It is perhaps appropriate that throughout 15 Journeys: From Warsaw to London Jasia Reichardt keeps switching identities. Her life was first threatened, after all, in 1930s in Poland, because of a very particular identity she carried—she was Jewish. And so she changes names, changes homes, becomes Catholic at one point, and wanders around Poland and then to London, trying to make a life after the death of her parents.
Read the last Bookslut on Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts.
15 Journeys comes at you in waves. The book is structured as something of a mosaic, with family letters interspersed with Reichardt’s mother the children’s book illustrator’s artwork, laid next to travel itineraries and shards of memories of various homes and caretakers. Reichardt starts her first journey as just a young girl, in a warm Polish home filled with art and music, but soon the family is dispersed and her traveling begins.
I spoke with Reichardt about her shifting identities and winding path, and why, after a full career in the art world, she’s returning to that small Polish home to tell her family’s story now.
I'm interested in the format of the book, which reads as something of a collage. The letters and the illustrations, some of which are the work of your mother, and then the countdown of the 15 different journeys, it becomes this interesting mosaic.
Like any story which starts at the beginning and continues to the end, the book follows a chronological sequence. This sequence is made up of my memories, my comments and letters from my mother and grandmother. You could call the letters historical documents. They belong and bear witness to a time and a place. The images are used to illustrate some aspects of the text. Yes, you are right, it is a mosaic.
At the beginning of the book you list all of the different names you've had, and they are many. The name you were born with, the name it was changed to, the name you write under. I'm wondering if these names feel attached to completely different people. If you, looking back, think of Janina Chaykin as a separate being.
I don't think of Janina Chaykin as a separate person even though I don't really recognize myself as her. In the end, the name I really feel at home with is Jasia Reichardt, it's a name I chose for myself. “Jasia” belongs to my childhood; “Reichardt” belongs to my professional life. Childhood happened. Professional life is something I created for myself.
Names are like clothes. Sometimes you wear one type of garment, sometimes another according to requirements, according to circumstances. You don't go to a ball in jeans and you don't go to work in an office in a bathing costume, but you are still the same person inside your skin.
You also worked under pseudonyms at the beginning of your career. What, to you, went into creating this specific Jasia Reichardt?
I was always called Jasia, ever since I can remember. It's a diminutive of Janina. So I felt at home with that first name. Why Reichardt? In 1956, I married a nice man called Tony Richards. Being called Jasia Richards didn't sound right, and when I started writing about art in 1958, I didn't want to use that surname. Perhaps it was too English for me. Since Tony's father, who came from Austro-Hungary changed his name from Reichardt to Richards, I decided to reverse the sequence. I like this name and have used it ever since.
As for various pseudonyms which I used, there was a good reason. As a writer on art I wrote a lot and therefore decided that different names would specialize in slightly different subjects. For instance one name would write about watercolor exhibitions, another would deal with pottery and other crafts. My best articles, for a time, were written under a man's name, Clifford N. Wright. And it is under that name that I had corresponded with some well-known artists.
A name is like a garment—it should feel comfortable.
Was there something that compelled you to tell your family's story now?
For some years I had been working on a book of wartime correspondence of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, my aunt and uncle. The book consists of their letters, his diaries, official documents and her drawings to which she gave the title Unposted Letters. Franciszka was a painter and Stefan was a writer. In Poland, during the 1930s they made avant-garde films. They moved to Paris in 1938, and when the war broke out they volunteered for the Polish army. Stefan became a soldier and was drafted into a regiment which was disbanded after a few weeks and while, one day, the general and the officers disappeared, the men were left to their own devices. Stefan walked from Brittany to Paris. It took six weeks.
In October 1940 he found shelter in Voiron in Vichy France where he spent nearly two years. Franciszka, meanwhile, became a cartographer for the Polish Government in exile, which evacuated to London in June 1940. Once they discovered that the other was alive, they started writing to each other under the careful eye of the censor—not an easy matter. The correspondence is revealing and moving, and it presents the picture of a generation that had lost everything except in the case of the Themersons, each other. Some letters are not posted, they are too revealing about the state of mind and the circumstances which they describe. Some letters are Franciszka's drawings, about a hundred of them, and these also never leave London. Franciszka spent her time drawing maps in the office and trying to help Stefan get the visas and tickets to get out of France, cross Spain, arrive in Lisbon and then fly to London. Usually, when one visa is acquired another has expired. The process takes nearly two years.
This book is now with the designer and will be published, probably at the end of this year, by Gaberbocchus-De Harmonie in Amsterdam. My work on this book consisted of translating the letters and the diaries from the Polish, and together with Nick Wadley, editing the material.
Working on all of this, and it's a much bigger book than mine, somehow freed me to think and finally to write about my own experiences during World War II. After all, in my book, my mother's letters are to Franciszka, and this book is also a part of my story.
And so the time came to tell my story.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.