In the Huddersfield and Halifax area Joseph Kagan’s name calls to mind a highly successful businessman who became famous for the Gannex raincoat, his association with Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his campaigning membership of the House of Lords even after serving a short prison sentence for tax offences.
However, the drama of his life as Baron Kagan was as nothing compared to that of his earlier years, writes Ron Simpson.
His first spell in Yorkshire was as a student at Leeds University but, when he returned home to Kaunas in Lithuania in the summer of 1939, he was unable to leave and began working at the family factory.
The following year Joseph’s father went to England on a purchasing mission for the Lithuanian government – and he in turn was cut off and unable to return, fortunately for him, as it turned out.
Joseph took over managing the factory, very successfully, but the next few years saw the Kagans persecuted as capitalists by the occupying Russians, then as Jews when the Germans invaded Lithuania. In the Kaunas ghetto Joseph met and married Margaret Strom.
Then, in the most dramatic circumstances, they concealed themselves for nine months in a secret box which Joseph had constructed in the foundry.
This is the subject matter for their daughter Jenny Kagan’s interactive exhibition, Out of Darkness, at Dean Clough. Jenny’s aim in developing the exhibition has been to tell her parents’ story, but also to find a new way of presenting it.
So the visitor goes on a journey though the dimly lit Viaduct Theatre, with piles of suitcases suggesting the homelessness of the dispossessed, some containing chalked messages and opening up to reveal an image or a diary entry, a burst of music or a time chart.
The uneven surface of the Viaduct makes the visitor tread carefully, an appropriate metaphor for the existence of the Kagans in the Kaunas ghetto, emphasised when plotting a route through barbed wire.
Jenny wants visitors to take from the exhibition whatever suits them. It works equally well on an impressionistic and a historical level. There is no need to read a word: a journey through the sights, smells and sounds of Joseph and Margaret’s world is intriguing and moving.
On the other hand the regulations of the Kaunas ghetto are there in appalling detail. A desk contains texts on the Nazis in Lithuania and chairs for serious readers to settle in, and British newspapers of the time present an anglo-centric view of the progress of the war. For all, however, Jenny’s experience in theatre lighting makes it a genuinely atmospheric journey out of darkness.
A fascinating insight into the horrors of the recent past, Out of Darkness remains relevant today. Jenny is particularly pleased that members of school parties often make the connection to today’s refugee crisis and are helped to understand it in human terms.
Out of Darkness runs until July 10 with school parties Monday-Wednesday and open to the public from Thursday to Sunday from 10am-5pm. Admission is free.