Heroes, but not trans heroes: How two female artists defied the Nazis
Jeffrey Jackson’s lively and compassionate account plunges readers into the depths of the Occupation and the Channel Islands’ resistance movement
The life stories of Suzanne Malherbe (1892-1972) and Lucy Schwob (1894-1954) are the stuff of fiction. Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis is a new telling of a tale that has received increasing attention in the last two decades.
The Schwob and Malherbe families were friends and their daughters played together. Suzanne was a talented artist and Lucy wrote prolifically from childhood onwards. They collaborated on a book of drawings (Suzanne) and poems (Lucy), published in 1919. The book was published pseudonymously.
Professionally, Schwob adopted the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun; Malherbe chose the masculine nom-de-plume Marcel Moore. They would be professionally known by those names, though their everyday and legal names remained unchanged. As this review is biographical rather than artistic, I, like Jackson, will use their given forenames. Jackson is alive to the way the pair have been appropriated as cons of transgenderism. He points out that although they presented themselves in ambiguous ways (Cahun shaving her head), “they always talked about themselves as women” and used female pronouns.
Suzanne and Lucy arrived in the early 1920s from Nantes in search of fulfilment; mainly artistic and literary. Paris of the 1920s was traumatised – full of widows and mothers dressed in mourning black and crippled veteran in the streets. New Women, in berets, with bobbed haircuts or kiss-curls on their foreheads, were becoming a visible facet of metropolitan life. In a few select bars and cabaret cafés, one could encounter garçonnes (cross-dressing lesbians) in top hats and tuxedos.
The pair were attracted to the revolutionary ethos and communism of the Surrealists. Suzanne took photographs at Lucy’s direction of Lucy playing a series of ambiguous or strange roles exploiting her androgynous physique: Eastern guru, Buddhist nun, circus performer, sickly prisoner, dashing gentleman, scientific specimen. Lucy wrote essays and translated books; she was fluent in English. Suzanne was less associated with the Surrealists and earned money from illustrating. Lucy joined the anti-fascist Counter Attack group, led by André Breton, head of the Surrealists. While Breton came to appreciate Lucy’s writing, Cahun would only ever be a peripheral member of the Surrealist group and (until recent decades) is at most a footnote in official histories, principally because her photographs were not published at the time.
In 1937, in part due to Lucy’s ill health, the couple moved to Jersey. In 1940, the Channel Islands were occupied by the German armed forces, which took control of the undefended territory without opposition. The couple decided to oppose the Germans with subversive activity, something doubly risky for them. They were associated with the anti-fascist Surrealist movement, though they had used pseudonyms, and Lucy was half-Jewish.
Even those already familiar with Suzanne and Lucy’s story will end the book with renewed admiration
They tore down posters and swivelled signposts. They left messages in German on scraps of paper and cigarette papers; the wrote them on walls. They made dissident photomontages. They combined tactical clarity with wit and creativity, using different colour tissue paper for different kinds of typewritten messages. They played on the consciences of the soldiers rather than insulting them. “Lucy and Suzanne did not address the residents of Jersey, nor did they even write in English. Instead, they spoke directly to the German soldiers themselves, appealing to them in their native language as good German men. They hoped to divide the soldiers from their leaders so that the rank and file would desert or even mutiny.” It was not so distant from pre-war Surrealist games aimed at disconcerting the bourgeois, but this time the consequences were potentially lethal. Many islanders were imprisoned for defiance, some were deported to forced labour camps. Jews and half-Jews faced deportation to concentration or death camps.
The couple became more daring by slipping notes into tunics, boots or briefcases of German soldiers. They smuggled food and news to foreign prisoners building sea defences on the beach near their home. They took in a fugitive Ukrainian who had escaped from the labour camp. In July 1944 the Secret Field Police raided their home. Finding incriminating notes, Lucy’s diary and the typewriter, they arrested the women. Lucy was tortured. The couple were imprisoned apart and each took an overdose of phenobarbital. Both survived and Suzanne would attempt suicide a second time. They were kept in solitary confinement for months, during which time Suzanne built a rapport with Otto, a kindly guard who shared information and did favours. Prisoners passed information on scraps of paper pushed through ventilation tubes and holes in walls.
In November 1944, the women were tried. The pair were convicted and sentenced to death. Even their gaolers were dismayed at the sentence and officials in Jersey made efforts to reduce the penalty. Then orders came from Berlin: sentences to be reduced to 10 years servitude. On 8 May 1945 all surviving prisoners were freed. Their return was not entirely happy. Their home had been looted; they had lost heirlooms, personal papers and art, as well as their furniture. They slowly rebuilt their life until Lucy’s health deteriorated. She died of cancer in 1954. Suzanne died in 1972.
The story of Claude Cahun has recently attracted academic, critical and general attention. Cahun’s experience overlaps with today’s hot-button issues: homosexuality, gender non-conformity, anti-fascism, performance art (or Situationist détournement), collaborative art partnerships and artivism (activism through art). Jackson draws on archival research to provide new details but the experiences of the couple’s experience, including full footnotes. Occupation registration cards, notes and photographs are illustrated.
Jackson acknowledges the difficulty of constructing an accurate account as Lucy and Suzanne’s memoirs – both incomplete – are fragmentary and inconsistent. This lively, intelligent and compassionate account plunges readers into the depths of the Occupation and the Channel Islands’ resistance movement. Even those already familiar with Suzanne and Lucy’s activities will end the book with renewed admiration for their brave dissent.
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