Paris, 19 August 2021
My latest attempt to write your story is a failure. ‘Laboured,’ says my editor, capturing in one word all my trying and failing.
This unhappy business started with that photograph by Robert Capa. Given your attempts to escape your past, and the picture’s role in making this impossible, I apologise for bringing it up so brutally.
Rest assured, you are safe; nothing more can harm you.
The picture: beneath a Tricolore flag hoisted high, a jubilant crowd spills down a paved street – men in grubby shirt sleeves, aproned matrons, children in make-do-and-mend clothes… In the foreground, an elderly man, gaze downcast, carries a bundle of possessions. To your right, my left, four women with their hair in dishevelled victory rolls walk in staggered alignment. A helmeted police agent strides by your side. They turn to you. You present a classical three-quarters profile. Though you are in the first bloom of youth, you wear a housecoat as if snatched from the duties of homemaking. Your head is newly shaved, your temple branded. Yet you step serenely into the foreground. All your attention is dedicated to the sleeping infant cradled in your arms.
‘Who is she? What happened?’ I wanted to know. The title answered the second question only: La Tondue de Chartres – Shaved Woman of Chartres.
A little research yielded your name. The etymology is the Hebrew word for ‘to hear’.
Wanting to hear you, I determined to restore your voice. Free-written ‘sketches’ brought forth a forbidden war-time romance, an illegitimate baby, a vengeful crowd, a cruel comeuppance. You were an unhappy lover, a worthy mother.
An ideal victim.
But no real character; you lacked agency.
I returned to La Tondue, equipped with an idea borrowed from art theory: works must present a ‘pregnant moment’ in which something is about to happen. Short-story writers use a similar technique, starting on the day something different happens, in media res; the action makes for choices under pressure which reveal character. The plan was to identify the action and work backwards to find you. But Capa’s picture rendered no pregnant moment, only a fait accompli. There was no getting you out. You were sealed in. Done.
I tried another theory, more closely related to photography. This one came from Henri Cartier-Bresson, a friend of Capa’s: photographs must capture l’instant décisif, the decisive moment, where compositional elements come together harmoniously to make a formally perfect image. Capa’s composition rivals any Renaissance masterpiece. The feet of the foreground figures trace a triangle that leads the eye into the picture. Like a mandorla or halo, the triangle marks about you a sacred space. The townspeople’s gaze converges on you, the focal point, while the buildings in the background trace a parallel perspective, converging on the flag. Everything is exactly in place – not a foot out of line.
It’s hard to believe such a composition was seized in haste, à la sauvette.
In a shot taken instants before, the flag is misplaced, off-centre. The crowd is more dispersed, so the women to your right stand out as individuals. Their faces speak hilarity, but also shock and confusion. Your mother is by your side, walking in step. You make your way without being manhandled. Your expression is neutral, your head high.
The facts, differently arranged, make a messier truth.
Facts are unimportant, said Cartier-Bresson; the decisive moment is about order.
This fact, from an eyewitness account, mattered very much to me: as you walked, you wept.
Did you ever hear of a German Enlightenment thinker called Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? He was devoted to the principle of tolerance, notably for Jews. (Also, the idea that I mentioned earlier of the pregnant moment.) According to Lessing, in the plastic arts, pain must be conveyed through beauty. Without beauty, there can be no pity, only repugnance.
Perhaps Capa was right not to speak your pain?
Evocation is what Cartier-Bresson prescribed, in place of facts.
In La Tondue, what do you evoke? Your sweet maternal embrace sends the viewer’s gaze looping in a tender figure of eight, from mother to child, for infinity; you could be Raphael’s Tondo Madonna della Sedia. Do you see it? The ultimate female role model, according to the Catholic religion in which we were raised.
No further from where I started, I sought traces of your character in other pictures taken that day.
The earliest was from the morning of August 16, 1944. By the épicerie on the corner of rue Sainte-Même, you run flat-footed towards the camera, in house slippers. Your housecoat is open, revealing your checked dress and the swell of your nursing-mother’s breasts. In the background, a soldier aims at something to your left, my right. Directly behind you runs a figure in the get-up we’ve come to associate with the Resistance: scruffy jacket, floppy fringe and rifle. He had joined that very morning, as the American tanks rolled in. You had been granted leave to fetch your baby, and he was charged to escort you home and back to the Préfecture. Chartres was not yet freed. There was an exchange of gunfire. You dashed for cover.
But the legend of the reproduction said: ‘Woman accused of collaboration fleeing humiliation having been shaved’.
This slippage from description to interpretation brought to mind something I learnt from my daughter (a Criminology postgraduate): according to the sociologist Nils Christie, the role of ‘ideal victim’ is not open to just anybody. We like victims to be weak. Say, a young female. They should be carrying out respectable projects, such as childcare. They must also be some place where they have a perfect right to be, for example, walking down a main street in broad daylight. The terms ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ are mutually exclusive; the offender should be big, bad and in no personal relationship to the victim. A jeering crowd of strangers will do. The ‘victim’ must be able to command enough power to establish identity as an ideal victim, but weak enough to pose no threat to other important interests. A woman conforming to class-based gender expectations does this perfectly.
Another thing my daughter taught me: surveillance is never neutral (Foucault).
You had a camera in your face much of that day. In one picture, you and your mother, scalps naked, crouch on a stone step at the Préfecture. Your mother holds your sleeping baby and stares at the camera, accusing. You squint with empty eyes. You seem past caring. About anything. Ever again.
This shot comes after the one at the épicerie. You have your baby and the bundle of belongings that turns up in La Tondue de Chartes carried by your father. Perhaps you picked up baby and bundle in one swoop. I imagine hasty maternal logistics – the workings of the scrambled but strangely efficient mind of a new mother. I notice that you swapped slippers for more gracious footwear with a bit of heel.
Did you know something about ideal victims?
May I tell you of some beautiful images I found when researching you – thanks to you, in a way? They don’t fit here or anywhere that I can see, but I have come to associate them with you. Picture this: a sunlit room, where a young woman with too many teeth smiles candidly from mussed bedsheets. And: a woman washing poselessly at a basin, breasts unconstrained, body hair unchecked, droplets of water tracing her curves. And (my favourite): a smile appearing like a sudden sunrise from a neckline pulled over loose, unbrushed hair. These are from film footage apparently shot without permission as part of an espionage program executed by German soldiers involved with French women during the war. No matter how hard I try, I cannot sync this knowledge to what I see: women glorying in the luxury of their bodies. Women who, in those moments, felt free.
Did your lawyer explain that there was no law against ‘horizontal collaboration’?
Your love life came up a lot at your trial. In the archives, you consistently refer to Erich, the father of your child, as your ‘fiancé’ – a veil of respectability you wouldn’t now need. All the same, workshop feedback made it clear that Erich had to be central to your story. In later drafts, I included that he went missing on the eastern front. Also, that in peace time he had been a shopkeeper, like your father – only a bookseller, not a crémier – hence his posting to the frontbuchhandlung, the German military bookshop in Chartres. When reading accounts of your ‘easiness’, I jotted two words in current usage that might have been useful to you during your interrogation and trial: ‘polyamory’ and ‘slut shaming’. However, I left out of every draft your amourettes. In particular, I neglected to mention that after Erich was posted to the front, you became the mistress of another German soldier, all the while maintaining your long-distance relationship with Erich.
Among items requisitioned from your home were: photographs in which you appear in the company of Germans, in ‘suggestive’ poses; about two hundred letters, almost all in German; a notebook in German; and a poem, also in German.
Pictures and words.
Which was more incriminating?
It seems that, to correspond uncensored with Erich, you set up an illicit delivery system, reclaiming your full right to a freedom that war had abraded: privacy.
In later life, desperate to be free of your past, you destroyed all personal photographs and documents that might betray your history, even to your and Erich’s child.
One thing slipped easily into each version of your story: your Baccalauréat, which put you among an elite five per cent of females educated to this level in France in 1941. You strove to ‘perfect’ your German; excellence, apparently, wasn’t enough. Why this headlong pursuit of another tongue? What did you hope to leave behind? Or find? Did you sense that your mère patrie reserved no easy place for your unwieldy intelligence?
Your dreams and aspirations flowered in doodles scrawled in your schoolbooks, but you eschewed love hearts and initials.
Aged fourteen, you opted instead for swastikas.
You were an ardent Anglophobe, like your mother. She reportedly once spat out of a window, saying, ‘Tiens, voilà pour les Anglais’. In court, she explained that her distinguished military forebears had suffered strife with the Perfidious Albion. Was hatred her way of clinging to a nobler past when your family slid from bourgeois to broke? You lived your straightened circumstances as an injustice. Germany promised better: a force to crush the Bolshevik menace and do away with the Freemasons and Jews who held you back, kept you down. You could be free…
A writerly observation: everyone lies – at least occasionally. For a writer seeking to understand character, asking ‘if’ is therefore not as useful as ‘where’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ which can help resolve the underlying question of ‘why’. Lies signpost fears and desires, and the lies we tell ourselves hide truths we cannot, or will not, face.
Facts, differently arranged: by all accounts, your father’s crèmerie failed because your mother was utterly disagreeable; people took their custom elsewhere.
Where most French citizens followed the path of least resistance, you actively collaborated, presenting yourself for recruitment by German administrative services as soon as your exams were over. You wanted your own money. Then better hours, more money. Daughter of a bankrupt, you hustled your way to a better position three times in as many years.
The picture where you look happiest was taken at the Wehrmacht headquarters, several months before the Libération. In the background is a requisitioned residence with bow windows, balustrades and stately lawns. Before that are ranks of German soldiers and noncommissioned officers, almost identical in uniforms and crew cuts. You stand at the front with eight other secretaries and interpreters, all coiffed, heeled and smartly wrapped in winter coats. A smile chubs your cheeks. You have about you a gaucheness that reminds me how young you were. You look almost too pleased to be huddled, arms linked, in that girly in-group. I think, with a heart twinge, of your description by an ex-classmate – ‘thoroughly unpleasant’ – and how you were ostracized at school.
Work wasn’t all rosy. I read those letters where you complained about conditions and the supervisor who worked less than you and left earlier. Still, standing there with your Wehrmacht colleagues, all so keen and alert, you could almost be a corporate line-up. We no longer display female workers up front, like rare birds; however, they are still more likely to be in supporting positions and lower paid. (In corporate communications, we tell a different story, using gender-neutral language and illustrations that demonstrate diversity. Is this a truth-to-come or a lie?)
There’s a media-friendly clinical psychologist, in my time, called Jordan Peterson. ‘The acceptable face of the alt-right’ is how a friend describes him, meaning he is no good thing. I lent him my ear one time, to form an opinion, and thought of you. Not because of your political sympathies. Peterson was talking feminism – an idea that women’s opportunities and rights must equal those of men. In discussion of the wage gap between men and women, Peterson stated that on average women are more agreeable, a personality trait associated with lower earning potential, career development and social status. Peterson’s solution: coach females to be assertive. What if, though, agreeableness is prevalent among females because society sanctions disagreeableness in this population? Peterson’s approach would treat symptom, not cause.
Did being disagreeable do you and your mother any favours? Or were you punished?
You got pregnant on labour service in Munich, where you had gone to join Erich, who was recovering from wounds in a military hospital. You surely knew your relationship was forbidden. Did you, as with letter censorship, decide you were an exception to the rule? Or entertain hope that Germany would come to see the special truth of you and welcome you as its own?
When your pregnancy came to light, you were banished; did you then see the lie of Nazism – at least where you were concerned?
I hardly dare think what you knew about the rest.
At the same time, I cannot help but wonder.
There’s a picture of you at the Préfecture, before the leaded panes of a great window. You stand ranked with 28 others rounded up that day. Nine men are at the front, mostly sitting. The rest, women, stand behind: a gender negative of the picture at the Wehrmacht headquarters. The men are distinguished by caps, comb-overs, middle partings and bald patches. The women are mostly shaved. Their shoulders sag and their arms are crossed or hugged about their bodies. In their eyes, there is something defeated, broken. You are the only one with a baby. You are the only one branded – twice.
When that shot was taken, you had been arrested without warrant and punished without charge. You’d had no trial; that came after.
Some believe you were innocent – that it was not you but your friend Ella who denounced those neighbours for listening to English radio, leading to the arrest of five, the deportation of four and the death of two. That would be an easier story to tell. Would it be true?
Your mother was also charged with denunciation. Your father faced the unofficial charge of having been weak, of not having known how to keep his women in check – though he attempted to throttle you when you returned pregnant and forbade you from giving birth at home.
In the course of our Libération, tens of thousands of people all over France suffered a similar ordeal to the one inflicted on you at the Préfecture. Almost all were women, mostly working class. One theory is that your humiliation exorcized the shame of a majority that had lain down in the face of an enemy. By seizing your body, demonstrating power over it, men reasserted their position as active dominants. While proceedings varied, there was often recourse to makeshift uniforms or Resistance armbands, a desk manned by an ‘official’ and the execution of punishments in a public place or civic institution.
A semblance of order.
My editor sent me a link to a literary magazine that refuses stories featuring violence against women. No doubt woman-as-victim is too easy a narrative as my first drafts attest. But what of voicing difficult truths?
What of silence as a means of oppression?
I asked an elderly member of my family what she knew about punishment for horizontal collaboration. In her town, a woman was stripped and marched naked through the streets, then shaved. Did that happen? I asked. My relative supposed it did but knew nothing. Nothing? I said. I had seen a photograph: a scene of such shocking brutality, my eye sought refuge in the dappled bark of the plane trees that punctuated the crowds of onlookers. Nothing, she said, her mouth shrinking small and tight. Nothing at all. No.
After your trial and internment, you tried to disappear: moved, married, had more children. Your past caught you up. Your marriage broke down. You became depressed, alcoholic. Aged 44, in the clinic where you delivered your firstborn, you died.
Many times, when researching, I came upon reproductions of La Tondue de Chartres coupled with captions stating that you were being taken to prison. Released from the Préfecture, you were actually being escorted, for your own safety, home. Peacetime returned many women to their ‘proper’ place: housewife, mother, silent beauty – exactly as you were framed by Capa’s Contax.
Simone, I have come to accept that I cannot do right by you.
Nor can I put you right.
I am so sorry.
May I offer a parting gift? There’s this artist I like called Valentine Fournier, who works with old photographs, typewritten words and tensions that she creates between them. One of her artworks shows a pin-up style nude, posed like a mannequin and shot from behind to give a tantalizing glimpse of golden hair and bare bottom. The image is bannered: ‘Liberté, mon cul’ – Freedom? My arse…
Bien à vous.
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