A likeness captured
A portrait of an interned WWII refugee set his granddaughter on an unusual quest
31 December, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
Wilhelm Hollitscher was the model for Hugo Dachinger’s painting on a copy of The Times in 1940. Image: National Museums Liverpool
INTERNMENT during the Second World War saw thousands of people rounded up and locked behind eight-metre-high barbed wire fences – an indiscriminate action of blanket arrests based on a person’s origin rather than action.
One man interned was a refugee from the Nazis, Wilhelm Hollitscher – and during confinement, he kept a detailed diary.
The discovery of this diary, in the archives of the Weiner Library in Bloomsbury, has prompted a new book telling the story of life in a internment camp.
Ines Newman, who lives in Highgate, is Wilhelm’s granddaughter. Her family were intrigued to hear Wilhelm had written a diary in 14 notebooks, all in neat German: Ines and her sister Hannah translated and transcribed his thoughts.
In the diary, Hollitscher describes the people he met, the wider political situation and the minutiae of each day. And he mentions while in a camp in Huyton, outside Liverpool, he sat to have his portrait by artist Hugo Dachinger, a fellow internee.
“I set out on a quest to find the portrait,” writes Ines, who scoured galleries and museums, wrote to art dealers who had previously sold Dachinger’s works, but had little success.
A breakthrough came when she spoke with a curator at the National Museums Liverpool, Alex Patterson, who had hosted an exhibition called Art Behind Barbed Wire in 2004. She found a reference to a portrait that looked like Wilhelm – and then discovered it had been sold in 2016 by an auction house. But there the trial ran cold.
They refused to reveal the buyer or pass on a message.
Then, a stroke of luck. A few months later, Ines caught a glimpse of the portrait in the background of an unrelated segment on the BBC’s News at Ten filmed at the Ben Uri Gallery in Swiss Cottage.
The book, Internment in Britain In 1940: Life and Art Behind the Wire, traces the story of this painting – the man who created it, and the man who sat for it. In it, historian Professor Charmian Brinson discusses internment, the Ben Uri Gallery’s Rachel Dickson focuses on the art of the period and Dachinger’s work in that context, and Ines presents her grandfather’s diary.
Professor Brinson explains how in September 1939, 80,000 German speakers where seeking refuge in Britain.
In June 1940, as fear of invasion was at its height, there were calls for “aliens” to be rounded up. Suspicions over Fifth Columns, enemy agents and paranoia prompted action – Churchill said “collar the lot” and round-ups began.
The indiscriminate nature of internment meant anti-fascists found themselves locked up while they tried to prove their credentials alongside older immigrants who hadn’t been back to Germany for decades, and those who had fled Europe recently in fear for their lives.
Wilhelm’s camp at Huyton was a half-finished housing estate without hot water, furniture or beds.
As the book reveals, within the camp a cross section of émigré society had been thrown together. Artists, academics and professions soon established a self-help community that included cultural pursuits such as art exhibitions.
Dachinger’s portrait of Wilhelm was bought by the Ben Uri Gallery at auction to add to the 1,400 items in its permanent collection of primarily émigré artists in Britain from the 1900s onwards.
Dachinger was born in Austria. He was Jewish, and left after the 1938 Anschluss. A designer by trade, he settled in London.
He would spend five months at Huyton.
Hollitscher, who had been keeping his dairy for a year before he was interned and met the artist, wrote how he had met: “Dachinger, who has painted the walls of his five-person-occupied room with very good naked women…”
Dachinger worked tirelessly while interned, creating portraits, landscapes, scenes and posters – and the book tells how he also painted frescos for the camp’s “own Café Vienna”.
“Traditional art materials were in short supply,” writes Ms Dickson. “The artists by necessity became ever more resourceful. If paints and brushes were hard to come by, other items were substituted for drawing implements and other ingredients were mixed to make alternative pigments. Twigs were burnt to create sticks of charcoal, short beards were plucked to use for brushes, and paints were made from brick dust or vegetable juice ground with linseed oil or olive oil from sardine cans.”
Dachinger even mixed toothpaste to the hair of Wilhelm’s portrait to give it a whiter feel.
Newsprint was primed with gelatine from boiled bones, and semi-visible headlines provided a contemporaneous background.
As well as capturing a crucial story of recent history through the experiences of two individuals, their story speaks of how the human spirit copes with adversity. How they reacted to their circumstances, and how it is captured through Wilhelm’s dairy, provides a sobering lesson in how we treat others, and how we react to wrongs upon ourselves.
• Internment In Britain in 1940: Life and Art Behind The Wire. By Ines Newman, with Charmian Brinson and Rachel Dickson, Valentine Mitchell, £18.99. For a 20 per cent discount. Go to www.vmbooksuk.com/search?q=newman
At the checkout there is a box for the discount code: NEWMAN20