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Oral History with Julia Pirotte

Julia Pirotte
Fortunoff Video Archive, Yale University

German forces invaded France in May 1940. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Nazi Germany that split the country into two zones—an occupied zone that was governed directly by German authorities and headquartered in Paris, and an unoccupied zone that was governed by French authorities collaborating with the Nazi regime in the city of Vichy.

Roughly three months later, on September 16, 1940, German occupation authorities banned all outdoor photography in the occupied zone of France.1 Despite this ban, photographers continued to play an important role in French society. The German Propaganda Office and the Vichy regime hired and authorized French photographers to document the political and cultural life of the new French government. Those assignments enabled photographers to earn money, to avoid deportation to Germany, to protect their business interests, or—in some cases—to work for the French resistance.

In the featured oral history, a Polish Jewish woman named Julia Pirotte describes her work in Marseilles for the French press, the resistance, and the German authorities. Born in Poland in 1908, Pirotte moved to Belgium in 1934 to study photography and journalism, but her time there was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. In 1939, she joined the war effort in France against the German invasion. When France fell, she began selling her services as photographer on the beaches of Marseilles. She lived near a photography shop, where was able to obtain film and materials, and she developed her photographs at a friend's house. But she soon abandoned beach photography once the Gestapo began to look for the "woman with the camera."

In 1942, Pirotte accepted a position as a photojournalist with the French weekly newspaper Dimanche Illustré. Her new job allowed Pirotte to continue her career as a photojournalist—and helped protect her from arrest or deportation. She notes that the paper's editor hired her despite likely knowing that she was both Jewish and an opponent of the Vichy regime.2 Although she was hired primarily to photograph celebrities visiting Marseilles, Pirotte also recalls that she eventually began to take photos for the French resistance.

In her testimony, Pirotte reflects that she took photos during the war because she "wanted to leave a little bit of history—what is war, what is occupation, what is Nazism. And my camera helped me in this. I always had it with me."3 Her testimony underlines the wide variety of roles that she played—for the press, for the resistance, and even for the French authorities—and the benefits and dangers her camera carried. By the time of the featured interview, her wartime photos had won her fame, and her works had become the subject of several exhibitions and dozens of books or articles.4

The Vichy regime extended the ban in 1942 to encompass the entire country.

For more on Jewish experiences in France during World War II, see the related Experiencing History items, Report on the Situation of Jews in France, Diary of Jacques Berenholc, and Oral History with Marcelle Duval.

This quotation is not included in the accompanying selection of Pirotte's oral history for the Yale Fortunoff Archive.

For more on Pirotte's career, see Hanna Diamond and Claire Gorrara, "Reframing War: Histories and Memories of the Second World War in the Photography of Julia Pirotte," Modern and Contemporary France 20, no. 4, Nov 2012: 453–471. For a selection of her photographs, see the International Center of Photography's website.

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Like I said, I worked on the beach. And I lived in the Old Port in a small hotel, quite a small hotel. There were a lot of women there. And en face, opposite the hotel there was a photography supply shop where I bought paper. I took photos by day and at night I [searches for the word in Yiddish] I developed them at a friend's place; she was a French worker . . .  her name was Benita Bassar . . . I met her in the factory and we became very close.

Interviewer: Where did you find money to live—

Just a moment. I worked on the beach to earn money. I took people's photos on the beach to earn money. I made good money because my photos were well known by then. One time I went into the shop to buy myself some paper—and I developed the photos at my friend Benita Bassar's place, the French worker; we helped each other. I helped her family and she often helped me; she gave me a small room which I made into a laboratory and at night I would develop photographs—One time I went into the shop to buy photographic paper and the woman asked me: "where do you live?" And I said: "In the hotel across the way." and she said: "What? You live there? It's a brothel!" I had no idea. The girls had always been very nice to me; there really were a lot of girls. Later I had a good look around and I saw that it was indeed a house of prostitution. I had a room there, I got along well with the girls, all of them, I used to photograph them . . . and I sat down one evening and observed soldiers coming and going, officers and I realized what was going on. After that I moved out. 

One time I came down to the beach and my landlady said to me, she said: "Run away, quickly! The Gestapo were asking about you, about a woman with a camera."

Well, I didn't go back to the beach after that.

In 1942 I was offered a job with a magazine, the only weekly illustrated magazine in France: Le Dimanche illustré (The Sunday Illustrated). I think the editor-in-chief knew I was Jewish, and that I was in the resistance. He made me a proposition: "We have three photo-reporters, and we'd like to arrange things so that whenever any big-name actors or singers come from Paris down to Marseille—and it was possible for them to travel—we want you to do the reporting and take photographs of the big actors etc.  And that way you'll have an ID card from the press" . . . that's the word right? An identification card from the press . . . and he went like this [she winks] with his eye. He knew how to make the most of the fact that I was working in the resistance. And that's how I came to meet Edith Piaf. She came from Paris for a concert in Marseille and I went to her hotel, and did a . . . she was very difficult to photograph. She wasn't pretty, she was vulgaire but she was very talented. She started making faces, smiling—This is impossible, I told her. I don't want to make you into some Hollywood starlet, but I want to draw out your drama, your talent. Help me! What do I have to do? she said. Sing me something, I said. I thought she was going to throw herself at me. She was very . . . well, she had complexes: inferiority complex, superiority complex . . . you understand the word "complex", yes? She comes from a very poor background. But I said, Sing me something, and we'll get a nice photo out of it. At first she shouted, hey! what? Grumble, mumble! But I said, Sing or there won't be any photos. She began. She took a piece of black material that I'd had lying around and put it on her head and she began to murmur, to sing and the next moment she had become a beauty—from a very ugly, very vulgar woman she became beautiful. And that very photo I took . . . I took thirty photos that time. I took her to the cemetery. I wanted to show her as a, what’s the word . . . the women who’ve lost their husbands in the war . . . anyway, I had the opportunity to photograph many actors for the magazine. 

Now, we'll pause here for a moment and go back to the 40s to talk about how I came to join the resistance. Because the whole time I was working in the factory, on the beach, and for the Dimanche illustré I was in the resistance, since the very beginning of the war. 

We discussed it, a few young Jewish men and women, and we concluded that we could not sit around doing nothing, that we had to fight against the Nazis. How did we begin? We formed a circle. The first thing we did was approach spiritual . . . we knew that the Jews would not come out of this alive. All the Jews, most of them didn't believe it. They believed they would survive, they didn't see the worst of it. We knew, and our aim was to let the other people know, the great masses of Jews who were there, that they could not trust Pétain, that they could not trust the Vichy Government, they could not trust the Germans, that the Germans were going to take them away. That was our goal. I remember one time, I went with a friend, a Jewish girl and we made Yiddish  . . . odezhva, tracts, leaflets . . . we went to the big synagogue where there was a large room . . . room . . . a large hall, yes? Let's say hall. There were hundreds of Jews who had come from Germany and they't all been taken into this hall. The Jewish community gathered them. You understand? Or don't you? The German Jews had nowhere to stay, they had nothing, they were the poorest, and they were the old, pious Jews, with beards. We went with another friend with handbills, written on paper, which we left at each bed—there were hundreds of Jews there—each bed had a drawer, and we put the handbills in the drawers to warn them: "Run away. Don't believe Vichy. Don't believe Pétain," that was our mission. And truly they did not run away, the old ones did not run. There were others. And they all ended up in Auschwitz. Another time we went to a camp where there were Jews, a lot of Jews, but this time there were young people too. We had good contacts there because we were able to get the young people out. The young people escaped the camp and joined our resistance group. We succeeded with the young people. I want to tell you about another thing we did then. It was called the Jewish National Front, the organisation, a group of us—I wasn't there at the time—went to the Jewish community. There was . . . The Pétain administration, like the Germans, ordered the Jews to come to their offices and register as Jews. The majority of Jews registered. Of course the clever ones, the intellectuals, the progressives didn't go, but the majority did. And all their names were there in the Jewish community, the Gmina, you know what that . . . ? The Jewish administration . . . it was a Judenrat. The boys from our group—not me—our boys broke in there one night and took all the names of who was a Jew and who was a non-Jew. We also approached spiritual . . . religious . . . Pope, paster . . . you know what I'm talking about? Are you listening or not? Paster, church, in church  . . . you know what I'm talking about or don't you? Maybe we don't need to . . . we went to the church and asked them to help hide Jewish children. It was Suzanne Spaak who [holds up a camera in her hand] she was a Catholic, she was the one who gave me this camera—she saved hundreds of Jewish children, the one who gave me this camera, and later she was shot by the Germans. She is very famous in France, Suzanne Spaak. 

During the time I was in the Jewish National Front I had a . . . they sent me to travel . . . I was a courier, a courier, yes? Between Marseille and Arles, Marseille and Nîmes, I carried suitcases, and the suitcases contain illegal documents, newspapers, journals and so on, not specifically for Jews, but for the French too. I would pass them on to a Jewish friend by the name of Nat Taykh in Arles. It was after the hour when we were allowed out on the streets. The partisans took part in acts of sabotage, and the Germans made a rule that people could only go outside until seven p.m. Our train from Arles—and I had a suitcase full of stuff—our train arrived . . . [touches microphone] I didn't disturb it there, did I? It's ok? Our train arrived after seven. There was a couple of hundred people in the station, lying on the ground . . . and there I was with my suitcase. And I'm thinking: how can I get out of here? So as not to stay there the whole night until seven the next morning. All of a sudden a German officer comes along with an interpreter and two German soldiers. The interpreter says that women with small children should come forward and they would be let . . . they'd be given permission to go out into the street and go home, women with small children. The women with small children presented themselves and I went up with them. I went over to the interpreter and showed him my press pass and said I was doing a photo reportage in Arles and that I had to develop the photographs that night to be sent to the newspaper first thing in the morning. He said all this to the German officer and the officer went like this: yes [nods]. Well, I got my [gestures writing a note] to leave. My heart is pounding to this day when I think of it. There I am with my suitcase in a taxi, riding through a dead city, completely dead. Not a soul. Not a streetlight. The windows where all covered in black. You have to remember the windows were all covered in black. You understand black, there, black. And every now and then you'd see two or three German soldiers on the street, the heels of their boots clomping, and nothing else. A dead, entirely dead city. No people. No movement. Dark, entirely dark without a light to be seen.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Fortunoff Video Archive, Yale University
Accession Number HVT-774
Date of Interview
October 25, 1986
Duration 00:19:09
Julia Pirotte
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Interview Type Oral History
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