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Theo Richmond obituary | history books


In 1968, an 800-page memorial book arrived in the post at Theo Richmond’s home in west London – a book of remembrance for a Jewish community destroyed in the Holocaust, written by the few survivors. This commemorated the Jewish community of Konin, then a small Polish town on the Warta River. Theo’s parents had lived there before emigrating to Britain just before the First World War, and Theo and his father had subscribed to a donation for the publication of the book. Since it was written in Yiddish, which he couldn’t read at the time, Theo put it aside.

Twenty years later, he took it back, examined his final list of the 2,000 Konin Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and found he could decipher the names of at least seven of his relatives, including two of his Grand parents. As he would later write: “I turned the pages and knew the decision had been made for me: I had to write my own book about the Jewish men and women of Konin, a book that would mix past and present, which being a confluence of two rivers, the Thames and the Warta.

The result was Konin: A Quest (1995), an extraordinary work of social and cultural history, which won both the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize and the Heinemann Prize of the Royal Society of Literature.

The Konin Synagogue at the beginning of the 20th century

For seven years, Theo learned Yiddish, traveled to interview surviving Koniners scattered in places from New York to Omaha to Tel Aviv, and collected extensive documentation of the life and death of their extinct community. From this mass of materials, he was able to recreate, street by street, even house by house, the 1930s Jewish quarter of Konin clustered around its market square, the Tepper Marik.

He also recreated its inhabitants, right down to their nicknames, from Leibke the Scribe to Dokonch the Burper. By telling the story of their lives as well as their deaths, Theo, who died aged 93, ensured they would be remembered as individuals rather than statistics.

Theo was born in Forest Gate, east London, to Samuel Richmond (née Ryczke), a businessman, and his wife, Bertha (née Sarna). He was educated in St Albans, where his family moved during the Second World War, and did two years teaching national service in the RAF before studying international relations at the London School of Economics.

He then embarked on a career as a film publicist. He started at the Rank advertising office in Pinewood in Buckinghamshire, meeting household names such as Richard Attenborough, Dirk Bogarde and Brigitte Bardot (whom he once offered a wine gum which she found “disgusting”). He then set up on his own, working with MGM and in particular the Boulting brothers. In 1957, while advertising the film version of Lucky Jim, he met Kingsley Amis, who became a lifelong friend.

Richmond, right, with Hilly and Kingsley Friends
Richmond, right, with Hilly and Kingsley Friends

In the 1960s Theo moved away from advertising to directing television programs such as The South Bank Show, Man Alive and This Week. For the Shell Film Unit, he also researched and directed several documentaries. Two in particular appear well ahead of their time in today’s perspective: Time for Energy (1982), on alternative energy sources; and For Want of Water (1983), on the urgent need for drinking water in developing countries. Making For Want of Water took him on adventures ranging from the dangerous to the comical in remote corners of the world. While filming in Nepal, he slipped in a rock fall and broke his finger. There was no hospital within two days’ journey, so Theo found himself in a mountain cabin, with a local nurse sticking her finger in a torchlight and a goat biting his foot left.

From the 1970s he also wrote a great deal of journalism, mainly for the Guardian and the Telegraph magazine; he has contributed more than 40 profiles to the Guardian alone. Among the personalities he interviewed were Yehudi Menuhin, John Berger, Sir Huw Wheldon and James Lees-Milne.

Théo was an unforgettable character, warm, extremely kind, an excellent host and a great storyteller. He had a brilliant sense of humor, with a flair for turning angst into laughter. He was also deeply erudite, with a broad cross-cultural frame of reference, capable of lengthy, not-quite-serious disputes over matters as mysterious as the date of the last British cavalry charge (it was at Toungoo in Burma in 1942).

In 1955, Théo married Diane Souccar, whom he met at the LSE. She died suddenly in 1961, leaving him to raise their two young children, Jonathan and Sarah. In 1965, Theo married novelist and screenwriter Lee Langley. He is survived by Lee and their son, Simon, and Sarah. Jonathan died in 2020.

Herbert Theodore Richmond, writer, born May 7, 1929; died on August 25, 2022