"Helena Bohle-Szacka. Diffusion" exhibition

Lost, Found, Forgotten, and Found Again. The Professional and Artistic Life of Helena Bohle-Szacka

Helena Bohle-Szacka lived a vibrant, turbulent, and challenging life during which she became an iconic designer of the Polish fashion industry. Later in her exile to West Germany, the woman revealed her artistic vision via illustrations and drawings. Some witnessed Lilka’s humane side expressed in various actions supporting intellectuals and artists living in Poland or leaving it. 

Helena Bohle-Szacka
Helena Bohle-Szacka

Lilka – a nickname gained in her childhood – was a Holocaust survivor who sacrificed her teenage years in the Nazi concentration camps. After that exhausting and horrendous time, the young girl returned to Łódź, where life started blossoming gradually. Helena Bohle was no exception because she wanted to compensate for her slipped adolescence. Either being imprisoned or being free, Helena did not stop drawing. Having tackled some of the physical and mental traumas, she enrolled in the State Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź to study graphics. Władysław Strzemiński, a Polish avant-garde painter, was also the school’s founder whom Helena cited as a great mind influencing her art with geometrical and clear shapes and forms present in Constructivism. 

Helena faced another dilemma after having graduated with a Master’s degree in graphic design. In the early 1950s, advertising was a developing sector in the recovering Polish economy; and designers were commissioned with insignificant and small-scale projects rather casually. Thus Helena could not make her ends meet, she took her first position as a fashion journalist at the local newspaper, „Dziennik Łódzki” (“Łódź Diary”), where she wrote articles on suitable clothes and fitting hairstyles for celebrations or occasions. Helena’s opinion became more popular after Stalin’s death when the young designer was finally hired by the prestigious fashion magazines „Uroda” (“Beauty”), „Moda” (“Fashion”), and „Modne krawiectwo” (“Fashionable Tailoring”). There she reviewed Western trends to help people express themselves with stylish garments and accessories. Also, the upcoming designer taught at her alma mater. At once, Helena headed in another direction of her career. 

Helena Bohle-Szacka, fashion illustration
Helena Bohle-Szacka, fashion illustration

From 1957 until 1968, Helena Bohle worked at the three leading fashion houses that became more prominent when she joined. At first, she was an artistic director at Telinema in Łódź. Together with the fashion producers and models, they organised events that shaped the tastes of the Poles. Although, for Helena, it was only the initial stage, as the designer moved to Warsaw because of personal and vocational reasons. The woman started working as a chief fashion designer for Moda Polska (Polish Fashion), a Telinema’s competitor. Designed clothing lines were recognised and appreciated among people who were not spoiled with the abundance of patterns, textures and fabrics. The bleak and plain colours were juxtaposed with vibrant and vivid hues; straight or shapeless garments were turned into tailored clothes that fitted bodies. It was the Leda fashion house where the woman experienced a pinnacle of her designing career. In 1965, Helena Bohle unveiled the Iron curtain with her fashion show in West Berlin. She presented her clothing collection in Europa-Centrum, swaying the boundaries between Western and Eastern fashion trends. Helena clearly understood that:

“[o]ne of the most important questions when designing clothes is to … draw on purely artistic problems, such as contrasting forms, differentiating the surface structure, and taking account of the colour composition [1]”

Helena Bohle-Szacka, fashion illustration
Helena Bohle-Szacka, fashion illustration

Soon after the debut outside the Eastern Bloc, the woman had to use her resilience once again. Helena and her husband Wiktor Szacki were concerned with the escalating anti-Semitic hostility expanding in Poland. In December 1968, the Szackis left the country with a heavy heart and migrated to West Berlin. Even though the fashion event was a success a few years ago, Helena quickly grasped how mediocre she was among other migrants. At that time, many Poles moved to work and did not have an opportunity to focus on their intellectual ambitions or did not know how to integrate. It took Helena several years to reconstruct her career in the fashion industry; although, it was never the same as in the home country. 

At first, she was a director at the ‘the skirt department,’ producing patterns and variations of skirts only. The boring and repetitive job, which did not involve any creative processes, pushed Helena to seek further. To make use of her professionalism and experience, she conducted drawing and design courses at the education centre. A few years later, she obtained a position at the Lette Schule in Berlin and taught graphic composition and visual communication. Since her career as well as financial affairs stabilised, Helena dedicated herself to art. Earlier, she suppressed the urge to create illustrations but used her vision to sketch for the fashion industry. 

Helena Bohle-Szacka, project
Helena Bohle-Szacka, project

In her lifetime, the artist drew more than 300 illustrations and ‘portraits’ of trees and landscapes on paper or cardboard. In her artworks, Helena transcended the naturalistic, geographical, and geological qualities altogether. She favoured Eastern-European Constructivism while mingling between realistic and abstract features, which she considered mystique, and mixing different techniques. She drew with pens, used tin foil or tissue paper, or added colourful geometrical lines to the black-and-white illustrations. Helena did not exclude geometry for being man-made but perceived geometric bodies as part of nature. Abstract geometric shapes built new worlds that were, at first glance, hidden behind the symmetry of the usual things present in reality. The first exhibition occurred in 1974 in Kleines Kra, a tiny West Berlin gallery. Until 2007 Helena gladly continued presenting her artworks. Overall, people attended 40 solo exhibitions in various European cities, among which were familiar Łódź and Warsaw. However, the woman strived to help other fellow artists exhibit their works in West Berlin. Andrzej Szulczyński, a founder of the Catholic Intellectual Club, encouraged Helena to establish an art gallery, which the artist managed between 1986 and 1999. She did not hesitate as she wanted the Germans to perceive Polish migrants as culturally and intellectually diverse people. In her childhood, Helena was exposed to different ethnic groups, confessions, and nationalities. In her adulthood, she erased those distinctions focusing on the artistic means only. Helena introduced photography, sculptures, painting, and graphic arts done by the Polish artists in West Germany. 

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‘What I want, what I am, what you force me to be, is what you are.’ How Protests, Subcultures and Creative Criticism of the Mainstream Disrupt Fashion

Mannika Mishra Sep 10, 2021

If you’re a casual observer of the world of fashion, you may have the idea that what is fashionable and what isn’t is decided in the glittering halls and expensive marbled desks of iconoclasts like Anna Wintour and Tom Ford — editors of powerful magazines and designers who head elite houses of fashion. They set the tone, and their ideas slowly trickle down through the public consciousness and land in a highly bastardised and affordable version in your local fast fashion outlet.

Berlin was a city with contradictory past events. Some people put a lot of effort into eradicating and changing them. The Szacki and the Wirpszas were the two married couples who definitely played their role. Gradually, their Berlin flats became enclaves for the migrating intellectuals, writers, painters, or film directors who could stay there free of charge. Soon people not only from Poland, but also from France, England, Israel, Canada, and Bulgaria visited the famous Berlin flats. Consequently, they called Helena and Wiktor’s home ‘the Szacki Hotel,’ but the woman did not approve the name, for it sounded pretentious. From there, she helped strikers during the ‘Solidarity’ movement in the 1980s. Helena gathered and sent parcels with food, medicine, ink and paper for printing leaflets by the underground press. Also, she showed her opposition in the magazines „Pogląd” (“The Opinion”) and „Archipelag” (“The Archipelago”) with the help of illustrations. These and many other deeds brought Helena the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta; and, more importantly, her Polish citizenship was restored. The woman would always emphasize her strong interest and connection with Poland. 

Helena Bohle-Szacka, project
Helena Bohle-Szacka, project

The only topic Helena Bohle-Szacka was not keen on discussing was her childhood and teenage years spent in Nazi-occupied Białystok, in two concentration camps, Ravensbrück and Helmbrechts, and the death march. Throughout Helena’s life, she did not want to reminisce about the monstrosities she had seen. After the war ended, she clearly decided to distance herself from those events not to be victimized or associated with that time. When she became older, Helena recalled some stories piece by piece to help maintain the historical consciousness in generations born after World War II. 

Panorama’s cover

Helena Bohle-Szacka left two self-published books, „Ślady, cienie” (“Traces, Shadows”) and „Od drzewa do drzewa” (“From One Tree to Another”) with her illustrations as well as multiple sketches and drawings. In 2017, in Helena’s birthplace, Białystok, the Śleńdzińscy Gallery organised an exhibition „Helena Bohle-Szacka. Mosty – Die Brüken” (“The Bridges”) devoted to her life and work. In October 2021, the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź opened the first multidisciplinary exhibition, “Helena Bohle-Szacka. Diffusion”, dedicated to the artist. The exhibition consists of the Śleńdzińscy Gallery’s archives, including documents and photos, notes and sketches, logos and magazine covers created for the fashion industry, outfits and jewellery brought from Berlin. Also, some of Helena’s artistic illustrations are retrieved and presented from the private collection of Ewa Czerwiakowska, a close friend of hers. The works of another close friend, Lidia Carkova, and Helena’s professor, Władysław Strzemiński, appear too. Modern artists and activists connect to Helena’s life and career to discuss fashion, friendship and love, historical memory, and people’s freedom and its fragility during times of terror. Kamil Wesołowski, the fashion designer, Sebastian Sebulec, the digital artist, Luke Jaszcz, the creator of fashion films and music videos, interpret the fundamental work of Helena Bohle-Szacka. Zuza Golińska has created an installation that serves as the stage set of the exhibition space. As the Berlin flat had always been opened to people of different descent, the exhibition welcomes their works too. Tasha Katsuba, the designer, and Jana Shostak, the activist and performer, comment on the Belarusian revolution that has been happening since August 2020. Also, the Romani artist, Krzysztof Gil, refers to Porajmos, the Romani genocide during World War II. Consequently, the diffusion still happens because of the immense artistic, cultural, and professional heritage created by Helena Bohle-Szacka in Łódź and Berlin for people who shared her values. 

Helena Bohle-Szacka, project
Helena Bohle-Szacka, project
Helena Bohle-Szacka, project
Helena Bohle-Szacka, project
Helena Bohle-Szacka with models
Helena Bohle-Szacka with Leda’s models

[1] Marcin Różyc, Teoria mody, in: Helena Bohle-Szacka. Lilka. Mosty / Die Brücken. ed. M. Różyc, Białystok 2017, pp. 65–73.

Helena Bohle-Szacka. Diffusion


Artists, including: Lidia Cankova, Krzysztof Gil, Luke Jascz, Tasha Katsuba, Sebulec, Jana Shostak, Władysław Strzemiński, Kamil Wesołowski

Space: Zuza Golińska

Curator: Marcin Różyc

Graphic design: Krystian Berlak

Exhibition producer: Aleksandra Kmiecik

Publishing coordinator: Karolina Melon

Cooperation on part of the Sleńdziński Gallery in Białystok: Katarzyna Siwerska


Helena Bohle-Szacka
Helena Bohle-Szacka

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About The Author


Anna Shostak holds a BA in English Philology from USWPS in Warsaw. She's a life-long admirer of languages, European art and culture. Anna is an English teacher who frequently introduces a piece of a literary text or fine art in her class.

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