Constantin Joffé: the fate of a prisoner-of-war

Liberation.c.930

Liberation.c.930

One of the most striking aspects of the Liberation Collection is the huge number of books consisting of personal narratives, containing the memories of people involved in and affected by World War II. Through dealing with these books one becomes very intrigued by and connected with their authors, their experiences and their suffering. Instances of personal narratives in the Liberation Collection vary widely, in terms of the backgrounds to which the authors belonged, in terms of the topics they choose to address or the quality of the publications themselves. But they all share a deeply human and personal view of the tragic conflict. Here is one example.

Les enterrés vivants du Stalag XVII A by Constantin Joffé (Liberation.c.930) is a very simple, small book published in New York in 1943 by Editions de la Maison Française (later published in English as We were free, Smith & Durrell,1943) and prefaced by Louis Bromfield. There are no illustrations, just a 220 page account of Joffé’s time as a prisoner-of-war. A Russian “bred in France”, Constantin Joffé had joined the French Foreign Legion, was later taken prisoner by the Germans and taken to an Austrian camp in 1940. One among many, he tells of a heart-breaking episode: one of his fellow prisoners had received a short almost cold-blooded letter from his wife in France in which she asked him to sign a divorce letter certified by the camp ‘komandantur’. She cannot wait for him any longer. They were not made for each other anyway. The man is desperate and wants to commit suicide. Remarkably, the other prisoners also lose their hearts and fall into terrible anguish. Joffé tells us everyone reads everyone’s letters, copies of them were made and distributed in the camp, all good or bad news was shared.  In the introduction to the text, we read about his inability to understand those who complain about the toughness of life during the war (such as rationing or other sacrifices). Nothing compares to the suffering in the camps.

Constantin Joffé was finally repatriated to France and managed to move to the USA. His life then changed direction completely. He became a fashion photographer working for Condé Nast, his pictures appearing in Vogue and Glamour among others. Copyright restrictions prevent us from reproducing any of these photographic works here. We recommend that you do a web search and check out his very classy and modern shots of women in beautiful dresses. In his pictures he often played with light, shadows and focus in interesting experimental ways. He died from cancer in 1992.

Clara Panozzo

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