established in a corner of my old head. No one can steal those from me.’’

Like Laurent, Villaplane did not play at the 1934 World Cup. This decision was not down to his misfortune however, but rather, the downwards spiral that Villaplane’s career had taken after the turn of the decade.

The warning signs were already apparent prior to the 1930 World Cup. Although football in France was not to be made professional until 1932, clubs were able to take imaginative measures to pay their players well, such as employing them for other jobs that they did not perform and paying them handsomely for it. With his increased fame and money at Racing Club Paris. Villaplane was often spotted at the casino, or the horseraces, as well as Parisian cabarets and bars. It seemed that Villaplane had turned a corner at his new club Antibes in 1932. They finished top of the Southern French division before beating SC Fives Lille in the national final. However, it soon emerged that the match was fixed. Antibes were stripped of their title and the team’s manager was banned. Villaplane is believed to be involved, but he escaped the same fate as Antibes’ manager. He was told though, to look elsewhere for a club.

This came in the form of Antibes’ southern neighbour, OGC Nice, who were willing to take a gamble on a player who could propel the club to the top of French football. The gamble did not pay off. Villaplane was consistently late for training and paid little interest in the team, despite being the captain. Unsurprisingly, Nice were relegated and Villaplane was released.

His final flicker of hope in football came through the man who introduced the football world to Alexandre Villaplane- Victor Gibson, who was now the manager of Bordeaux club, Hispano-Bastidienne. Even Gibson could not get the best out of Villaplane who rarely turned up to training, he was once more released, after just three months. His footballing career was over.

Villaplane’s unwavering relationship with controversy was only beginning, however. In 1935 he was convicted for fixing horse races in both Paris and the Cote d’Azur.

5 years later, Marshal Petain had signed an Armistice agreement between France and Germany- giving way to a time of collaboration and resistance in the country. Villaplane was firmly on the side of collaboration. He aimed to profit from the war for his own self-gain. Villaplane quickly became enwrapped in the Parisian black market and frequently attempted to racketeer the increasingly threatened Parisian Jewish population. His second conviction followed soon after, as he was imprisoned for possession of stolen goods in 1940. French football journalist, Phillippe Auclair, has recently said that it was in prison where notorious French collaborator, Henry Lafont first approached Villaplane. Lafont, along with the former head of the French police, Pierre Bonny, became a potent mix at the head of the French Gestapo. These men made their way to the top through murder, deceit and coercion- a path that Villaplane was soon to follow.

Villaplane started his journey in the French Gestapo as Bonny’s personal chauffeur, but his role changed drastically in 1944. The Brigade Nord-Africaine (BNA) was formed as a sister group to both the German and French Gestapo, in areas where the Resistance was proving to be a stern test for the Nazis. Villaplane was given the SS grade of Untersturmführer, and he wore a Nazi uniform- it was only 15 years prior that he had worn the French national jersey. Whilst it is impossible to find the number of people that Villaplane killed himself, he still bears the responsibility for his part in the atrocious Nazi war crimes. The most infamous incident that Villaplane was involved in occurred at Oradour-sur-Glane, where he ordered the execution of 52 people.

The extremity of Villaplane and the BNA’s crime were stated by Villaplane’s prosecutor at his trial, following the Liberation of France:

‘‘A witness told us how he saw with his own eyes these mercenaries take jewels from the still-twitching and bloodstained bodies of their victims. Villaplane was in the midst of all this, calm and smiling.’’

Even when the situation in France had altered and the French Resistance and the Allies were on the cusp of victory over the Nazis and French collaborators, Villaplane was still seeking to profit from the chaotic climate. A witness at his trial described him arriving in a French village declaring:

‘‘They [the Germans] are going to kill you. But I will try to save you at the risk of my own life. I’ve already saved many people. Fifty-four, to be precise. You will be the 55th. If you give me 400,000 francs.”

Villaplane’s greed and destruction knew no limits, it became so inflated that it eventually led to his death. On December 26th, 1944, Villaplane, along with Lafont and Bonny were shot dead by firing squad.

In the midst of Villaplane’s collaboration, his former teammate, Lucien Laurent had returned from his prisoner of war camp, and discovered that his most prized possessions were stolen. However, it was Laurent who was to have the last laugh. He attended the 1998 World Cup final in Paris between France and Brazil, witnessing arguably the greatest ever performance from the French national team, as they ran out 3-0 winners. In fact, Laurent was the only member of the first French World Cup team who lived to see his country lift the trophy.

The stories of Villaplane and Laurent tell us about French football in its infancy and the birth of the World Cup. What is more important to recognise though is their actions off the field. The greed and malevolence that took hold of Villaplane’s life greatly outweighed his footballing ability, no matter how talented he was. Whilst Laurent may not have possessed Villaplane’s incisive passing or aerial ability, he is admired by French football lovers even today. The status of becoming a footballing hero for years to come rests on far more than just the footballing prowess of a player.