What was it like to be a politically engaged young Jewish woman in 1930s Germany?
In her ambitious historical novel, The Girl with the Leica (Europa, $18), Italian novelist Helena Janeczek explores in fiction the life of Gerda Taro, a real-life photographer and an anti-Fascist activist who died at the age of 27 while covering the Spanish Civil War. Janeczek creates a complex portrait of Taro and her friends—a group of German and East European Jews who came of age in the years leading up to World War II.
At the center of the novel is Taro (born Greta Pohorylle) whose specter haunts the three friends and lovers narrating her life. While still a teenager Taro was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in Leipzig. Defying convention, she had several love affairs and worked as a typist. By the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Taro had become an accomplished photographer. Along with her partner André Friedmann, known as Robert Capa, she documented the war with an unflinching eye, supplying the world with jarring images of modern warfare.
And yet after her death Taro was remembered only as Capa’s partner, her work largely forgotten. The first exhibition of her photographs was organized in 2007, 70 years after her death. The novel opens with a captivating prologue featuring photographs of Spanish militiamen in moments of leisure. In the first two, a man and a woman smile flirtatiously at one another, a rifle propped in the man’s arm and his military cap. Capa and Taro, we are told, saw something of themselves in this couple when they photographed them.
These photographs can serve as a metaphor to Janeczek’s indirect approach to her subject. Instead of following the prologue with a more intimate portrait of Taro, the novel takes the reader to Buffalo, New York, several decades after the war. Buffalo is home to Dr. Willy Chardack, who’d been known in Gerda’s set as the Dachshund. Though Willy was briefly Gerda’s lover, his love for her was mostly unrequited. Now a respected researcher and family man, Chardack remembers Gerda as a fearless activist and a consummate “modern” woman, possessing “unreal, cinematic elegance”— but, surprisingly, not a photographer.
The next chapter, told from the perspective of Gerda’s friend Ruth Cerf, paints a fuller portrait of the protagonist. Here Gerda is still a glamorous socialite, but Ruth sees the ambition underneath that exterior. Remembering Gerda’s remark about a new job at the Photo Alliance, Ruth reflects: “[T]hat small woman who attracts every gaze, that incarnation of elegance, femininity, coquetterie, and no one would ever suspect that she reasons, feels, and acts like a man.”
Not long after, with Friedmann’s support, Gerda takes up photography in earnest. The recent invention of the first portable camera, the Leica, allows photographers to capture events as they happen. The young couple excels in this new type of photography, which is as thrilling as it is remunerative.
Shortly before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War the couple decides to change their names. Friedmann becomes Capa and Pohorylle becomes Taro. In Janeczek’s reimagining, the idea is entirely Gerda’s. It’s obvious that the names mask the couple’s Jewishness; but, thinking like a publicist, Gerda also chooses names that sound American and are reminiscent of contemporary celebrities.
In the ensuing dialogue the characters reflect on identity, but say little about the Jewish identity that they leave behind. Despite being one generation away from the shtetl, Gerda apparently doesn’t view Jewishness as central to her identity. Like her comrade and lover Georg Kuritzkes, Gerda resists Fascism not, primarily, because of its consequences for the Jews, but out of a universalist socialist ethos.
Such ideals captivate Gerda much more than her parents’ religion.
In the last chapter, which gives us Georg’s view, Gerda’s portrait coheres. Troubled by Gerda’s wartime photography, both Georg and Ruth try to imagine their friend on the battlefield. “I don’t understand what she felt. Hardly any fear, O.K. And then?” Ruth asks years later. And Georg reflects that “The war .. changed Gerda, just as it changed everyone, civilians and, much more, the men at the front. And why shouldn’t a woman who went to the front almost every day resemble a soldier?” For Ruth, Gerda’s work represents political commitment and an ability to remain “ein Mensch.” Georg, on the other hand, affirms that Gerda “had become a photojournalist,” determined to document “the things that needed to be shown.”
While I wish that Janeczek had focused more on the historical aspects of Gerda’s life—her Jewish identity, her proto-feminism—this portrayal of reminds us that before the concentration camps forced a monolithic, tragic fate on millions of Jews, Europe’s Jews forged identities apart from ethnicity or religion, just as many do today.
Polina Kroik is the author of Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work. She teaches at Baruch College, CUNY.