(La Ville Brûle, 242 pages, 2015)
To create, even here, is to resist; it is to hope; it is to want to live.
—Denise Vernay, alias Miarka, 1946
They fought against evil without ever taking themselves for an incarnation of the good.
Marie Rameau is a photographer who has dedicated herself to honoring women who fought against the Nazis in the French Resistance. For years she has met the survivors, shot their portraits, and gathered their testimonies, always searching for the most appropriate and respectful way to preserve the memory of their historical roles in World War II. In Memories she highlights nineteen women arrested for acts of resistance. Caught in France, they were condemned to forced labor in Mauthausen, Neunengamme, and Ravensbrück—Nazi concentration camps located in Germany and Austria. Toward the end of the war, some were transferred to Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. After providing a brief biography for each woman, Rameau lets the objects they secretly crafted in the camps tell their stories.
Faced with the extreme dehumanization of camp life, female prisoners engaged in a different kind of resistance. They pilfered and recycled the materials with which they were forced to manufacture parts for the German war industry—when they were not actively sabotaging them. Electric wire was crafted into a pair of earrings; leather and rubber pieces used for gas masks were repurposed into handbags, belts, and shoes; and the fake fur lining helmets turned into stuffed animals. They spirited away anything they could, from thread and needle to paper and pencil. Some made notebook covers with their bedding’s burlap and embroidered them with cannon wick. Others drew on the unfolded lids of the small boxes intended to contain bullet casings. These objects, made in such perilous circumstances, were often tiny because they had to stay concealed. Yet, Rameau explains, they “were an integral part of the life of the inmates, and participated in networks of solidarity and sociability that structured life in the camp.” They convey better than any word the vital spirit, imagination, ingenuity, and courage of the women who crafted them against all odds.
Some of the women who appear in this book are well known, like the anthropologist Germaine Tillion, who after her release published a seminal eyewitness account of her time at Ravensbrück. Others did not return but live on in the memories of those who did. The stories sometimes overlap; the women find inspiration in the physical presence of cherished mementos infused with the friendships to which many say they owe their survival.
Memories is a touching and powerful expression of Rameau’s enduring commitment to witness, record, and remember. When asked why, she explains that “these women lived in accord with themselves, fought against the worst in humankind, and had the generosity to let us think that we can still continue to hope for the best.” She adds, “listening to them, we understand that no one is immune from becoming a terrifying being . . . we also understand that no one is immune, either, from the possibility of not becoming one!”
Marie Rameau is a photographer, and member of the board of directors of the Germaine Tillion Association. She previously published Des Femmes en résistance, 1939–1945 (Editions Autrement, 2008).