Theo Richmond, who revived the past in a Polish shtetl, dies at 93
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Theo Richmond, who revived the past in a Polish shtetl, dies at 93
An undated photo provided by the Richmond family shows Theo Richmond, a British documentary filmmaker and writer. Richmond, author of the acclaimed book, “Konin: A Quest,” which captured the quotidian life and precipitous death of the Jewish population of his parents’ hometown in Poland after the Nazi invasion — died on Aug. 25, 2022, in London. He was 93. Richmond family via The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Theo Richmond, a British documentary filmmaker who depended on words rather than images to create what he called “the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done” — an acclaimed book, “Konin: A Quest,” that captured the quotidian life and precipitous death of the Jewish population of his parents’ hometown in Poland after the Nazi invasion — died Aug. 25 in London. He was 93.

His death, at his home in the borough of Richmond upon Thames, was confirmed by his wife, novelist Lee Langley.

Over the course of seven years, Richmond conducted some 400 interviews in Poland, Israel, Florida, Nebraska, Texas, Montreal and New York, racing against time to collect memories from former residents of Konin, a village 140 miles west of Warsaw near the German border.

In 1939, about 3,000 of its 13,000 residents were Jewish. By 1940, according to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, “the town was Judenrein,” or “cleansed” of Jews. When Richmond visited there 50 years later, Konin was still said to have no Jewish residents.

“This book is about my return journey to a place I had never been to,” Richmond wrote, “a place of which I knew nothing except that it was a part of my past and in a curiously powerful way a part of my present.”

“Konin” proved to be neither a nostalgic “Fiddler on the Roof” homage to the shtetl nor another wrenching reimagining of the Holocaust. Rather, Richmond concluded after listening to the survivors and their descendants, “I found that I was listening to a story of renewal as well as annihilation.”

He was never motivated to write another book. But one so well received would satisfy most first-time authors, especially one who ran out of money for research before he found a benefactor and spent four of the first seven years working on “Konin” without a contract from a publisher. (Vintage Books ultimately took it on.)

After it was released in 1995, author Jan Morris described it in The Independent in Britain as “one of the most moving and unforgettable books I have ever reviewed.” Richard Bernstein, in The New York Times, praised Richmond’s “loving, luminous portrait of the town” and his “reconstruction of life, death and survival in this place of no particular importance,” and called “Konin” “a stunning achievement in literary journalism.”

“Konin” won the Royal Society of Literature’s W.H. Heinemann Award and the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize.

Herbert Theodore Richmond was born in the Forest Gate district of East London on May 7, 1929, to Sam Richmond, who owned a modest carpet business, and Bertha (Sarna) Richmond, a homemaker. His parents had left Konin for Britain just before World War I.

His mother’s family had founded an aid society for Konin’s impoverished population. His father had Anglicized the surname from Ryczke (the first syllable is pronounced “rich”) to Richmond. (Richmond upon Thames just happened to be where Theo moved as an adult.)

Theo was educated at St. Albans School and completed two years of national service as a teacher with the Royal Air Force. He graduated with a degree in international economics from the London School of Economics, where he met Diane Souccar. They married in 1955.

When she died suddenly in 1961, he was left to raise two children: Jonathan, who became an academic (and who died two years ago), and Sarah, now an associate professor of philosophy at University College London. In addition to his daughter and Langley, whom he married in 1965, he is survived by their son, Simon, a composer and record producer, and three grandchildren.

Realizing after graduation that he was more motivated by movies than economics, Richmond joined Rank Films at Pinewood Studios as a publicist. He worked with Brigitte Bardot, Dirk Bogarde and Jack Hawkins, then freelanced as a publicist for author Kingsley Amis and for filmmakers John and Roy Boulting, who encouraged him to direct television series. He also started making documentaries and writing about history and the arts for newspapers and journals.

When he was 57, Richmond happened upon an 800-page memorial book, written mostly in Yiddish and published privately in Israel in 1968 by Jews who used to live in Konin. It documented life in Konin before and during the Nazi occupation and, in black-bordered pages, listed the names of more than 2,000 Konin residents who were killed.

Flipping through the book again in 1987, he found his family’s name on the death list. “I knew that the decision had been made for me,” he wrote. “I must write a book of my own about the Jewish men and women of Konin, a book that would interweave past and present.”

What began as a six-month sabbatical to explore his roots became what he described as “an obsession that took over my life.”

Richmond interviewed former Konin residents including Mike Jacobs, a Dallas scrap merchant, and Motek Mysch, a Brooklyn rag-trade worker. And he learned of romanticized denizens of Konin remembered by their monikers as Simcha Schnorrer (Yiddish for moocher) and Mordecai the Peasant.

“The reader could almost smell the pickled herring in the Jewish marketplace,” a review in The Times of London said, “taste the sweetened bread, peer into the overcrowded homes, and hear the silence that fell over the community at sundown on Friday at the start of the Sabbath.”

Richmond wrote, “I have a meager knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, but am aware of the all-important injunction to remember.” He invoked the founder of Chasidism — the Jewish spiritual revival group that arose in 18th-century Eastern Europe — who once said, “Forgetting is exile, remembering is the path to salvation.”

“In the light of 20th century history,” Richmond concluded, “I would amend that axiom: Forgetting is not exile; forgetting is the Final Solution.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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