How One Lesbian Couple Defied the Nazis: An Interview with Dr. Jeffrey Jackson

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on December 2, 2020

Author Dr. Jeffrey Jackson and the cover of Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis (Algonquin Books, 2020).In a recent interview, I spoke with Dr. Jeffrey JacksonProfessor of History at Rhodes College and author of Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis. In this interview. Dr. Jackson discusses the untold story of Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, a French lesbian couple who intervened in the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands through an expansive artistic campaign during World War II. Better known to art historians by their adopted names of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Schwob and Malherbe’s story of resistance is told for the first time in Dr. Jackson’s new book. Here he shares a first look at their incredible story with Facing History.

KS: Who were Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe and why may readers know them by other names?

JJ: They're known by folks who know something about the history of art, and in particular, the history of photography. They're known by their artistic names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Things have been written about them for a number of reasons: their artwork, they're part of an attempt to recover lost voices from modernism and the arts. They had really not been written about for a long time but starting in the '80s and '90s, as people were becoming more and more interested in questions of gender and gender fluidity, they were rediscovered. 

I talk about them as using their birth names Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe...and throughout their whole lives, they go back and forth. For them, I think there was a complicated set of reasons for doing this… in addition to just wanting to obscure their identities as women so that they might be taken seriously in the man's world of art, literature, and writing. One was about the idea of blurring gender lines. I think that's pretty clear in their writing that they were a lesbian couple...women who are already, I think, experiencing, talking about, and experimenting with what we would probably now call gender fluidity. 

Another part of it is that, for Lucy, her father was an editor and a publisher, and she had a famous uncle, so getting rid of the Schwob name was a way to get out from under their shadows. Another part of it is that, for Lucy, Cahun was a way for her to embrace her Jewish heritage...even though she was not practicing as a Jew.

KS: What did their anti-Nazi campaign entail and what role did artmaking play in it?

JJ: The idea is that they're slipping messages to German soldiers and trying to undermine morale and get the soldiers to think about why they're occupying the island of Jersey. These notes take a lot of different forms: some of them are in the form of dialogue, they invent characters, and create a dialogue between two soldiers. Sometimes they're jokes, sometimes they’re songs, sometimes they’re poems. On a few occasions, they would take a magazine, cut it up, and make a photo montage, just like they had done back in Paris. Another technique was signing these notes in the persona of a fictional German soldier that they created. The idea is that Germans would just find them and if they found them, the hope was that they would think that another soldier was calling into question why they were there. 

They even play on certain gender ideas about what a “real” man should be doing. “He should be back home protecting his family and his land,” they might say, but it's all in service of this attempt to undermine German morale and get them to think twice about what they're doing.

KS: What have you uncovered about the impact of Lucy and Suzanne’s campaign?

JJ: The best evidence of its impact is the fact that they're hunted for four years by the Secret Field Police. This is because occupation authorities on Jersey start finding these notes all over. Militarily speaking, this is a strategic area; they're located in what Hitler calls the Atlantic Wall...a series of fortifications along the Atlantic Coast to protect the conquered territory from Allied invasion. This is an area that's so militarily sensitive that they don't want there to be any dissent so the Secret Field Police hunt Lucy and Suzanne for four years. They eventually find them and they end up spending eight months in prison. They are sentenced to death by a court martial and though they don't get executed, they believe that each day in prison will be their last. 

KS: How did Lucy and Suzanne survive their incarceration and interact with fellow inmates?

JJ: While they're in prison, they continue their work. They write notes to one another and also pass notes to other prisoners to keep up their spirits. There's a network within the prison and they call it “the postal system.” There was a wire that went through the ventilation system that they could attach notes to and slip notes through the ventilation system. There were cracks in the floorboard so they could talk to the people below them or sometimes even pass notes or other objects. There's actually one scene where a friend of theirs has lost her pencil and her father is in the cell below so Suzanne gets down on the floor and yells to him, “we need another pencil” and they pass one up on a string through the floorboards. I also talk about how the prisoners sing songs to one another and the music echoes down the hallways, again, to keep up their spirits. 

KS: How did Lucy and Suzanne cultivate resilience, meaning, and purpose after being released?

JJ: After prison, Lucy does not live for a long time; she dies in 1954 and part of it is that her chronic illnesses have caught up with her. The time in prison was not good for her physically, as well. She's much more pessimistic to start with, much more prone to depressive thoughts, and after the war, I think it catches up with her. There's a sense of “what has all this meant?” and she does come to some understanding of it but it's a struggle for her. And then, she ends up having a tumor that's inoperable. Suzanne lives until the early 1970s. She sells their house, moves to another house, and continues to take photographs on her own, but they tend to be much more landscape. Now that Lucy is gone, Suzanne writes some of her memoirs on scraps of paper, and some that are in the archive were on the backs of envelopes or the backs of calendars. So she was jotting down reminiscences of the war, I think again, trying to make sense of what it all meant.

KS: What lessons can we gain from Lucy and Suzanne’s story of resistance?

JJ: One of the most surprising documents that I found in my research was a letter that had been written to them after the war from one of their guards...and this is not a normal circumstance. It’s also a very chatty letter. To me, that was a shocking document but it speaks to the kinds of relationships that they were able to form in prison. When they were writing these notes to the Germans and when they were in prison interacting with their guards, I think they saw what they were doing as a form of rescue. I think that what they were basically trying to convince the soldiers was that you, too, have been duped by Hitler. You're a victim, too. This war is not a war that's going to benefit you. So I think that for them, it was in many ways an act of radical empathy that they were able to see this from the perspective of the soldiers.

Even though those soldiers were occupying the island, were putting them at risk, were literally keeping them behind bars, they were still able to overcome that and try to find the humanity in these German soldiers. So they must have been successful if one of those soldiers then writes them a letter afterward to say, “Hi, I hope you're well."

Sometimes people ask me, "Does this story have any relevance for us today?" And I say, "Are there ways that we can still find the humanity in people that we consider our enemy and somehow reach out?” I know it's more complicated than that but it is interesting, at least to think about what that could suggest for us today...

I'm a Facing History alum and did the Facing History curriculum in high school...and I still have the textbook. In many ways, I feel that I might not have written this book had it not been for me experiencing the Facing History curriculum in high school rather than in college or graduate school… Working with primary sources, hearing those voices, and thinking through questions about ethics, values, and upstanding was so formative.

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Pictured above: Author Dr. Jeffrey Jackson and the cover of Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis (Algonquin Books, 2020).

Topics: Art, Europe, resistance, LGBTQ

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