History repeats

Unearthed 1930s photographs reinforce the universality of exile

An exhibition of images, captured 80 years ago by Lore Krüger amid an atmosphere of racism and anti-Semitism, finds parallels in today’s Europe

'Mother breast-feeding,' 1936. (Lore Krüger)

As the refugee crisis worsens, to catastrophic proportions, so too does reactionary panic and vitriol throughout the Western world. Given this backdrop, the collection of archival images on display at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme in Paris possess an uncanny contemporary resonance. The exhibition of stirring photos by Lore Krüger, entitled A Photographer in Exile, 1934-1944, never explicitly draws parallels with today’s world — but it doesn’t have to.

“Anti-Semitism and racism have been present in France and in Europe for a long time,” points out exhibition curator Nicolas Feuillie. “It is more generally the role of the museum to raise awareness of culture and past history to combat these scourges.”

With this responsibility in mind, “the museum does not situate itself in relation to current events,” Feuillie clarifies. “Lore Krüger’s life and her work are quite touching and thought-provoking. I let visitors take away what they want to, to assess the current situation. Testimonials such as Krüger’s illustrate the ‘universality’ of exile.”

Lore Krüger, Autoportrait, 1935 © Estate of Lore Krüger

Krüger’s photographic records could well have died along with her. Her work was only discovered in 2008 by Cornelia Bästlein and Irja Krätke, two researchers plumbing the history of anti-Franco militancy in the late 1930s. Attending an annual meeting in Berlin for former Spanish Civil War fighters, Lore Krüger was introduced as a member of the International Brigades  — that is, one of the volunteers from a range of countries who fought for the Second Spanish Republic in the Civil War. She was also a Jewish immigrant who spent more than a decade on the run.

Krüger unveiled to Bästlein and Krätke a trove of pristine images and documents stuffed in a suitcase under her couch. These epitomized a fraught decade in Krüger’s life, and in the history of Europe at large. The prints are varied in subject as in form: urban street scenes, humanist reportages, close-up portraits, experimentations with photograms … images of both artistic and political merit. It’s a marvel they survived all they did.

Born in Magdeburg, Germany in 1914, Krüger grew up in a secular Jewish family and expressed an early interest in photography. When Hitler took power in 1933, she was unceremoniously fired from her job as a typist at a bank on religious grounds. In her autobiography — Quer durch die Welt: Das Lebensbild einer verfolgten Jüdin (Throughout the World: The Journey of a Persecuted Jew), published in 2012 — she wrote of her decision to emigrate: “What future could I aspire to in Germany? I didn’t want to live in a State that besmirched human rights in such a scandalous way.” She worked as an au pair in London until her English residency permit was not renewed; she then joined her parents and sister in Spain, where the family had relocated.

In 1935, Krüger moved to the French capital alone to study photography under Florence Henri, an avant-garde figure of the Paris scene, with a Bauhaus aesthetic. Krüger took classes in the morning and then went around, Leica in tow, documenting scenes of the city. Unlike Henri, who focused on studio work, Krüger was interested in what was happening in the streets.

Her images reveal great empathy for marginalized communities — even as she endured her own hardships as a citizen existing on the fringes. She was furiously engagée with fighters of the Spanish Civil War, though political activism as a refugee was risky. Her series on the massacre of Porto Cristo, which did not survive her journeys, unflinchingly showed the evisceration of Republican troops by Franco’s soldiers. (July 17th will mark 80 years since the start of the Spanish Civil War.)

During the 1930s, France attracted scores of Eastern European and German Jewish refugees, many writers and artists — including Walter Benjamin, who was Krüger’s upstairs neighbor. Krüger fell in with antifascist émigrés in Paris, who aggressively opposed Nazi dogma, and fought against German occupation and the collaborationist French state.

In her autobiography, Kruger detailed the precarious process of maintaining valid papers in France. Refugees went to the police station to refresh a temporary residence permit every few weeks, hoping not to be sentenced to deportation. As Jews in France watched circumstances deteriorate in Germany, they felt sheltered from that fate. But the political climate shifted, and France became less of an asylum. By 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, and refugees were interned in camps. The authoritarian Vichy régime, which reigned from 1940 to 1944, reversed the country’s democratic policies and propagated virulent anti-Semitism. French police were ordered to round up Jewish immigrants as well as communists and political refugees. Krüger befell this fate herself; she was rounded up at the gruesome Vel’ d’Hiv — short for Vélodrome d’Hiver — an indoor cycle track in the 15th arrondissement of Paris converted into a holding pen for French and foreign Jews, overcrowded tenfold and with depraved hygienic conditions. From there, she was interned in a camp in Gurs, in the southwestern Basses-Pyrénées region.

Unwittingly, during this same period in 1940 — she would only learn of it after-the-fact — her parents committed suicide, in total despair over their sense of entrapment, compounded by feeble health. The local police banished them from their Spanish home because they were Jewish; they had tried to obtain foreign visas, but did not receive an exception for the years-long waiting period. Despondent, they overdosed on sleeping pills. They each wrote farewell letters to their daughters, which reached them later via poste restante: “we cannot go on living like this, and do not want to,” they mourned. “We do not want to fall into the hands of the police who, whether Spanish or German, are heartless.”

After months of captivity, Krüger and her sister were released from the camp; they used falsified documents to get to Marseille, restlessly fearing arrest for months. In May 1941 they sailed with visas for the Americas. Still, Krüger did not renounce her adopted nation without sadness. “Language is the last fragment of a country that refugees carry with them into exile. They exchange with each other, and it gives them a little security abroad,” Krüger wrote. “I had now fully adapted to my French environment, to the point that the French language had become second nature to me.”

Landing in New York, she worked as a portrait photographer; in tandem, she and her émigré circle seethed against Nazism by founding the political periodical The German American. “We were committed to making it known that not all Germans were Nazis,” she wrote.

In December 1946, Krüger and her husband returned to an absolutely destroyed East Berlin. She lived in her native country the remainder of her life, until she passed away in 2009 at age 95. Her sister stayed in the U.S., unwilling to face the country that had betrayed their family. Krüger willfully made this choice, “convinced we had to contribute to changing this city, to better it and liberate it from the spirit of Nazism.” She relinquished her photography practice and translated English-language books, including novels by Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, and Doris Lessing.

Krüger died several years before the first exhibition of her work — Lore Krüger: A Suitcase Full of Pictures — was presented in Berlin, in 2015. It would surely be devastating to her to see similar circumstances she weathered replicated today. The distress of history repeating itself is hard to face. But the empathy, fervor, and fortitude that coursed through Krüger’s story provides viewers with, at least, a shimmer of hope.

LORE KRÜGER: A photographer in exile, 1934-1944 is at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris, through July 17, 2016.

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