It 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.