Story of iconic WWII photo revealed with launch of Tel Aviv exhibition

Works of photojournalist David Seymour are on display at The Museum of the Jewish People (Beit Hatfutsot) in Tel Aviv.

April 13, 2017 22:16
2 minute read.
warsaw jewish photos

For almost 70 years, the identity of the girl in David Seymour’s 1948 photo was unknown, but an article published by ‘Time’ on Wednesday pieced together details of her life. (photo credit: DAVID SEYMOUR)

The story behind an iconic photo of a young girl taken in 1948 by photojournalist David “Chim” Seymour after World War II, has recently come to light, coinciding with the launch of an exhibition of Seymour’s work at The Museum of the Jewish People (Beit Hatfutsot) in Tel Aviv.

Seymour, the co-founder of Magnum photos, met the subject of this famous picture, Tereska, at a special-needs elementary school in Warsaw, where he was born and had been sent by UNESCO as part of an assignment to photograph children in postwar Europe. The photograph depicts a young girl scrawling tangled lines on a blackboard, an image which is supposed to represent her home, but is seen as a symbol of her troubled childhood – and more broadly of war’s impact on children.

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First published in Life magazine on December 27, 1949, the caption accompanying the picture of Tereska read: “Children’s wounds are not all outward. Those made in the mind by years of sorrow will take years to heal. In Warsaw, at an institute which cares for some of Europe’s thousands of ‘disturbed’ children, a Polish girl named Tereska was asked to make a picture of her home. These terrible scratches are what she drew.”

For almost 70 years the identity of the girl was unknown, but an article published by Time on Wednesday pieced together details of her life. The research was conducted by Gregor Siebenkotten, director of the Tereska Foundation, together with Polish researcher Patryk Grazewicz, humanrights journalist Aneta Wawrzynczak, Matthew Murphy, an editor at Magnum Photos’s New York office, and photography historian Carole Naggar, who wrote a biography of Seymour and who published the article in Time.

Going back to the school where the picture was taken and delving into its archives, the research team was eventually able to identify the girl as Teresa Adwentowska, the daughter of a Catholic family, whose home was destroyed during the Bombing of Warsaw. At the age of four, Tereska was hit by a piece of a bombed building during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

The team also found that Tereska died in 1978 at a psychiatric hospital. According to official accounts uncovered by the team, she died choking on a piece of food.

The picture of Tereska is on display at the Capturing History: The Photography of Chim exhibition at The Museum of the Jewish People until the end of January 2018. The exhibition was developed in collaboration with Seymour’s niece and nephew Helen Sarid and Ben Shneiderman, and was opened at the end of March.

One-hundred original prints are on display, including color photographs from the first days of the State of Israel, as well as personal items.

After he covered the Spanish Civil War, Seymour left Europe for Mexico and then became a US citizen and joined the US Army. He returned to Europe after World War II, and resided in Rome. His parents, who remained in Poland, were killed in the Otwock Ghetto.

Seymour died in 1956, hit by Egyptian machine-gun fire in Suez where he was sent by Newsweek to cover the exchange of prisoners after the cease fire.

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