The Light Side of Wartime Paris

| 4/29/2008 4:19:22 AM

Paris fishing 2It seems I’m not the only person who found the exhibition “The Parisians Under the Occupation,” showing in Paris’s Historical Library, to be unsettling. The mayor’s top aide for cultural affairs, reports the International Herald Tribune, said the photography display made him want to vomit.

Photographer André Zucca, working for the German propaganda magazine Signals, makes Paris’s occupation seem like little more than an inconvenience, with swastikas and unfashionably mustached German military men marring otherwise predictably Parisian scenes. The photos showed crowds sitting at outdoor cafes watching passers-by; fashion shoots proceeded in parks. Even fuel shortages were handled stylishly. Cyclists trailing “velo-taxis” transported passengers around town, a style mimicked today by the eco-chic Urban Cabs.

I would have thought little of the light treatment of Paris in wartime had I not visited St. Petersburg’s Blockade Museum in January, a sober treatment of how the city’s residents suffered during a 900-day blockade during World War II. Viewing the French photos after the Blockade Museum made it seem as though the Parisians had lived in perpetual spring while the Soviets suffered. In St. Petersburg, tour guides read aloud a young boy’s journal, which reported his family catching a cat one day and devouring it the next. A photo showed a factory producing squirrel cutlets. People ate glue.

Meanwhile, Parisians spent the war years snacking on cherries and sorting through cartloads of fresh radishes and onions, according to Zucca’s photos. To combat such misperceptions, viewers now receive a French-language warning leaflet to contextualize the photos, translated in part in the Herald Tribune. “What Andre Zucca portrays for us is a casual, even carefree Paris,” it reads. “He has opted for a vision that does not show—or hardly shows—the reality of occupation and its tragic aspects: waiting lines in front of food shops, rounding up of Jews, posters announcing executions.” I hope the exhibit curators will translate the warning into other languages; otherwise, tourists might not realize the partial treatment the exhibit provides as they rush through the requisite Paris sights. Visitors seeking a more serious portrayal of World War II–era France will have to rely on other Paris museums like its Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the History of Paris (Musée Carnavalet), or moving memorials to the deported at the Pére-Lachaise Cemetery.

 —Lisa Gulya

Judy Parks
5/5/2008 1:41:49 AM

It is spring in Paris and the parks and sidewalks are teeming with both Parisians and tourists. Andre Zucca's photos are not. We went to see them last Friday and found them masterful and artistic but incredibly cold and revealing. The spring photos do not show crowds in the parks, and the photo of the German officer descending the steps to the Metro with a circle of distance between him and the others on the steps hardly represented gaiety. And those of young women hamming in front of the camera or of cherries in the spring appear to me as Parisians trying to hold on to the familiar and take refuge from the grim reality in which they find themselves. Not everyone has the strength to do what we, in retrospect, can easily identify as the to right thing to do. It is important to view these in perspective and appreciate them for what they are, as opposed to finding fault with what they do not represent. I am certain that every occupied city--of which there are still many, and where our energies should be focused instead of 60 year old photos--- has moments of gaiety and little joys. Certainly the hardships, horrors, and humiliations were present in occupied Paris. As they are in Baghdad, Kabul, Tibet, Kenya, Guantanamo......

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