(The Howard Greenberg Collection—Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

David “Chim” Seymour (b. 1911)

Tereska, a child in residence for disturbed children. She drew a picture of ‘home’ on the blackboard., 1948

Displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Great Works, In Focus

Behind the lines

David Seymour’s postwar photograph ‘Tereska’ captures a little girl’s heartbreaking response to the notion of ‘home’

David “Chim” Seymour’s “Tereska,” featuring a child in a residence for disturbed children. She drew a picture of “home” on the blackboard. The photograph (1948) is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (The Howard Greenberg Collection; Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust; Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

A little girl, Tereska, was asked to draw a picture of her home. This photo, by David “Chim” Seymour, one of the co-founders of Magnum Photos, shows her response.

The photo was taken in a home for disturbed children in Warsaw in 1948. It’s very famous: It was first published in Life magazine at the end of 1948 and then appeared in Edward Steichen’s legendary “The Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. But until two years ago, almost nothing was known about Tereska. A small team of researchers, led by Patryk Grazewicz and Aneta Wawrzynczak, have since uncovered some of the salient facts.

When Tereska was 4, her father, who owned a candy store, was brutally seized by the Gestapo. Tereska and her 14-year-old sister, Jadzia, went to live with their grandmother. When the home was attacked, they fled. The grandmother returned to fetch something but never came back: A German bomb flattened the house. Tereska was hit by a piece of shrapnel that left her brain damaged.

She and Jadzia spent the next three weeks walking 40 miles through a war zone — this was the Warsaw Uprising — to a village, almost starving to death in the process.

David “Chim” Seymour’s “Tereska,” featuring a child in a residence for disturbed children. She drew a picture of “home” on the blackboard. The photograph (1948) is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (The Howard Greenberg Collection; Museum purchase with funds donated by the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Charitable Trust; Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Four years later, Tereska, age 7 or 8, was asked to draw a response to the prompt: “This is home.”

I can’t possibly know, but I don’t think Tereska followed the prompt. I don’t think this is a picture of her destroyed home. Rather, it’s a tangle of lines. In effect, it says: “You want ‘home’? Here is what I can manage.”

Trauma defeats meaning. It defeats progress. It just goes around and around in big, devastating circles.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Seymour’s friend and fellow Magnum founder, wrote that “Chim picked up his camera the way a doctor takes his stethoscope out of his bag, applying his diagnosis to the condition of the heart.”

But this photo does more than make a diagnosis. Look at Tereska’s eyes. Look at her curving left arm, which seems to complete the loops she has just made on the board. I know no other photo that implicates and involves you so urgently.

Seymour surely sensed his own involvement. He had worked alongside Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He learned later that his Jewish parents were murdered by Nazis.

After the war, he was asked by UNICEF to document the plight of refugee children. He traveled in Austria, Germany, Italy, Hungary and finally Poland — his old home. He took this photograph shortly after visiting Otwock, outside Warsaw, where he had summered as a child.

During the war, the Nazis had established a Jewish ghetto in Otwock and murdered psychiatric patients in the town’s sanitarium. So it may have been Seymour, more than Tereska, who was responding to the prompt: “This is home.”

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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