The Dresden Project is about my maternal family, who were German Jews. It explores a family archive, historical documentation, and personal experience through the medium of print. There is tragedy at the heart of my relationship to Dresden. The city that provided my mother and her parents with stability, prosperity and a remarkable cultural life from the early 1920‘s, then repressed and excluded them, forced their departure in mid-1936 and was destroyed by the country which offered them safe haven and a life free from persecution. Dresden remains a city permeated by a culture of remembrance, and its idealisation as an icon for the destructive power of war has fixed it in the collective and cultural memory as ‘a city full of ghosts’.
My mother, Hannalore Isakowitz, was born in 1915 in Tilsit in the German province of Eastern Prussia, which is now part of Russia. Her parents Erich Max Isakowitz, a dental surgeon, and Sofie Berlowitz, left Tilsit for Dresden in the early 1920’s to escape growing anti-Semitism. They became active members of the cultured and creative Jewish bourgeoisie, including amongst their friends the painter Conrad Felixmuller, the academic Victor Klemperer and the Arnhold family. They lived at Werderstrasse 44 by the Lukas Kirche, and Lore attended the Deutsche Oberschule in Plauen, taking her Abitur in spring 1933. After 1933, family life became increasingly constrained; Lore, a student of Klemperer, was not allowed to attend university, and Erich was not allowed to treat Aryans.
Sofie travelled to London in 1935 and petitioned successfully for Erich to be allowed to live and work in England, accompanied by his family. Erich and Sofie settled in North West London in the summer of 1936, and were never to see Germany again. Lore settled in London, married, and had three children, my two older brothers and me. Our family visited Dresden in 1985. For Lore, it was a traumatic visit in every way; highly distressed, she never recovered her equilibrium, and died the following year.
My maternal grandparents and both my parents were refugees, who sought asylum in Great Britain. Their narrative is as relevant today as it was then. My mother and her family fled the Nazis in a relatively well planned and orderly way; their ability to leave due to foresight and financial means. By contrast my father Harry Petzal, born in Berlin in 1908 escaped just before war broke out on forged papers. He handed himself over to the authorities to ask for asylum and volunteered for the military. He served in the British Army Pioneer Corps, and from 1943 worked as a professional metallurgist at Lucas which made aircraft components. His expertise may have contributed in some small measure to the allied bombing. The rest of his family including, his mother, his brother and his wife and their three small children, my cousins aged three and twins age 15 months were murdered in Auschwitz.
Both sides of my family had considered themselves as ‘more German than the Germans’, both grandfather’s fought for Germany in WW1, one winning the Iron Cross. These fortunate ones who fled were devastated at being forced to leave their homeland. Britain did not welcome them with open arms, but it did take them in. Refugees received a mixture of benevolence and resentment, with offers of help accompanied by encouragement to assimilate and become invisible. The German Jewish refugee community flourished and the immense contribution ‘Hitler’s émigrés’ made to British life and culture is widely recognised.
Making this art work has altered my connection to my heritage, to Dresden and Germany. As a citizen of both Great Britain and of Germany and as a Jew, I want my work to emphasise the significance of individual stories, and the importance of reconciliation between countries and faiths. The Dresden Project is about us all. It asks us to consider how we construct our own histories and how we understand who we are and what we stand for.