Margate , “To a Death in Sweating Wakefulness’

This is the exhibition text for Margate:

My parents were German Jewish refugees. My mother Lore Isakowitz (born 1915) and her family fled Dresden for London in 1936. My father Harry Petzal (born 1908) fled Berlin in August 1939. He left behind the rest of his family, who only escaped as far as Holland. Harry’s mother, his brother and sister-in-law, and their three small children, were then held in the Westebork camp and eventually all died in Auschwitz.

My father escaped to Britain on false papers. Arriving with ‘nothing but the clothes he stood up in’ he turned himself in to the authorities. Shortly after the outbreak of the war he volunteered for the Pioneer Corps, serving until 1943. As a trained metallurgist he was then seconded to work in the aircraft industry.

After the war, now married to my mother and with a small child, he rebuilt his career as a metal dealer. A fluent English speaker, he had travelled to the United States in 1936, and had good business contacts. In 1946 he and a group of associates travelled all over Germany, identifying the detritus of war, and organising its sale to American steel producers for recycling.

Although I knew about this visit, I only recently located his archive, with these extraordinary photographs of both of the rusting and decaying machinery of war, and of Germany itself. My father and his colleagues evidently traversed Northern Germany, with my father photographing Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin as well as Luneburg Heath, the scene of the German surrender to Field Marshall Montgomery on the 4th May 1945.

Whilst the ‘business’ photographs were commercially processed and taped down to typed cards with identifying text, all the other photographs were processed by my father, a keen amateur photographer, in his darkroom at home. Ever meticulous, all the photographs have identifying details on the back, so I know where he stayed in Berlin and much of what he saw, including Hitler’s Bunker which was blown up in 1947. He would have known of the fate of his family, and of many other friends and colleagues, since the end of the war. There is no evidence of his returning to see his family home, which was still standing.

This work continues my exploration of family history, and its links to my present life. I work in a studio which was formerly a billet hut at Parham Air Base, a local American WWII airfield, probably removed to our farm during the 1950’s, to become an animal shed. Having found large pieces of rusting metal on our land, I have brought these together this with my father’s archive and miniature models in an exploratory narrative about the machinery of war.

I have also included lithographs from ‘The Dresden Project’, which refer to film and photographic images from the destruction of Dresden by the allies in February 1945. I know little about my father’s work in the aircraft industry during WWII and I often wonder if he contributed in some small way to the allied destruction of his wife’s beloved home town.

I am the child of refugees, a first generation Brit, a non-practicing but culturally identified Jew, and now I also have German citizenship. I understand my constant reexamination of my parent’s life as an ongoing search for meaning, to not only unravel and attempt to process the past, but also to consider its relationship to my life and to contemporary events.

I often contemplate how much more privileged I am than my father’s family.  Poignantly and ironically, my German passport would allow me to escape there from the UK should I need to, and my religious heritage, rather than condemning me, would afford me the right to live in the State of Israel.



One thought on “Margate , “To a Death in Sweating Wakefulness’

  1. Philip Stevens

    We met recently and you kindly gave me your card. My father was a POW in Lamsdorf Stalag V111B for three years and I am writing about it at the moment. It would be good to come down to the studio and see your work and perhaps have time for a chat.

    Hope to hear from you



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