Helen Klisser During bakes bread every day. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
Helen Klisser During is an art adviser, photojournalist and an advocate for social justice who finds time, every day, to bake bread.
My father, Johan Klisser, was born in Amsterdam in 1927. His family were
Jewish and, when Dad turned 13, in 1940, he had his bar mitzvah. That same year, Germany occupied the Netherlands, bringing restrictions for Jewish families including segregation of schools and compulsory wearing of a yellow star. One day my father was arrested and sent to Hollandsche Schouwburg, a Jewish theatre being used as a deportation centre. When my father was released his family went into hiding, but Dad was separated from them because it was impossible to find a place to conceal their family of four. However, his parents and brother were discovered and transported to a Dutch transit camp and then on to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
My father was 21 when he moved to New Zealand with less than $10 in his pocket. In Auckland, he was introduced to Dr Reizenstein, who was baking European breads in Ponsonby and needed a delivery boy. When my father decided he needed an eye-catching loaf of bread sculpted for the top of his delivery truck, he went to a Dutch sculptor in Titirangi called Peter Sauerbier. When dad went to collect the completed sculpture, he met my mother, Janna Dettingmeijer, who’d grown up on the outskirts of Rotterdam, which was heavily bombed during the war. Mum had just graduated from nursing school in Holland, and was in New Zealand visiting her cousin who was married to the sculptor.
When my parents started Klisser’s Bakery in Howick, they were all about making delicious, healthy bread with no additives and no shortcuts. My father made the dough, and also baked and delivered the bread and my mother designed the labels, oversaw the accounts and charmed the bank manager. Eventually, they got the licence for Vogel’s and bought out Reizenstein’s Bakery. At one point, my parents were making more than 60 varieties of bread rolls and buns from stollen to challah, hamburger buns to baguettes.
In 1976, I was one of the youngest members of the New Zealand ski team. We were downhill training in Switzerland, but because my sponsored skis hadn’t arrived I had to use my coach’s, which were far too long. During the first downhill run, I lost control and became airborne. I somersaulted all the way to the bottom, going about 80 miles an hour. All I saw was white, white, white before I crashed at the side of the finish line. I was helicoptered to the local hospital where I was told I’d broken my back in two places. I spent 14 weeks in hospital and was very lucky to be able to walk and ski competitively again. Every morning, when I get up, I still treasure that I have the ability to move.
After university – I graduated with a BA in Art History from Auckland – I made a short visit to New York to investigate a film programme at NYU. On my return for graduation, I became a sales rep for Klisser’s Bakeries when my father suggested I join the marketing economics programme at Lincoln University. I had a ball there, with a ratio of 12 boys to one girl. The boys were all wearing Swandris while I was in my New York stuff, including a Fiorucci lime green outfit with white plastic sleeves and a black cape. When I returned to Klisser’s, I was made marketing director and I devoured everything to do with baking.
I met my husband at university. Matthew was at medical school and in 1985 we were married. When Matt was granted a fellowship to MIT and Harvard, we moved to Boston on his stipend of virtually nothing. The first six months were very difficult as I did not have a work visa. I was so jealous of people with briefcases going to work in the morning. I volunteered here and there but, because I’d had such a full life in New Zealand, I needed a purpose.
Eventually, I was offered a job as brand manager for Pepperidge Farm, a major US bakery chain. The 1980s Boston sales force was chain-smoking at Dunkin’ Doughnuts at 6am every morning, talking about the Red Sox and The Patriots. It was the best education about America I could get, and I loved it. Six months later I was offered a brand manager position in Connecticut. A year later, I’d won a sales award and Matthew transferred to Yale School of Medicine’s department of Neuropsychopharmacology.
Five years later, we had two sons and working for Pepperidge became too hard with all the travel so I gave two weeks’ notice and started brokering lithographs for Tyler Graphics, who represented Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney. I was also working with art collectors at auction, or making introductions directly to artists in their New York studios. I was introduced to some major players in the New York art world who went out of their way to help me as I went full throttle into the arts. I was ready to lose the leather at the bottom of my shoes because I’d always been passionate about art which is all about seeing, story-telling and connection.
I also started looking after artists and curators who came to New York from New Zealand and Australia. When Art Dubai took me on as an art advisor, I’d show VIPs – including the Grand Ruler of Dubai – around and talk to them in plain language, not art speak. I also became art director of two local art centres in Connecticut and, of course, I had the little boys – but it wasn’t so much about selling or getting commission – I got a bigger kick out of engaging with the public, everyone from grannies to nannies and, most of all, supporting artists.
The best thing anyone can give you is an introduction. That’s my art. Making important introductions to help people get ahead another step, although people need to help themselves a bit too.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred just 10 miles from where we lived in Weston, Connecticut, and it was incredibly shocking. Most people think you can’t do anything about the Second Amendment but, together with Mary Himes, the wife of a democratic congressman, we founded UNLOADusa.org, a foundation that used the arts to educate, and engage a broader conversation with gun owners and non-gun owners in order to end gun violence. We weren’t saying “no guns”, rather we were talking about gun safety. Mary and I both did our National Rifle Association certificates so we could talk to gun owners. Art allowed us to organise panel discussions with, say a surgeon and a hunter, or a teacher and someone who’d lost a loved one to gun violence. We worked with Hartford police and held workshops for children in areas with high gun violence and it started a conversation.
In December 2019, after more than 30 years in Connecticut, I came home – as I did every year to visit family – with just one suitcase for a nephew’s wedding. Then the pandemic hit, and I stayed. I never even said goodbye to my friends and family in America but I’d always had an undertow of yearning to come back and here I am. Although the catalyst for staying was Auckland University of Technology’s offer of my continued ambassadorship here in New Zealand.
Baking homemade Vogel’s every day is my meditation. Every night I soak the grains. I can be exhausted but I’ll still measure it out, then wake at 6am to start the yeast slurry. To do that, the water has to be, to quote my father, “at blood temperature”. I could just get a thermometer, but instead I put my hand under the tap and feel when the temperature is right. I turn the tap from hot to cold, the water running through my fingers, because if it’s too cold the yeast won’t take off, and if it’s too hot, it’ll speed up too much.
Once it’s mixed and risen I divide the dough between two tins, and let it rise again. The loaves bake for a precise time, and when they’re cool, I wrap the loaves in paper and tie them with string with a sprig of rosemary and attach my label: “The Baker’s Daughter”. One loaf always goes to my parents and the other to friends. I notarise every loaf of bread, including the temperature, the tide and who I’ve baked it for. Kiwis abroad went nuts for it.
I’m back with full force saying “yes” to everything and making new friends. I have to catch up because I’ve been away for 33 years. I am now involved in many projects with many wonderful people and treasuring every moment with my parents.
Because I grew up profoundly aware of how life can change on a dime, I live each day as if it’s my last, because you just don’t know. This is probably typical of the second generation of a holocaust survivor.
• Visit www.helenduring.com