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The artist Josef Herman was born in Poland in 1911, to a Jewish family. In 1938 he fled Poland due to growing anti-Semitism before World War II and was one of many Jewish artists who escaped Nazi persecution. Herman travelled across Europe, to Glasgow, where he stayed between 1940-1944. Whilst in Scotland the Red Cross informed him that his family had died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Herman suffered emotionally because of this loss and in his artistic response made drawings and paintings on Jewish themes dealing with loss, death, and remembering. These works were forgotten until he re-discovered them in 1985, and they were then given the title Memory of Memories. He said of the people in these artworks "I could not touch them but I could follow them with a line; I could draw a characteristic detail of their clothing, an expression, a gesture of their hands... I followed a dream… my memory of those people was beautiful.” (Herman 1985).

Herman moved to Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valley in 1944, he said “I stayed here because I found all I required. I arrived here a stranger for a fortnight; the fortnight became 11 years.” He became a big part of the community and was fondly nicknamed ‘Joe Bach’. Herman, as a refugee, found a sense of belonging in Ystradgynlais where he drew and painted local people and the coal miners. Herman’s artistic style was bold and distinctive in his paintings and prints. He is best known for working on Welsh themes, especially that of the coal miners.

Source: Josef Herman Art Foundation Cymru Website (2021)

Possible questions to discuss

  • Who was Josef Herman?
  • What kind of an Artist was Josef Herman?
  • What are Herman’s key themes?
  • What can be seen in Herman’s images?
  • How did Herman make marks. Are these different in his paintings, and drawings?
  • Who are other émigré artists who settled in the South Wales Valleys?
  • Why is knowing about Josef Herman’s life important to his art?
  • Why was Wales important to Josef Herman?
  • What are the reasons that might cause people to flee their country?
  • What are Herman’s techniques and processes?

Activity ideas

  • Experiment with different art processes methods and techniques
  • Explore themes of belonging and a sense of place.
  • Discover the work of émigré artists in the South Wales valleys.
  • Develop skills in painting drawing and printmaking.
  • Examine the work of Josef Herman
  • Investigate reasons for leaving home and becoming a refugee
  • Develop inspiration from Herman’s work to produce art.
  • Write about themes discovered through exploring the life and work of Josef Herman
  • Produce a drama, a film, a piece of music poetry based on themes explored

Learning experiences

(derived from the statements of what matters)

Expressive Arts
  • Developing creative techniques
  • Representing personal, social and cultural identities
  • Understanding context in creative works  
  • Mastering creative techniques
  • Exploring purpose and meaning
  • Convey feelings and emotions
  • Develop and refine designs
Health and Well-being
  • Empathy
  • Understanding relationships
  • Feelings and mental health
  • Social decisions
  • Social awareness
  • Understanding ideas and perspectives
  • Human impact on the world
  • Understanding the past
  • Understanding human rights
  • Similarity and social differentiation
  • Contribution to society
  • Identity


Josef Herman and his artwork

The journey to Ystradgynlais

1. Josef Herman was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1911. He attended the Warsaw School of Art between 1930 and 1932.

2. He fled Poland to Belgium just before the Second World War due to mounting anti-Semitism.

3. The Second World War begins, and Josef Herman escapes from Belgium to France briefly, but eventually finds refuge in Glasgow, Scotland.

4. Josef Herman moved to Ystradgynlais in 1944 and stayed for 11 years. He became a big part of the local community, where he was fondly nicknamed ‘Joe Bach’.


Sketches of Ystradgynlais by Josef Herman

With thanks to the Gwenllian Beynon, Josef Herman Art Foundation and the Swansea College of Art.

Case study

The Communities of Wales project has supported The Welfare, Ystradgynlais and Ysgol Maesydderwen to learn more about the experiences of refugees and their sense of belonging in Ystradgynlais and the surrounding area. The Welfare Hall in Ystradgynlais work closely with a group of Syrian refugees. Ystradgynlais was also the home of refugee artist Josef Herman for over a decade. Ysgol Maesydderwen have been learning about Josef Herman, his artwork and his experiences of moving to Wales. Workshops were delivered about Josef Herman in Ysgol Maesydderwen by local artists Vivian Rhule and Menna Buss. The Syrian refugees, some of whom attend Ysgol Maesydderwen, also came to the National Library for a day trip.