Those who die too young leave a hole that immediately begins leading a life of its own: a presence-shaped absence that travels with us through time, aging and evolving as our relationship with it shifts. Unfinished lives, like unrealized political aspirations, are of course not factual. But that doesn’t mean they are not a part of history—as Walter Benjamin, who also died too young, would be quick to point out. Unrealized futures, collective or individual, hauntingly hover over our present. Inviting speculation about what might have been, they can induce melancholy but also serve as an inspiration for building a different world.
The Spanish Civil War, a three-year military conflict that broke out following a failed right-wing military coup in 1936 and that mobilized antifascists from across the globe, left many such holes in families, communities, and cultural histories. Thousands of promising lives were cut short. What would Federico García Lorca, who was killed by right-wingers at 38, have written in his forties and fifties? And how about young poets like Sam Levinger and John Cornford? Levinger, who left Columbus, Ohio, to join the International Brigades, was 22 when he died in battle; Cornford, Darwin’s great-grandson, was killed a day after his 21st birthday. Imagining what their lives and work might have been only underscores the magnitude of their loss. Similarly, progressive Spaniards have counterfactually speculated about their country’s history—or, indeed, the world’s—in a parallel universe in which the Francoists would have been defeated. Gabriel Jackson and other historians have argued that World War II might have been less disastrous if the Western democracies hadn’t stood by idly as the Spanish Republic lost its fight against Hitler, Mussolini, and their Spanish allies.
Lorca, Levinger, and Cornford became overnight martyrs in the anti-fascist pantheon of that lost war, later mythologized as the Last Great Cause. (It was in Spain, Albert Camus wrote, that his generation learned that “one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.”) Perhaps surprisingly, the most prominent woman in that pantheon was not a poet or a soldier, but a young photojournalist named Gerta Pohorylle who died in Spain on July 26, 1937, five days before her 27th birthday, crushed by a tank.
Born in Stuttgart to an immigrant family of Polish Jews, Pohorylle received a solid middle-class education. In high school she was drawn into leftist circles. Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and a brief stint in jail for her activism, she fled to France. In a Paris overflowing with Jewish refugees, she met Endre Friedmann, an up-and-coming photojournalist with an irresistible charm and a thirst for adventure. Though he was three years her junior, Friedmann became her mentor and took her under his wing.
Born and raised in Budapest, Endre—“Bandi” to his friends—had ended up in Paris after a stint in Berlin. His relationship with Gerta was romantic as much as professional. Although he taught her photography, Pohorylle’s biographer, Irme Schaber, has underscored that almost from the outset they worked as equal partners—an arrangement unusual for that time, even among the progressive avant-garde. Gerta, who had studied business and attended a prestigious Swiss boarding school, had the brilliant idea to give their fledgling business an edge by inventing an American-sounding pseudonym—Robert Capa—under which to sell their pictures. Soon after, Gerta began selling her own work under the name Gerda Taro. Sent from Paris to cover the Spanish Civil War, Capa and Taro, along with their fellow refugee photographer David Szymin, better known as “Chim” Seymour, rose to fame as their photographs were picked up by newspapers and illustrated magazines the world over, from the London Picture Post and the French Ce Soir, Vu, and Regards, to the recently founded Life magazine in the United States.
Pohorylle’s story is the inspiration for Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica, a complex, multivocal historical novel that is less a portrait of Gerda Taro than of her entire milieu: young, antifascist, bohemian, refugee, free-thinking, emancipated, and rife with short-lived romantic entanglements. Largely narrated in free indirect style, the novel tells us about Gerda through three of her close friends, all German, who alternate as the story’s focalizers as they look back on their lives from 1960, a quarter century after Gerda’s death: Willy Chardack (1915-2006), a medical doctor who’s emigrated to the United States and works at a college where he’s developing the pacemaker; Ruth Cerf (1916-2006), Gerda’s closest friend, with whom she lived in Paris and who also worked with Capa; and Georg Kuritzkes (1912-1990), also an MD, who works at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, where he feels increasingly disenchanted by the gap between the organization’s internationalist ideals and the day-to-day, bureaucratic and political reality.
The story jumps back and forth between the focalizers’ present and flashbacks to the 1930s. Through them, Gerda emerges as a mercurial, self-confident, charismatic presence who constantly stole and broke hearts as she embraced life, even in war, with unusual courage. To Willy, she was “the most enchanting, lively, and amusing person he had ever encountered in the female universe”; to Ruth, she was an “incarnation of elegance, femininity, coquetterie” who nevertheless “reasoned, felt, and acted like a man”; to Georg, she was “a celestial creature whose lack of bad faith meant that you wouldn’t dare to graze her with a finger,” who desired more than anyone else he knew “to live at all costs but not at any price.” It’s clear that, even more than twenty years later, Chardack, Cerf, and Kuritzkes are still haunted by the hole that she left.
Meticulously researched, Janeczek’s novel takes advantage of its creative license to fill in the gaps left in the historical record. It’s not exactly an easy read, however. For one, there is no real plot. If there is suspense, it stems from the reader’s curiosity about Taro and her times, the details of which emerge very gradually, a bit like the grainy image on a sheet of photographic paper as it floats in the dark room’s developer bath. Photography, in fact, was not only central to the last years of Taro’s short life but is also a useful trope to describe the entire novel. If the lure of photography is the promise of unvarnished documentary truth—a chemical imprint of reality as it is at the moment the shutter release is pressed—photographers and their editors have always known that this promise is deceptive. Precisely because they capture the details of a singular moment, photographs call attention to what they leave out: everything that precedes and follows that one moment—and everything that’s outside the frame. To the viewer or researcher, the photograph’s promise of total, objective truth quickly turns into frustration: it never tells you the whole story. In Janeczek’s telling, too, Gerda remains teasingly elusive, even as we get to experience her from three different angles.
If the true Gerda eludes us, as a narrative Janeczek’s novel is less elusive than allusive or elliptical. The free indirect style, which shackles us to the focalizers’ consciousness, poses a problem for exposition: what’s a given for Chardack, Cerf, and Kuritzkes, is not necessarily obvious to us. As a result, the story can be hard to follow for any reader who is not already familiar with twentieth-century European history or, for that matter, the biographies of Taro and Capa. Reflecting on Capa’s politics, for example, Kuritzkes considers that the photographer was less opportunistic than he seemed. “That trip to the USSR with Steinbeck,” he thinks to himself, “hadn’t been a good idea even in 1947.” A reference like that only makes sense to readers who already know that Capa and Steinbeck collaborated on a controversial reportage on the postwar Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. Similarly, the three focalizers, cosmopolitan and multilingual as they are, effortlessly resort to German and French. One cannot blame readers for feeling like they’ve landed midway into a conversation between close friends whose frame of reference they don’t share.
This slightly alienating effect is reinforced by Janeczek’s rather manierista narration, rife with convoluted, trope-heavy sentences, to which Ann Goldstein’s skilled translation remains faithful throughout. Here is a representative passage from Chardack’s section: “That André Friedmann had been weaned by the only metropolis able to vie with Paris, had been born in a fashion atelier in the chic heart of Budapest, had been brought up in its gambling clubs and streets of ill repute and had then sailed in every water of savoir vivre, clear or muddy, didn’t impress a young lady like Gerda, educated in Switzerland and refined in the revolutionary salons of Leipzig.”
Gerda Taro’s rise to photographic fame was meteoric. Only two years after she sold her first picture, her work was not only featured in mainstream illustrated magazines, but even made it into museums. In June 1937, the widely publicized exhibit Foto 37 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam prominently included images from the war in Spain by Taro, Capa, and Chim. Taro was killed six weeks after the show’s opening. While the Communist Party organized a mass funeral for her in Paris, the Amsterdam museum arranged a commemorative corner in the one of the exhibit rooms.
Yet for all the attention that her photographs and sudden death drew in 1936 and 1937, Taro and her work quickly sunk into oblivion in the months and years following. Capa’s 1938 New York exhibit and accompanying book, Death in the Making, included many of Taro’s—and Chim’s—images but no credit lines. In the years following, her portfolio was quietly absorbed into Capa’s, even after Capa and Chim, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson founded the Magnum photo agency—one of whose objectives was to ensure that its photographers received proper credit.
Like their friend Taro, Capa and Chim died violent, young deaths in warzones: Capa in Vietnam in 1954 and Chim in Egypt two years later. But while Capa’s life and work would be tirelessly celebrated and curated by his brother, Cornell, who founded the International Center of Photography (ICP), Taro’s remained all but unacknowledged until Irme Schaber published her biography in 1994. The discovery of 4,500 Spanish Civil War negatives by Capa, Chim, and Taro in 2007—the so-called “Mexican Suitcase”—further fueled interest in Taro, who received her first solo exhibit at ICP in that same year. Since then, most of her images have been recredited and her story has inspired half a dozen books and novels. (The English translation of Schaber’s biography appeared in 2019.)
Among these titles, Janeczek’s is not the most accessible but it certainly is one of the more interesting. In a long epilogue, the novelist explains that her attraction to Taro’s world was prompted by the story of the Mexican Suitcase but also informed by the history of her own family: Polish Jews who, like the Pohorylles, relocated to Germany. (Janeczek, born in Munich in 1964, moved to Italy when she was 19.) “My parents became engaged in the ghetto, found each other again after the war, loved each other and, at times, hated, amused, and supported each other, until death parted them,” Janeczek writes. “My mother, who had the stubborn coquetry of Gerda, could have been a cousin of hers. My father, like Capa a great storyteller, a younger brother.” To her credit, Janeczek understands that this apparent familiarity is deceptive when it comes to knowing or understanding who Gerta Pohorylle was. In a sense, the entire novel is written to guard us against the illusion that photography, or literature, ever give us a true picture of the past. Which doesn’t mean they can’t help us imagine a future.
Janeczek, Helena. The Girl with the Leica. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2019.
Sebastiaan Faber, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College, regularly writes for the Spanish and U.S. media, including CTXT: Contexto y Acción, La Marea, FronteraD, The Nation, Foreign Affairs, Conversación sobre la Historia, and Public Books. His most recent books are Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography and Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Second Transition, both published by Vanderbilt University Press. Born and raised in the Netherlands, he has been at Oberlin since 1999. More at sebastiaanfaber.com.