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Theo Richmond, film-maker and author who studied the fateful history of his Jewish parents’ home town in Poland – obituary

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 05/09/2022 Telegraph Obituaries
Theo Richmond - Courtesy of family © Courtesy of family Theo Richmond - Courtesy of family

Theo Richmond, who has died aged 93, was best known for his internationally acclaimed book Konin: A Quest, a blend of social history, collective biography and personal memoir which was a rewarding but troubled study of Polish-Jewish history. The book, published in 1996, won the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Award, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize, and was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Award and the WH Smith Book of the Year.

Konin was the small town in Poland, between Warsaw and the German border, where his parents had been born in the 1890s. In 1939, there had been a Jewish population of approximately 3,000 (from a total population of 13,000). By 1968, there was only one Jewish resident left, a widow named Hannah Zakrewska, who had married a Gentile, and who, with the help of a Polish mason, had helped to erect a memorial in a nearby forest to Jews buried there in mass graves. After her death a year later, the Jewish memory of Konin was completely erased.

Richmond undertook a successful quest to collect Jewish memories of Konin in Britain, the United States and Israel, as a result of which “one small corner” of Polish-Jewish life was memorialised for an international readership. (Part of his research was studying a privately-printed 800-page memorial volume in Yiddish.) Besides recreating the stetl itself, the book brought to life its variety of characters and personalities, along with folk traditions and homespun remedies (such as the use of cabbage leaves to heal wounds, which to Theo’s surprise, often worked).

Richmond's prize-winning book © Provided by The Telegraph Richmond's prize-winning book

The Konin story mirrored much of Poland’s history itself – life sometimes improving, then subsequently deteriorating. Things got better between the wars, and relationships with Catholic Poles were often good: education, especially for girls, was expanded. But with the rise of fascism in Germany, anti-Semitism was revived in Konin, and by September 14 1939, the swastika was flying over the town hall.

Poland had been, for many Jews, “a sanctuary”, and the Polish constitution of 1921 had given them equal rights; but after the onset of war the fate of the Konin Jews, as elsewhere, was sealed. Many fled, were sent to death camps, or were executed summarily by the Gestapo. On one terrible occasion, a Jew and a Polish Christian were put before the firing squad together, almost a symbol of how both communities suffered under Nazi occupation – although, alas, resistance did not always bring the communities together.

Fortunately, Theo Richmond’s parents, Samuel and Bertha (née Sarna) had come to England as children and Theo was born in London’s East End in 1929, although Konin was always present in household memory – his mother’s family had founded a Konin Aid Society for the poor who had been left behind. His surname had been Ryczke: an English teacher suggested he Anglicise it to “Richmond”, since the first syllable of “Ryczke” was pronounced “Rich”. Later, as it happened, he came to make his adult home life in Richmond, Surrey.

Richmond, first right, with Kingsley Amis, author of Lucky Jim, and his wife Hilary, second and third right, and others including the actor Kenneth Griffith, first left - Courtesy of family © Provided by The Telegraph Richmond, first right, with Kingsley Amis, author of Lucky Jim, and his wife Hilary, second and third right, and others including the actor Kenneth Griffith, first left - Courtesy of family

Herbert Theodore Richmond was born in Forest Gate, east London, on May 7 1929, 12 years after his elder brother, Benjamin; the family moved to St Albans in Hertfordshire partly to escape the Blitz, but also reflecting that trajectory of immigrant Jewish families from east London to north of the Thames. Theo also spent some time as a boy with a relative in neutral Ireland (where he experienced friendliness, but observed Dublin’s severe poverty).

He described his parents as “oddball individualists” who defied categorisation: his mother frequently cited Voltaire’s repudiation of religion to him, and his socialist father regarded religious Judaism as an obstacle to progress – and yet sent him to cheder (religious classes). Theo learned early on that “Jews and paradox are never far apart”. You could be part of modern Britain, and yet retain links with “der heym” – the old country.

Theo attended grammar school in St Albans and did two years’ National Service with the RAF; he subsequently studied International Relations at the LSE, where he met his first wife, Diane. Drawn to the cinema, he first joined the Rank Films publicity office at Pinewood, and found himself in some star-studded company, including Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, Norman Wisdom – his first job was writing press releases for the popular comic – Jack Hawkins, and even Brigitte Bardot, then in her sexually alluring prime. 

Interviewing the actor Topol on the set of Fiddler on the Roof - Courtesy of family © Provided by The Telegraph Interviewing the actor Topol on the set of Fiddler on the Roof - Courtesy of family

Encountering La Bardot in a cramped dressing-room, and in a state of undress, a flustered young Theo offered the French star a wine gum. She accepted, then spat it out, pronouncing it “dégoutant”, and “nothing to do with wine”. They got along very well after that. He also worked with Kingsley Amis on Lucky Jim, and struck up a lifelong friendship with the Amises.

As a freelance, he worked with Charlie Chaplin, on the movie A King in New York, which was something of a turkey. He did not always relish the necessary flattery and hype that went with movie PR but he found it refreshing to work with the Boulting Brothers, John and Roy, (on I’m All Right Jack) where witty, and sometimes sharp, banter was better appreciated.

Richmond was glad to move sideways in the screen industry, first into production, where he was a director’s assistant, and then into television documentaries. He directed programmes for The South Bank Show, Aquarius, This Week and Man Alive. He was deeply affected by a film he directed and researched for the Shell Film unit, For Want of Water, about the desperate need for clean water in developing countries.

He may have been the first non-combatant to visit the Falklands immediately after the 1982 war, travelling there seated on the floor of a bomber plane to direct a film about the conflict’s aftermath.

In Pisa during the 1960s - Courtesy of family © Provided by The Telegraph In Pisa during the 1960s - Courtesy of family

The research on Konin took over much of his working life from the late 1970s, but he continued to write – often for the Telegraph magazine under John Anstey – interviewing John Berger, Ivan Illich, Yehudi Menuhin and dissidents fleeing the Soviet Union (he had not followed his parents’ Socialist views, but rather leaned towards liberal conservatism).

His personal life contained both tragedy and loss. In 1955, he married his fellow-student at the LSE, Diane Souccar, whose family came from Alexandria in Egypt. She died unexpectedly in hospital in 1961, leaving Theo a widower with two young children, Jonathan and Sarah.

This, understandably, had a lasting impact of grief on the family. Theo subsequently met Lee Langley, the novelist and screenwriter, and latterly Spectator literary reviewer, and they married in 1965. He wrote that she supported him not only with her enduring love, but with her earnings, when he was writing Konin. He said he owed everything to her. They had a son, Simon, born in 1968.

Theo was an attractive man, somewhat resembling Al Pacino in his youth. He could be pessimistic, arising from “Jewish angst”, but the pessimism produced dark humour and sardonic, sometimes self-deprecating, wit. He faced the death of his elder son, Jonathan, in 2020 from a sudden heart attack with valour.

In his last years of deteriorating health Lee cared for him attentively, and he managed to remain warm, kind and funny. She survives him with his daughter Sarah and son Simon.

Theo Richmond, born May 7 1929, died August 25 2022

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