Why you should care
Because war can follow you wherever you go.
The jig was up. On July 25, 1944, two women were stopped by German secret police on a bus. When their home was ransacked, the Nazis found what they were looking for: a suitcase filled with leaflets — a surrealist art project — that had plagued the German army for months. Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe were sent to prison for their use of war’s most insidious weapon in the least likely place.
Schwob and Malherbe moved to the Channel Islands in 1937, from Paris, where their lives had been wrapped up in the surrealist movement and communist politics. But their new home proved far from a retreat after Nazi forces occupied the islands in 1940. By then the women, who were stepsisters and life partners, were in their 40s. Given their record of activism and Schwob’s Jewish heritage, they had every reason to lay low in their little village. But that wasn’t really their style.
As lesbians, as French women living in exile, there are lots of things to suggest they should keep their heads down.
Jeffrey Jackson, Rhodes College
“They’ve got a lot of reasons not to do anything,” says Jeffrey Jackson, a history professor at Rhodes College who’s working on a book about Schwob and Malherbe’s Jersey résistance. “As lesbians, as French women living in exile, there are lots of things to suggest they should keep their heads down. But instead they stick their necks out.”
The pair had been transgressive in Paris too. They cross-dressed — which was illegal in France in the 1930s — and Schwob is now regarded as an early transgender icon under her assumed name, Claude Cahun. Malherbe, who also went by the name Marcel Moore, was an artist herself. But the Channel Islands were initially supposed to be a quiet escape for the pair, one where Schwob’s chronic health problems might be assuaged by country air.
The couple’s resistance started small. They were looking for a way to get the enemy to stop fighting, for peace to prevail in what they called “revolutionary defeatism.” So they began dropping notes, messages written on cigarette packets to remind occupying soldiers how long the war had dragged on. Later, they branched out into leaflets, typing up news bulletins in German signed “the nameless soldier,” a character they invented in hopes he would inspire German troops to give up and go home.
They wrote of the horrors suffered by soldiers while Nazis back home lived the high life. The women also sent leaflets — translated into Czech — about impending Nazi defeat fluttering into forced labor camps, hoping to help prisoners keep going. They left notes from the nameless soldier on tables in cafés, dropped them inside the invaders’ cars, slipped them into soldiers’ pockets on the bus, with the goal of not only demoralizing soldiers but also convincing them that there was a widespread resistance movement. They vandalized churches and the graves of German soldiers, reminding the still-standing soldiers what and whom they were fighting for.
The Channel Islands saw their fair share of anti-Nazi resistance: The island chain was key to the Nazi’s Atlantic Wall strategy, which sought to defend Hitler’s forces from Allied invasion. Yet hundreds of residents helped forced laborers escape and hide across the islands, while others undertook minor sabotages and published underground newspapers.
Schwob and Malherbe fought their propaganda war alone, with minimal collaboration with other Channel Island groups, before they were found out and taken prisoner in 1944. Once they were arrested, the two women tried to overdose on the sleeping pills that they always carried with them as a precaution, but their suicide attempt failed and they were interrogated. Schwob, by her own account, challenged one of her judges: “If at this very moment, you were told that, in Aachen, two German women were doing exactly what we have done here, would you blame them?”
The pair, kept in separate cells, reverted to their note leaving — this time for each other, with messages scribbled on toilet paper and pages torn from books passed through the prison ventilation system multiple times a day. They befriended not only their guards but also their fellow prisoners — many of whom were shot.
The two women were sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out, a sign that their propaganda had struck a nerve. German surrender and the end of the war brought freedom, after which, Jackson says, the two had to collect their possessions, looted after their capture, from neighboring houses.
“There’s a real sense of letdown, of ‘now we have to rebuild,’” Jackson explains, noting how Schwob’s health never recovered from her time in prison. She died less than a decade later, and Malherbe followed, by her own hand, in 1972. The two are buried together in St. Brelade’s churchyard on Jersey.