A Manchester Memoir
By Dorothy Bohm
Manchester has played a crucial part in my life. It was there that I learned to be a photographer. Photography became not only my profession, but my dominant interest throughout a long life. I am now 83 years old, and am still fascinated by photography and a way of seeing.
I was sent to England to finish my schooling in June 1939. In March 1939, Hitler’s army had occupied Memel (now Klaipeda in Lithuania) and its surrounding area. Nazi radio propaganda hurled hate and threats for a long time before the invasion. My father was a prominent member of the Jewish community and an important industrialist. He owned a large vertical cotton mill and all the raw cotton came from a company in Manchester, where he had excellent contacts. The Nazis promised to kill him when they had a chance, and my father knew very well how precarious the situation in Europe was. In 1938 he had sent my older brother to boarding school in England.
My parents and I, as well as my one year old baby sister narrowly escaped the Nazi occupation of Memel, leaving on the very day their army moved in. We moved further inland, to a town called Siaulai, which for the time being was still part of free Lithuania. Because of his English contacts my father was able to obtain a visa for me to go to boarding school in England.
In June 1939, at the age of 14, I left my parents behind, and began a new and very different way of life in England. My parents and the baby were unable to come, and suffered great hardship, first under the Nazis and then under the Soviets. They miraculously survived Siberian labour camps, and in the early 1960s Harold Wilson, then leader of the Opposition, helped them come to England.
I spent the first year of the war in a boarding school in Ditchling, in rural Sussex, and worked very hard in order to obtain my school certificate as quickly as possible. This enabled me at the age of 16 to go to Manchester College of Technology to attend a vocational course in Photographic Technology. I also obtained a City and Guilds Final Certificate in Photography. My brother was already studying textile technology at the same college. Despite the bombings, black-outs and shortages, my student life in Manchester was interesting. I made new friends, and indeed met my future husband Louis at the college. He was a chemistry student with a similar background to mine. I must express my admiration for the courage and kindness the Mancunians showed during the war years – and my love of their distinctive sense of humour!
I graduated in 1942 and got a job in a prominent portrait studio, Samuel Cooper, in Market Street. In the war years family photographs were in great demand, and I took very many portraits. I learnt a lot and met many people. In 1943 I was asked by Tom Swan, head of the Northern Ministry of Information, to join a group of speakers who gave talks about the evils of the Nazi regime. I was only 18, and at first not certain that I could manage it. Tom Swan introduced me at my first lecture in Manchester Central Library, which was well received. The Ministry provided a driver and a car whenever a lecture was arranged for me in the Manchester area. I spoke to very varied audiences, to miners, factory workers and soldiers as well as in Rotary Clubs.