Jeffrey Jackson simply describes his latest book as “a World War II story you’ve never heard before.” It’s a story that’s being heralded for how it documents courage and inspires. It’s about love. It’s also an example of empathy.
“Paper Bullets” offers a ground-level view of history through the story of Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe. They were avant-garde artists, stepsisters and lesbian partners who risked their lives while defying the Nazis.
Schwob and Malherbe have gained attention over the past two decades as their art has received recognition. Jackson says they were known Nazi resistors, but the full extent of their story hadn’t been told.
“No one did a deep dive,” says Jackson, an author, historian and professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. “No one had written anything substantial about their wartime activity.”
Jackson is going to discuss the book with Wofford College students and others participating in a Zoom discussion at 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 8. Register here. The event is being hosted by the LGBTerriers and the Wofford College Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
In 1937, Schwob and Malherbe left Paris to live on the island of Jersey, part of Britain’s Channel Islands. In 1940, the Nazis began to occupy the islands. They had to keep their relationship, communist politics and Schwob’s Jewish heritage a secret.
That didn’t stop them from aiming to demoralize the Nazis.
They illegally possessed a radio and listened to the BBC. The couple would summarize reports of Allied victories and translate the news into German to break the news of an impending German defeat since Nazi troops were being fed propaganda. They’d leave the notes on café tables, post them to fence posts and slip them into the pockets of Nazi troops.
Jackson says people often believe major attention-grabbing actions are needed to practice activism, but Schwob and Malherbe exhibited how discretion and subtle acts can be powerful.
“They certainly got in the head of the Germans and got under their skin,” Jackson says.
Jackson also considers the story one of recognizing the complexities of people responsible for oppression.
“They saw the soldiers as duped by Hitler,” Jackson says. “They hated fascism, but in many ways, their notes were an attempt to reach across those lines. In our very polarized atmosphere, this is a story of an act of empathy.”
In a few years, the women’s home was raided and they spent eight months in prison.
Jackson spent seven years writing the book, which included researching writings by Schwob that were published posthumously, a collection of the couple’s papers owned by Yale University and visiting archives in Jersey.
The hardcover edition of “Paper Bullets” was released in 2020. A paperback edition is being released in November. The book has received glowing reviews and was longlisted for the 2021 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Non-Fiction. The Wall Street Journal named it one of the five best books on art and culture in occupied Paris.
“I know from talking to people that one thing people find fascinating is that there are more stories out there to be told, that’s especially true with World War II,” Jackson says.