Historian/archivist creates astonishing photographic memorials to World War II combatants

My friend Marilyn Walker called my attention to an amazing archival project by Jo Teeuwisse of Amsterdam. From a batch of World War II photographs that she discovered in a flea market, Teeuwisse has created photographic reenactments of wartime action and agony on modern European streets. Rebecca Rosen of The Atlantic captures the essence of Teeuwisse’s project in this article, published October 23. Here is one of the riveting exercises in superimposition — shadowy or ghostly soldiers running on the Avenue de Paris in Cherbourg:

Here is another: Russian soldiers liberating Auschwitz find survivors in the quarantine building.

Auschwitz survivors with Russian soldiers, January 1945.

Working at this for several years now, Teeuwisse has created a significant number of evocative, deeply moving images. Her larger portfolio, and the project’s animus, may be found on her Flickr and Facebook pages.

Teeuwisse finds herself, according to Rosen, increasingly “crowdsourcing” her photo information. While she could identify Amsterdam scenes, she has asked for help via the internet to identify and find current images of streets in other European cities. The resulting photos are works of art, with the passion for narrative that good historical art reflects. Teeuwisse told Rosen, “You put the old photo on top of the new photo, you make them line up and then you start removing parts,” she says. “It is not about how you do it, because the computer does most of the work and it is not that hard to do. But it is about deciding what you want to show, what you want to remove and where you want the viewer to look at. If you make the right choice the combination tells a story, it makes people think” (quoted in Rosen, “Scenes from World War II Photoshopped onto Today’s Streets,” The Atlantic, October 24, 2012).

Photographs are all about decisions; as Teeuwisse says about the computer, the camera does most of the work and the photographer gets to focus, so to speak, on the vital job of deciding what to put in and what to take out. Memorials are likewise all about decisions, and the decisions change over time with the politics of history.

I first traveled in Europe in the summer of 1974, as the United States agonized over a corrupt presidency and an endless, pointless war. At that time that other war– the one Americans had begun to think of as “the Good War” — was just thirty years in the past, though to me as a twenty-year-old it seemed another era, despite my father’s having been of military age in the early 1940s (that’s another story). Of course he and his friends rarely talked about that time. I started to understand how recent the war really was as my sister and I rode trains through Europe and walked through French towns. There were layers of war memorials: from the Franco-Prussian War, from World War I, and from the most recent conflagration, World War II. In addition, we were visiting an old Europe: still in recovery, still provincial, still linguistically complex and still delighting in confusing American teenagers with multiple currencies, lumpy mattresses, and bidets, though no toilets, in the hotel rooms. It was the Louvre before the pyramid, the metro still reserving seats for the war wounded, Eurail passes still affordable for college students wanting to make a ridiculously grandiose sweep through Europe in eight weeks.

Weirdly, though we carried a pocket camera, we took only about a dozen pictures, as far as I can tell, during our eight week pilgrimage. Maybe this is not true — maybe I just saved a handful. To perk things up here and give my readers a laugh, here is a snapshot of these three college students ready to take on the world:

I’m in the middle. I’ll spare my companions’ feelings by omitting their names, though I love them both dearly. Note my pink bell bottoms. Stylin’. June 1974.

Today Europe is very different. Not placid, not untroubled, not uniformly prosperous, but integrated (though sometimes with sharp discomfort), technologically sophisticated, expensive — and still, as always, beautiful, delicious, seductive.

The memorials change as cultures change and time inserts itself between us and the events remembered. On a recent visit to Paris, I compulsively photographed the plaques that commemorate the dead of the liberation of Paris in 1944. On official holidays, the city decorates these plaques with flowers.

Henri Jean Pilot,mort pour la France 1944

There are other memorials as well: plaques honoring the Communards slaughtered by the reconstituted French army in 1871; plaques mourning the Jewish children deported from every school and neighborhood between 1942 and 1944 (for which in July this year president Hollande took responsibility on behalf of the French); plaques more happily celebrating French writers and artists.

What Teeuwisse accomplishes in part with her careful, caring Photoshop work is the bridging of past and present.
She reminds us that the quaintly pockmarked walls of Europe are in part the remnants of war, and that the shops, homes, highways and bridges of today stand both despite and because of the actions and agonies of those men and women caught up in terror, survival, and resistance seventy years ago.

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