Feb 2003 Journal

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Engraver with gravitas (profile of Käthe Strenitz)

Everybody familiar with the story of ‘refugees from Nazi oppression’ has heard of the so-called Winton children, 669 Czech youngsters who arrived in the UK shortly before the war. The epithet ‘Winton’s children’ applies to them twice over, a) because Nicholas (now Sir Nicholas) Winton worked tirelessly for their rescue, and b) because he stood in loco parentis to all those orphans-to-be.

Käthe Strenitz belonged to their number. She was born in 1923 in the glass-making town of Gablonz in the Sudeten part of Czechoslovakia. Her father, a tobacco importer, sat on committees that served both the Jewish and general community. The mother was something of a blue stocking who took advice on childrearing from a close friend, the famous Vienna-based psychologist Alfred Adler. Though Käthe encountered little antisemitism at her German gymnasium, she, like many of her generation, embraced Zionism and joined the continental counterpart to Habonim.

The other great enthusiasm of her early teenage years was art. Paradoxically her artistic education received a great fillip in the crisis year 1938 when the family moved to Prague. In the beleaguered capital she attended the Officina Pragensis, an art college offering courses on engraving, lithography, poster design, etc. Here she imbibed avant garde ideas and came under the influence of a distantly related older student, the poet Peter Kien (subsequent librettist of the Terezin opera The Emperor of Atlantis).

In March 1939 the Germans occupied Prague. Within a matter of weeks Käthe
found herself on a Quaker-sponsored children’s transport to England. She remembers no detail of the journey other than being put in charge of a compartment occupied by bawling, traumatised toddlers. Initially she had a soft landing in the UK, spending her first fortnight comfortably ensconced with two well-connected sisters en route to New York. What followed was a switch-back ride of contrasting experiences. The nadir occurred on a farm at Fordingbridge, where she was given insufficient to eat and had to sleep on the landing. When she picked up some windfall fruit she was made to confess to stealing in front of the farmer’s children. Next she caught impetigo off seasonal fruit-pickers from the East End of London. At that point she packed her bags and took the train to London – a display of initiative she still marvels at 60-odd years later.

Happier days followed at the David Eder Farm in Kent, set up to train future kibbutzniks. Here she picked frozen brussel sprouts and worked in the stone-floor kitchen, but enjoyed the high-spirited company of, among others, the future wife of Ernst Gombrich.

When Kent was declared a Protected Area Käthe was sent to a girls’ hostel in North Hackney whose gloomy ambience put her in mind of Edgar Allen Poe. Her next stop was a farm owned by a cousin of the poet Walter de la Mare where she learnt to milk and to plough with horses.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Mrs Winton had sent some of Käthe’s drawings to Oskar Kokoschka, on whose recommendation she was awarded a British Council scholarship that took her to Regent Street Polytechnic. This sudden change in her fortune was not, however, as auspicious as it appeared. For one, because of the wartime call-up, elderly instructors recalled from retirement were staffing the faculty at Regent Street. These men purveyed an aesthetic which struck Käthe as hopelessly antiquated when compared to what she had recently imbibed at the Officina Pragensis. For another, the scholarship only paid her school fees, and she still had to do chilblain-inducing menial jobs – such as washing bottles for Express Dairy – to earn her keep.

She left the Polytechnic, did full-time war work and moved into Canterbury Hall, a hostel maintained by the Czech Trust Fund. Here she encountered the refugee poet Erich Fried and met her future husband, a Czech-Jewish journalist-turned-entrepreneur. They married during the war, and had a daughter in 1950, after which Käthe returned to the Regent Street Polytechnic to complete her art education. By that time her husband owned a plastics factory north of Kings Cross whose interior – as well as the surrounding industrial landscape – Käthe made the subject of many engravings. In subsequent years she received the Lord Mayor’s Award for woodcuts, exhibited regularly at the Bankside gallery, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, and in 1989 the Greater London Record office acquired her industrial drawings for their permanent collection.

Today Käthe feels fulfilled in both her work and family relationships – but the Holocaust has left deep scars. Apart from mourning her next-of-kin and persistent worry about Israel’s future, she is particularly concerned that no archive anywhere caters for Peter Kien’s literary estate.
Richard Grunberger

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