From the Archive of Adela K.
Dora Fobert, b. 1925
Photographer, Warsaw Ghetto, 1940–42
image source: self publish/ be happy
Dora Fobert, Untitled, ca 1942
I stumbled over this photograph. Than I read it’s story,and both my mind and heart were touched. In happy moments, photographs can take this effect.
It is said that this picture is part of a “series of historically important images taken by the young photographer Dora Fobert (1925-1943), in the Warsaw Ghetto, in the summer of 1942. At that time, Fobert was assisting Jakub Boim the official ghetto photographer. In an initiative of her own, however, she began to take the series of portraits of women living in the ghetto that are presented here. Simply shot, each nude study is an intimate and personal record of an individual living in the most extreme of circumstances.” Further on it is said “Fobert was deported to Treblinka in August 1942.”
There is in the words ‘a beautiful Jewess’ a very special sexual signification… This phrase carries an aura of rape and massacre.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew (1946)
These photographs were given to me by Adela K., a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. They were taken in a studio in the ghetto on Chlodna Street in June 1942. Because of the limited supply of photographic chemicals, they were never properly fixed and remain unstable under natural light. For this reason they are displayed behind red glass. The images were made by Dora Fobert, who was Adela’s best friend.
I was a postgraduate student in the cultural studies department when this collection came into my possession. My research focused on the myth of ‘the beautiful Jewess’ in Nazi ideology, a subject that grew out of my interest in Sartre and his study of anti-Semitism written at the end of WW21. A Jewish woman, like any woman, can be beautiful or ugly, well or badly dressed, sexy or unattractive. A Jewess in the eyes of an anti-Semite, however, is a non-human. She embodies a dangerous combination of the seductive and the forbidden. In her essay, ‘Für Führer und Vaterland. Zum Verhältnis von Frauenalltag und im Nationalsozialismus Ideologie’,2 Dr Leonie Wagner writes that a Jew epitomized everything the Third Reich wanted to exterminate in women – style, artificiality and adornment. Fashion was a manifestation of decadence, corruption and moral degradation.
Under the Third Reich, German girls had to take steps to ensure that the new Nazi fashion ousted the bohemian style of the Weimar Republic (though Eva Braun famously kept up habits that met Hitler’s disapproval, such as smoking, wearing make-up and sunbathing in the nude). Aryan girls were to be healthy and natural. Dress was not a matter of pleasure, but part of a totalitarian practice. From the age of 14, girls could enter the Bund Deutscher Mädel (German Girls’ League). In wearing a uniform, one wore the insignia of the new era. The purity of the uniform reflected purity of mind. Make-up and jewellery were spurned, with the exception of a wristwatch. Smoking was banned when in uniform. The correct image of a German girl was complemented by the correct hairstyle. Long braids or ‘an Olympic roll’ were the acceptable choice. Girls who looked like this were considered ideal. Any deviation or ‘individuality’ was regarded as at best ugly and at worst, dissident.
If the ‘naturally’ beautiful Aryan woman was at the top of the scale of feminine allure, the Jewess was the nadir – she was ‘naturally’ ugly, trying to improve upon nature with fakery,
fashion and tricks. The Aryan woman was pure, innocent, devoted to family life and tradition. The Jewish woman was promiscuous, stylized and independent.
In November 2010 I delivered a lecture on women inside the ghetto at the Institute of Polish Culture, which is how Adela came to hear of my area of research. She telephoned me and said that she was in possession of something that might be interesting for me.
Adela had survived the Warsaw ghetto as a teenager. She was 17 when the war started, and her family had been moved into the ghetto with thousands of others in the autumn of 1940. When the ghetto was liquidated, she was helped by a family friend, who kept her on the Aryan side.
I visited her in her cosy apartment in Muranow, filled almost entirely with books. She made some tea and proposed a slice of cheesecake, then pulled out a metal box from a drawer and put it on the lace tablecloth. ‘I think this may be interesting for you. I had almost forgotten about this box, but when I heard about your work, I thought, this is the person I must give it to. ’ I reached for the box. ‘But please do not open it in the light. It will destroy everything.’ I pulled my hand back. ‘The pictures inside were not fully developed. You can look at them only in the darkroom.’ I pulled the box towards me. ‘Take it,’ Adela said. ‘Please come back to me when you have had a chance to look at them. Then we’ll talk.’ I took the box to my study, closed the blinds and opened it in the darkened room. Inside there were four large envelopes of photographs. All of them were of women. One had portraits of a single family – mother, sisters, aunts, grandmother; another pictures of young girls barely into their teens. In another, astonishingly, all the women were naked. They stood full length for the camera. There was no sign of coercion. It was like a grim joke. How could these women look so calm and sensible when they knew that any time a shoe of an SS officer could pry the door of the studio? Who had taken these pictures and for what purpose?
I went back to Muranow the next day. Adela smiled when she saw me. She served tea and this time a poppy seed cake and started to tell me the story.
‘The photographs were taken by my best friend, Dora Fobert,’ she began. ‘Before the war, The Foberts were a respected and wealthy Jewish Polish family, very interested in art and in pictures. They had established the leading photographic studio in Warsaw, on Nowy Swiat Street. When the war broke out, Dora’s father left the city and the studio was run by a family friend, Jakub Boim. After the ghetto was set up in October 1940, Boim was forced to move from Nowy Swiat to Chlodna. The Judenrat, the ghetto administrative council, ordered him to take pictures of daily life in the ghetto and its institutions – things like the soup kitchens, orphanages, hospital, offices, food distribution depots and workshops. But he also took portraits of the Jewish artistic elite – actors, and singers – and of high-ranking Nazi officers, who knew that he had worked for one of the best ateliers in Europe. Dora helped Jakub run the place. ‘Sometimes, she would take pictures. We often visited her in the studio. There were eight, maybe ten of us, girls who always went about together. Before the war, we’d gone to the same high school, our families knew each other and they all came from a group of intellectuals. Despite the war, we still wanted to spend time together. Despite the hard times, we still wanted to play. We imagined who we would be, once we become women. We looked with awe at the actresses from the ghetto theatre when they came to have their pictures taken. One day, Dora had an idea that she will take pictures of us. It was becoming increasingly dangerous in the ghetto. It was June 1942 and one could feel that something was about to happen. We took all the clothes we could find at home and we came to the studio. We were dressing up and putting on make-up and Dora was taking pictures. After a while, some of us even undressed. None of us was forced to do it, it just happened naturally. We didn’t feel like victims, we weren’t scared. We only felt that we were beautiful. We imagined that we were in the studio of a well-known fashion photographer. We really believed that we would survive the ghetto and all our dreams would come true. What we were doing was of course done in secret. Not even Dora’s brothers were aware of it. But the word spread among the women in the community and others came to pose for Dora.’
‘And how did it happen that you had the box?’
‘I was on my way to visit Dora when a friend told me that a couple of SS guards had dragged Boim and Dora out of the studio and taken them somewhere. I ran there as fast as I could. The whole place was destroyed; broken equipment was lying on the floor. I went into the darkroom and saw that Dora hadn’t managed to develop the pictures from our most recent sessions. The Germans probably assumed that they would be destroyed anyway. I found a metal box and put all the photos in there. I felt I would never see Dora again. After the war, it turned out that among the girls I was the only one who survived. So I hid the box deep in the closet and forgot about it for years.’
If anybody recognises any of the women in these images, please contact Laura Lejsu to assist with her research.
1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, trans. G. Becker, Schocken (1995)
2. See: Susanne Elpers and Anne-Rose Meyer (Ed.): Zwischenkriegszeit – Entre deux Guerres. Königstein/Ts. 2004, pp 234–252
Quoted from Dora Fobert, Untitled, ca 1942
From the Archive of Adela K.
As a teenage boy the “Diary of Anne Frank” was one of those books that was dear to me. Troubled and lonely, in Anne Frank I found some company. Somewhere in the book, there was this out of focus grey portrait of her, with her black hair and big eyes, a beautiful and funny face as far I can remember. Now, in a different form, Anne Frank’s portrait has come back to me. It turned into the picture of a self-confident young woman. As if she would be looking back at me with curiosity.
Though this young woman is nude she isn’t naked. She doesn’t turn into the object of my voyeuristic fantasies. Her gaze and the abstraction of the photograph protect her and protect me. We all know pornography and we know the images of naked dead bodies, heaped up to piles in the concentration camps. Here, this women, stays human and is not victimized through photography a second time. Dora Fobert is like us. We could have been her.
But now I have reached the turning point of this story that is actually told by the artist duo Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. Though, Dora Fobert has been a real life person, this particular narrative and this particular image is an invention by the two of them. The fact is hidden on their website, and is hard to be found in the Internet buzz. Broomberg & Chanarin are playing a virtuous game. They are walking through a minefield hoping to provoke an explosion. Some diehard Nazis, supported by a few historians, still deny the existence of extermination camps. The story told by Anne Frank is still sometimes called a fraud. Let these diehards call the story about Dora Fobert also a lie.
But even if the tale that is told here is fictional, it is still a true attempt to tell the story of life, and death, the story of hopes and longing. A story that in fact took place in thousands of variations, most of them never have been told. And yes, photographs do need the company of words if they are supposed to be more than ambiguous fantasies about reality. Here history arrested between the covers of dusty books turns alive again.
I wrote this post for Mark Alice Durant, who published it on his blog “saintlucy“ under the column “ONE PICTURE/ONE PARAGRAPH”. I took Mark Alice Durants´s offer to participate in his project as a compliment, and also as a matter of trust….he knows that my English is quite rudimentary, and he didn´t know what he would get. For me it was fun to think about the picture to talk about, and it was also quite an experience for me to write under this given set of rules about a piece of art that has as many facets as the picture story by Broomberg & Chanarin.