From October 2019 to March 2020 I had the opportunity to study and live in Jerusalem as a George L. Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel (HUJI). At HUJI, I spent five months intensively writing my dissertation, developing several publications, and presenting my research in the US, UK, and Israel. I am indebted to the generous support of the Mosse Program over the course of my graduate research that has permitted me to undertake years of original archival research and provided me the valuable time for the growth of my scholarship. As a child the possibility of traveling abroad seemed like a distant, unattainable dream. I feel fortunate that my research and graduate studies have taken me to archives and universities across the US, France, Germany, and now Israel.
My dissertation, entitled “The Collaborationist Eye: The History and Memory of Photography during the Occupation of France,” reveals the stories of photographers living and working under Nazi and Vichy rule during the Second World War. The photographers under consideration came from all walks of life and served as press photographers, freelancers, photo-agency directors, and propagandists. Many of these individuals were recent immigrants to France. After the war, most made compelling claims to participation in resistance—even in the smallest ways—by serving as documentarians of the occupation and photographers for history. My dissertation highlights intersecting acts of “micro-collaborations” and “resistances” occurring on the ground, so to speak, which photography in particular facilitated. I demonstrate that these individuals’ actions, which were later investigated as acts of collaboration, rarely represented adherence to larger ideological movements. Rather, motivations often hinged on more mundane, personal, and pragmatic considerations at the heart of life under occupation: a commitment to the ideals of journalism, a belief in the need to document, a necessity to keep food on the table or to save businesses, a very real fear of deportation, or art for art’s sake. For some artists, photography became a medium of mediating the daily traumas of the occupation and the Holocaust.
My work also offers an innovative material history of photographs. Looking at how and why people chose to display particular photographs during and after the occupation, I trace how their meanings and uses have evolved over time. I show that photographs have served multiple and contradictory purposes: as press and propaganda photographs, as sources of military intelligence, as postwar historical and even legal evidence, as art, and—today—as museum objects and pedagogical tools. Since France’s liberation in 1944 these photographs have morphed into icons with enduring afterlives that continue to shape and re-shape understandings of the occupation years in ways that reflect the vicissitudes of French collective memory.
I applied for the George L. Mosse Exchange Fellowship at HUJI for the opportunity to expand my research on Jewish photographers and how they responded to occupation and antisemitism through photography. I held the fellowship after spending the 2018-2019 academic year as the JB and Maurice C. Shapiro Fellow at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), where I examined their immense collection of photographs from occupied France. My time at USHMM was professionally and intellectually transformational. The fellowship allowed me to fill a critical gap in my research and provided access to resources and mentoring relationships that continue to deepen my engagement with Holocaust history. Within the walls of the Mandel Center at USHMM, I was in close contact with an array of professional historians working at the museum in research, outreach, and pedagogy and with many of the foremost scholars of the Holocaust. My time at USHMM deeply enriched my intellectual and professional development and I sought to continue this academic growth at HUJI.
In October 2019, I moved from Washington, DC to take up my appointment as a George L. Mosse Exchange Fellow in Jerusalem, where I could immerse myself on a daily basis in learning about Israeli history and Jewish culture while completing my dissertation. I spent the majority of my time writing in consultation with a rich collection of books on Jewish history at the National Library of Israel, located on the Givat Ram campus, a welcome and walkable commute from my Nachlaot apartment. I have benefitted from working in some spectacular research libraries—including the Bibliothèque Nationale de France Richelieu, the Library of Congress, and of course, the Wisconsin Historical Society—and I enjoyed the quiet, yet bustling atmosphere of the Humanities Reading Room. The National Library brings together a diverse array of scholars, from all walks of life, disciplines, and countries, all delving into research and writing projects related in some way to Israel or the Jewish people. In my experience, the Library could be enjoyably collegial. It was not uncommon for the day’s desk mate to ask about my work, leading to some extremely interesting and beneficial discussions. Several times I even unexpectedly ran into colleagues from the US and USHMM. These serendipitous discussions and connections within libraries are among my favorite parts of academic research. I also appreciated that Israeli academic life values coffee breaks and informal academic exchange as a part of the workday. I frequently took advantage of the many cafés on the Givat Ram campus as a welcome moment to decompress and to bounce ideas off of my friends co-working at the library. I may miss most of all my serene daily walks to campus, a podcast on Israeli history in my ears and a cappuccino waiting for me from my favorite coffee vendor near the campus gates. Though he did not speak English and I am new to Hebrew, he quickly learned my order and became a face I looked forward to on every trip to the library.
During my shortened, but productive, tenure in Jerusalem, I completed a new chapter of my dissertation that compares two examples of Jewish photographers who worked in the press after the fall of France. This chapter epitomizes my broader use of photography to draw out large and small forms of collaborations and resistances that occurred in daily life. These two cases throw into sharp relief the complexity of photographers’ motivations owing to their Jewish identities and their direct experiences with state and local antisemitism. Beyond the library, I also attended frequent talks on historic and contemporary antisemitism, Israeli politics, and Jewish history, which aided in my conceptualization of the chapter.
I also advanced a publication agenda that will culminate in three articles and a blog post. First, based on the aforementioned research, I drafted an article on Jewish photographers and how they responded to the occupation through their artistic and press work. This article will appear in an edited volume on Nazi violence with the University of Nevada-Reno that is set to be published in 2021. Second, I edited an article on photography as legal evidence in the French purge trials, which I will submit this summer to a leading French history journal. Third, I began to conceptualize an article I was invited to submit on the photographic history of the Holocaust in France. The article will be published in an edited volume with the University of Florida on France and the Holocaust, slated to be published in 2022 to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv round-up in July 1942, when nearly 13,000 Jews were arrested over two days in Paris and held in hot and inhumane conditions in a sports complex while they awaited deportation. Although the round-up was for a long time forgotten—only a plaque marks where the sports center once stood—the Vel d’Hiv round-up has become a key moment in remembering France’s role in the Holocaust. Finally, in March I published a short blog post for H-France introducing my preliminary research on one of these Jewish photographers, Julia Pirotte, who was active in Marseille. The piece introduced her photographs as teaching resources for discussing the moral complexities of the Holocaust.
With such flexible research time, I also had the opportunity to present my research extensively at universities on three continents. Between late October and mid-March, I gave talks at the annual Western Society for French History Meeting in Bozeman, Montana, delivered an invited lecture for the Jewish History Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, participated in a seminar on photography at the Association of Jewish Studies Conference in San Diego, attended a symposium at the University of Nevada-Reno, and—most recently—delivered what was originally supposed to be an in-person lecture, via Zoom, to MA students at the University of Haifa. It goes without saying that many PhD students do not enjoy the flexible time or funding to be able to travel so extensively and present their work across the globe. My ability to do so this year yielded extremely useful feedback on my work and publicized my research in ways that will benefit my chances at an academic career.
My time in Jerusalem benefitted me academically and personally far beyond my direct research. I am not Jewish and grew up in the American South, where I had little contact with Jewish communities or even any experience with Jewish customs. Living in Jerusalem, a city at the nexus of myriad religious traditions, allowed me to gain firsthand knowledge on new cultural traditions and put me in contact with fellow students, professors, and Israelis from all over the world. The academic community at the Hebrew University and Jerusalem is extremely diverse. I took active part in events coordinated by the Rothberg International School, and as a result, made friends from all over the world, including Israel, but also India, New Zealand, Hungary, Greece, and France. I joined a gym group, where the workouts could be directed in a mixture of English, Hebrew, and Arabic. I interacted with both secular and religious Jews from across the world who had decided to make Aliyah (i.e. move to Israel). I learned about the differing religious communities and the various expressions of Judaism. I was invited to attend Shabbat dinners, took part in Chanukah candle lighting, ate my first sufganiyot, and saw Fiddler on the Roof. I spent weekends exploring all corners of the Old City and devoting countless hours to visiting museums related to Israeli history. I loved that in the Old City, you could grab coffee from one of the many church cafés (particularly the German churches) and then meander over to the Arab Quarter of the old city for knafé. This diversity of people, religious traditions, and cultural histories is part of what makes Jerusalem such a special place to me.
With the Hebrew University’s international students, I also took a trip to Caesarea where we waded through Roman aqueducts and learned about the ancient origins of the city. The university also gave us a tour of south Tel Aviv and took us to the BINA center, where we learned about the issues faced by asylum seekers in Israel. I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon lunch in Abu Dis with friends from the university who lived right by the wall dividing Israel and Palestine. Witnessing the social conditions behind the wall poignantly illustrated the daily realities of the conflict. Such experiences outside the classroom speak volumes about the importance of living abroad. These more everyday interactions allow us to expand and challenge our world views so that we can, in turn, impart cultural empathy to our students.
Jerusalem was absolutely the hardest place I have ever lived, but it became so much more rewarding once I began to feel at home there. Every daily interaction was a challenge. Never have I felt so anxious about going to a grocery store and not only figuring out how to get in line to pay, but then returning home to find out I had purchased something wildly different than what I had expected (for example low lactose vanilla flavored milk). Or the stress of trying to get on an always-packed bus, hang on for dear life, and still pay correctly. I often kept my headphones on when walking, partly to avoid having to tell a passerby for the tenth time that day that I either did not speak Hebrew or did not understand their question. I also experienced intense loneliness on Shabbat, when everything shuts down between Friday and Saturday nights and people return home to their families. But, in time I learned to mitigate and even appreciate these daily challenges. In a way, Shabbat prepared me for handling months of social distancing and lockdown. I learned to appreciate a slow weekend and filling my time with long walks, runs and a TV show or movie, rather than running errands and depending on socializing. I learned to both be more assertive, but also more patient.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to return suddenly to Madison six months early. I was originally scheduled to stay in Jerusalem until June and then travel to archives in France and Poland until August. In a twist of fate, I left Israel on the exact day that my younger sister, a nurse now on the frontlines of the pandemic, was supposed to arrive for a two-week trip around Israel and Greece. With considerable personal and financial help from the Mosse Program and the History Department, my swift return and reintegration has thankfully been relatively smooth. I have been able to recreate a semblance of my Jerusalem writing schedule at home, and thanks to Zoom, I have even been able to connect and collaborate with new colleagues, whom I had not previously met due to physical distance. I feel exceptionally lucky that my work was not catastrophically disrupted by COVID-19 and that I have such strong support from my department, my colleagues, and the Madison community. Looking forward, I will spend the next year in Madison during the second year of my Mosse fellowship, preparing to defend my dissertation, applying for tenure-track positions and postdoctoral fellowships, and exploring my career options beyond traditional academia.
Like others, I still mourn the loss of my daily life and social circles from just a few short months ago, and the work I was unable to complete. However, I take solace in everything I gained from my brief time in Jerusalem—not only invaluable writing time, but also many new friends, colleagues, and a deeper appreciation of the Jewish past and present. There is great comfort knowing that I will always have a reason to return to Israel.
Abigail Lewis is a Ph.D candidate in European History at UW-Madison. She completed her M.A. in History at UW-Madison in 2014 and her B.A. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012. Her dissertation, entitled, “The Collaborationist Eye: The History and Memory of Photography during the Occupation of France” reveals the stories of photographers living and working under Nazi and Vichy rule during the Second World War. Her work also offers an innovative material history of these photographs and maps the uses of these photographs as propaganda, press photos, legal evidence, historical resources, and pedagogical objects. This work demonstrates how photographs have shaped and re-shaped understandings of the occupation years. For this work, Abigail has received numerous research and writing fellowships including the Chateaubriand Dissertation Fellowship, the Bourse Jeanne Marandon, the Mellon-Wisconsin Writing Fellowship, the JB and Maurice C. Shapiro Fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and most recently, the George L. Mosse Exchange Fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. In 2018, she taught a course as the George L. Mosse Teaching Fellow called “Picturing History: Visual Culture and Memory in Modern Europe” on the history of images and photography in modern Europe.