Taro, Gerda (1910–1937)

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Taro, Gerda (1910–1937)

German-Jewish photojournalist, the first woman war photographer to die in combat, whose photographs of the Spanish Civil War brought powerful images to the attention of a public unable to fully grasp the growing menace of fascist aggression. Name variations: Gerda Pohorylle; Gerta Taro. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, on August 1, 1910; severely injured in an accident near the front lines near Brunete on July 25, 1937, and died in the Escorial military hospital on July 26, 1937; daughter of Heinrich (Hersch) Pohorylle and Gisela (Ghittel) Boral Pohorylle; had brothers Karl and Oskar; companion of Robert Capa (b. 1913, the photographer).

Gerda Taro lived a short, tragic life in a turbulent period of world history. Although she was born in Stuttgart, Germany, she was by no means typically German. Her parents Heinrich and Gisela Pohorylle , Polish Jews, were both born in Galicia, but moved from Galicia in Austrian Poland to Württemberg in southwestern Germany only a few years before her birth in search of a better life. Assisted by relatives who had arrived earlier, Heinrich began a modest egg business in the town of Reutlingen.

On August 1, 1910, their long-awaited first child was born. A daughter, she was named Gerda, and with the birth of two boys, Oskar in 1912 and Karl in 1914, the Pohorylle family was complete. Family happiness, however, was soon overshadowed by the events that transformed the world in the summer of 1914. Gerda's fourth birthday that August 1 was not a day of celebration but one of foreboding and apprehension, for it marked the start of the European conflict that in time became World War I. The Pohorylles' home region of Galicia was the site of bloody battles between the armies of tsarist Russia and Austria-Hungary. Soon, many thousands of Galician refugees would be crowding Berlin, Munich, Vienna and other cities. Wartime chaos and declining morale revived anti-Semitism which had not been as intense for decades, although the Pohorylle family, living as they did in relatively tolerant Württemberg, would be largely spared from these hatreds.

In 1916, Heinrich moved his family from Reutlingen to Stuttgart. By this time, Germany was suffering greatly from a war of attrition that placed immense burdens on civilians. As the war dragged on, the Pohorylles shared ever-increasing privations, which impacted on the great majority of Germans through rationing of bread, sugar, and milk. Taro and her brothers often went without milk for days or weeks at a time. In 1917, now pretty and bright, she was enrolled at Stuttgart's Königin-Charlotte-Realschule, the Württemberg capital's first "reformed" primary school for girls.

It was there that she first began to experience the phenomenon of Anderssein, of "being different." As Orthodox Jews, her family observed long-established traditions; thus, when Taro attended her school on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, she could not fully participate in certain classroom activities. The reactions of her classmates varied, but many were puzzled by her "peculiar" behavior. When Gerda invited some of them to her home, which was extremely modest by German bourgeois standards, they became acutely aware of her otherness.

Whether their response was purely anti-Semitic in origin or not, some of Taro's classmates began seeing her as a member of a family of imperfectly assimilated Ostjuden, eastern Jews whose life was alien and essentially undeutsch ("un-German"). In the cruel ways of children, some teased and humiliated her. Taro began to deny her Jewish origins, which brought conflicting emotions, including those of shame, into her young life. Her childhood, however, was not all painful. She was regarded by her teachers and most of her classmates as a highly attractive, good student who found it easy to make friends.

Despite his relative poverty, Heinrich Pohorylle chose to remain in Germany, where he believed he would be able to raise his children in a civilized, tolerant milieu. Since his temperament resembled that of a dreamer and a Talmudic scholar rather than of an aggressive businessman, Heinrich's income as a traveling egg salesman remained modest, and his family's living standard remained precariously lower bourgeois. Help from the extended Pohorylle family, however, somehow always appeared in time to pluck Heinrich's family out of a crisis. In 1925, indeed, their situation brightened dramatically when Gerda's uncle Moritz decided to hire Heinrich as a permanent employee of his newly established egg business.

During these years, Taro continued to attend school, excelling both in the sciences and in foreign languages, English and French. By the time she entered her teens, she had become an extremely attractive young woman whose good looks began to turn young men's heads throughout Stuttgart. Her aunt Terra, who continued to spoil Gerda with presents and praise, began to look ahead to the time when Taro would be able to "make a good match." Gerda appeared to be quite content with these plans; she joined the "smart set" of Stuttgart by embracing the smoking habit, and by taking full advantage of the Elizabeth Arden makeup kit she had been given by her always generous Tante Terra.

In 1927, after graduating from secondary school, Gerda received an even more munificent present from Aunt Terra when she was sent for a year's course at an exclusive Swiss finishing school, the Villa Florissant in Chamblandes-Pully, situated in a breathtaking location near Lausanne on Lake Geneva. Here, Taro further perfected her foreign language skills and displayed natural abilities in gymnastics, dancing and tennis. Known to her fellow students as "Poho," she had grown into a sociable young woman who laughed easily and had many friends. Upon her return to Stuttgart from Switzerland, Taro enrolled in a local business school to master the useful skills of stenography and typing.

For the next several years, she enjoyed life, making friends and finding in Hans Bote (known to all as "Pieter") her first love. Bote, a gentile, was a successful businessman more than a decade older than Gerda. Aunt Terra was deeply concerned that her niece might marry "Pieter," but to her great relief this did not happen. In 1929, the Pohorylle family moved to the city of Leipzig, where, with the generous financial backing of his Stuttgart family, Heinrich once again tried to find success in the egg business. In Leipzig, though she took courses in home economics and cooking, likely encouraged by the ubiquitous Tante Terra, Taro was also drawn into the increasingly tense political life of Weimar Germany. She befriended a number of individuals, Ruth Cerf, Dina Gelbke , and Erwin Ackerknecht among them, whose political views were militantly Communist but also often critical of the German Communist Party (KPD), which had become a bureaucratized Stalinist organization lacking a coherent strategy to counter the rapidly growing threat of Nazism.

Soon Gerda fell in love with Dina Gelbke's son Georg Kuritzkes, one of the leaders of Leipzig's left-wing youth movement. Although neither Gerda nor Georg ever joined the KPD, they supported its anti-Nazi militancy, and as members of Germany's threatened Jewish minority both chose to participate in this struggle despite misgivings about overall KPD strategy. Along with Georg, Gerda attended anti-Nazi rallies and spent many hours typing documents, attending meetings, and distributing literature. In 1932, Georg's younger brother Soma was attacked and injured by two Nazi youths. Although found guilty, the two Nazis never served time in prison because of the birth of the Third Reich the following year.

Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, and within weeks used the pretext of a non-existent "Communist plot" to imprison the nation by the end of March. Taro and her friends in Leipzig found that their city, too, quickly became subject to a dictatorial social order ruled by fear and insecurity. In the first weeks after the creation of the Hitler dictatorship, a strong resistance movement grew up in Leipzig and environs. Greta and her friends were active in this work, distributing anti-Nazi flyers and plastering the walls with posters.

Early in the morning of March 19, 1933, Taro was arrested and taken into "protective custody" (Schutzhaft). Fortunately, like her parents and brothers, she was a citizen of Poland, and after several anxious weeks, during which Polish diplomats interceded on her behalf, she was released on April 4. While in prison, Taro heard the screams of her colleagues while they were being beaten and tortured by Nazi brown-shirts. Along with other women prisoners, Gerda signaled her unwillingness to bow to the forces of Nazi terror, but none of the women prisoners were physically injured.

Upon her release, Gerda discovered that anti-Jewish boycotts had virtually destroyed her father's business, which he now began to liquidate. In a Germany increasingly ruled by terror that made life for Jews and decent Germans a living hell, the Pohorylles decided to leave the country (they would eventually flee to Yugoslavia). Gerda, however, although she knew little about the country, decided to go to France. A friend from Stuttgart, Lies Levi, who was an active Social Democrat, had already found refuge in Paris some time earlier.

Taro arrived in Paris in the late autumn of 1933, virtually penniless but overjoyed to be in a country not ruled by Hitler. She was fortunate in that she spoke excellent French, and could also type, take shorthand and do bookkeeping. Fellow refugee Ruth Cerf found work as a domestic but was treated with disrespect and, after being fired, was reported to the immigration police by her middle-class ex-employers. Although poorly paid, Gerda soon became part of a German refugee network that met in cafés to discuss the political scene. By December 1933, she was working for psychoanalyst Dr. René Spitz, a student of Sigmund Freud. Through Spitz, Taro met the German refugee photographer Tim Gidal. Gidal, who had pioneered the new profession of photojournalism in Berlin in the 1920s, sparked Taro's interest in photographic journalism.

The first years Taro spent in Paris were not without pleasantries. Several times she visited her lover Georg for extended periods in Italy, where he was now studying medicine. A new love interest in Paris also appeared in Willi Chardack, another refugee from Leipzig. Gerda and her friends often sat and discussed current events for hours on end in the Café Capoulade, or sometimes at the Café Mephisto. After losing her job with Spitz, Taro supported herself for a while by selling newspapers on a Paris boulevard.

Her life changed dramatically in September 1934, when she met a young Hungarian photographer named André Friedmann (originally Endre Ernö, later to be known as Robert Capa), three years her junior. In 1932, Capa, who had fled Hungary for Berlin because of his left-wing politics, was sent by his employer to Copenhagen to photograph Leon Trotsky. Capa's dramatic and powerful photographs of Trotsky, which have become classics of photojournalism, appeared in print in the journal Weltspiegel, making the young Hungarian famous. Unfortunately, several months later, Hitler's accession to power forced him to flee to France. As a penniless leftist Jewish photojournalist, he arrived in Paris full of hope but with no solid prospects.

Soon after meeting the photographer, Gerda broke off her affair with Chardack and briefly moved in with Capa, who lived in a tiny hotel room in the Latin Quarter. He was often away for extended periods on photographic assignments, so during one of these Greta and a friend, Lotte Rappaport , sublet a small room in the apartment of Fred Stein, a German-Jewish refugee who, no longer able to practice law as he had done in Dresden, was now establishing himself as a photographer. It was here that Gerda began to learn the nuts and bolts of photography while working for Stein as a darkroom assistant. In October 1935, she found a job with the photographic agency Alliance Photo, which was successfully run by another refugee from Nazism, Maria Eisner . Now permanently employed, Taro found that her language skills stood her in good stead, and she learned rapidly about the business end of photojournalism. Although she was not always faithful to him, and they went through dramatic but short-lived separations, Taro's relationship with Capa nevertheless had become a central fact of her private life, and they moved back in together. Increasingly assertive and confident of her abilities, she took charge of the happy-go-lucky Capa's often chaotic career. In February 1936, she was issued her first press pass.

As the couple became more confident in their skills, they decided to create new, improved names and images for themselves. To draw the attention of French editors, they chose to appear in new guises. These personas would be crafted from the pseudo-reality found in the fabled New World of America. André Friedmann was now Robert Capa, a name possibly derived from Hollywood's Frank Capra. Gerda Pohorylle emerged as Gerda Taro, perhaps inspired by some remote Italian villages she had once been enchanted by.

The great challenge that Capa and Taro were preparing for appeared much sooner than expected. In mid-July 1936, Republican Spain's democratically elected leftist government was threatened by a military coup led by Francisco Franco and other reactionaries. Franco's forces received substantial military backing from Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Anti-fascists of various stripes as well as liberal democrats rallied to the cause of beleaguered Spain. Among them were Taro and Capa, who arrived in Barcelona on August 5, 1936. They immediately began taking photographs, preserving for history the courage of Spain's workers and peasants, men and women who were poorly armed and without military training.

Working sometimes together and sometimes at different areas of the front, Capa and Taro photographed not only soldiers, but also the hastily erected barricades these men and women had created in and around Barcelona. These dramatic photos were snapped up by news editors eager for images from the Spanish fighting, and appeared in the summer of 1936 in the Züricher Illustrierte Zeitung and in the French magazine Vu. Although they were in Spain professionally as photojournalists, both Taro and Capa also invested in the struggle of Spanish democracy against fascist aggression. As partisans in the war against Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini, they hoped that their photographs would not only inform the outside world but galvanize it politically. One of Taro's photographs of ill-equipped Spanish militia members appeared in the Illustrated London News under the caption, "Typical Defenders of the Spanish Republic." To secure her images, she often appeared with her

Rolliflex in the midst of Republican soldiers, ignoring the bullets that flew from all directions.

Taro and Capa spent considerable time not only in the company of Spanish soldiers, but also with the "Volunteers for Liberty," units known collectively as the International Brigades. Coming to Spain illegally, the International Brigade volunteers, many of whom were Jewish Communists, risked their lives at the front to defeat the fascism they hated and feared. In Madrid, where the couple spent considerable time, they endured bombings by the German Nazi "volunteer" air squadron, the Condor Legion. As their photographs from Spain began appearing in the press, often the photographers were not properly credited. Even more astonishingly, their work sometimes appeared in magazines published in Nazi Germany. But the unauthorized dissemination of their efforts did not interest Taro and Capa. They were busy risking their lives to gather dramatic and persuasive images of a conflict that was changing the course of world history. Among the most moving photographs taken by Taro are not of soldiers but of Madrid's destroyed buildings, then-shocking documentation of the first city to be bombed. She was also able to capture on film one of the Spanish Republic's most heartening victories, the battle of Guadalajara in March 1937.

That summer, she commented to a colleague, British journalist Claud Cockburn, "how unfair it is, that we are still alive … when one thinks of how many truly great colleagues of ours have lost their lives in this offensive." On July 25, 1937, Taro invited another colleague, Canadian journalist Ted Allan, to join her on a visit to the front lines near Brunete. Soon after arriving in the combat zone, they found themselves in the midst of bombing attacks by German and Italian planes. Seeking shelter, she and Allan found a press car. Gerda was on its running board when a Republican tank, in retreat from the attack, went out of control and careened into their car. The tank bumped her from her perch, crushing her under its revolving lugs. From the other side of the car, Allan heard her screams but could do nothing, because he had been wounded himself. By the time he regained consciousness, Taro had been taken to the nearby British International Brigade 35th Division frontline hospital at the Escorial. On the way there, she had received a blood transfusion—a life-saving technique used for the first time during the Spanish Civil War—and remained conscious despite her wounds. Displaying "unbelievable courage," she was able to use her hands to hold her intestines inside her mutilated abdomen. But Gerda Taro died early the next morning, despite the efforts of doctors and nurses.

Her body was taken to Paris where on August 1, on what would have been her 27th birthday, Taro was buried after an impressive funeral. The service had been arranged by the French Communist Party, even though she had never joined it nor any other political organization. The guest list included numerous intellectual luminaries of the day, among them the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The total number of participants in the funeral may have been as high as 100,000, including a devastated Robert Capa who never seemed to stop crying during the long march to the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Alberto Giacometti designed her tomb, which was altered during the Nazi occupation to delete her name because the occupiers and their French collaborators appeared genuinely fearful of the growing myth of Gerda Taro as an antifascist Joan of Arc .

In his 1938 book Death in the Making, which contains photographs by both him and Gerda Taro, Robert Capa wrote on the dedication page, "For Gerda Taro, who spent one year at the Spanish front, and who stayed on. R.C. Madrid, December 1937." In February 1938, an exhibition of Taro's Spanish photographs opened in New York City. From that point on, she would be romanticized and sometimes demonized as well, but rarely if ever objectively investigated. Taro's entire family was annihilated in the Holocaust. Her father and brothers had fled to Yugoslavia in the mid-1930s, but they met their deaths in German-occupied Serbia at an unknown time, most likely between August 1941 and March 1942. In effect, the Nazis had eradicated her entire family, then cleansed the Paris tomb of her name, as if in an attempt to eliminate all remaining traces of her existence. They did not succeed.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia