Josette Molland, Who Told of Life in Nazi Camps Through Art, Dies at 100


In the spring of 1943, Josette Molland, a 20-year-old art student, was certain of two things: that she was making a pretty good living creating designs for Lyon’s silk weavers, and that it was unbearable that Germans occupied her country.

She joined the Resistance. Fabricating false papers and transporting them for the famed Dutch-Paris underground network unburdened her of guilt. But it was dangerous.

Captured by the Gestapo less than a year later, Ms. Molland lived the hell of Nazi deportation and Nazi camps for women, at Ravensbrück and elsewhere. She tried to escape, organized a rebellion against her guards, was severely beaten and lived on insects and “what was beneath the bark of trees.” But she somehow survived and made it back to France.

“I had a happy life for the next 50 years,” Ms. Molland said in a privately published autobiography, “Soif de Vivre” (“Thirst for Life”), in 2016. But during those succeeding decades she also told her story as one of a dwindling band of officially recognized Resistance members still alive — about 40 of the original 65,000 who were awarded the Resistance medal, French officials say.

She died at 100 on Feb. 17 at a nursing home in Nice, according to Roger Dailler, who had helped her write her memoir along with another friend of Ms. Molland’s, Monique Mosselmans-Melinand.

The kind of horrors Ms. Molland endured — transported in packed cattle cars, arriving at the camp at Holleischen to find that a young woman had been hanged in the courtyard as punishment, sustaining a beating for helping a fellow prisoner who had collapsed (“Happily I only got 25 blows; 50 meant death”) — have been recounted before by other camp survivors. And like other victims of the Nazis, she often gave talks in French schools.

But Ms. Molland’s testimony stands out for the visual form it took. Many years after her return from the camps, she was worried that her story wasn’t getting through, and so, in the late 1980s, she made a series of paintings depicting her life at Ravensbrück and Holleischen in a naïve, folk-art style — 15 in all.

She carried the paintings with her to make sure the students she spoke to understood. In her own writing, she described a few of her works this way:

“The Big Search: In front of the whole camp, a woman, naked on the table, a ‘nurse’ searches her most intimate parts, he finds a gold chain and a medal.”

“Sundays, these Gentlemen were Bored: They invented a game to distract themselves: throwing bits of bread from the balcony. A fight ensues. Nothing for the older women.”

“Collecting the Dead at Night: They are naked, because their clothing must be used by others. In the autumn of 1944, typhus killed many at the Holleischen camp.”

“I use them to explain to young people in the schools what the human race is capable of, hoping that my testimony awakens their vigilance and encourages them to act, every day, so they don’t have to live what I did,” Ms. Molland said in her autobiography.

The paintings, like the descriptions she wrote for them, are frank. Little is left to the imagination. There is no emotion, and the faces are nearly expressionless. It is pure depiction, powerful in its fairy-tale like simplicity.

Ms. Molland’s account of how she was swept into the whirlwind of the Resistance is just as unadorned.

One evening in the spring of 1943, after a class at the École des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, where she was a student, Ms. Molland was approached by a tall young Dutch woman whom she knew as Suzie.

Suzie asked Ms. Molland to join her Resistance network, which had built a brilliant record for smuggling Jews, Resistance members and Allied airmen across the borders into Switzerland. “I accepted immediately,” she said, adding, “In fact, for a long time, I had felt guilty because I wasn’t doing anything.”

Ms. Molland was taken to Amsterdam to meet a network boss, who told her, “You are risking death.” She replied, “I know.”

With her skills as an artist she was a valuable recruit.

“Right away I started making false papers,” she said. “I carved out rubber-stamps from city halls, from prefectures, I made laissez-passer, and I would give them, discreetly, to Suzie during our night classes.” Missions by train to distribute the documents followed.

Then came the morning of March 24, 1944. At six o’clock, “a hullabaloo on the landing,” Ms. Molland recounted.

“Boom Boom Boom! Open up! Police!”

Two Gestapo agents and, with his dog, a member of the Milice Francaise, the French auxiliary Gestapo unit, burst in. Right away they discovered her counterfeit rubber stamps.

She and her friend Jean were taken to Gestapo headquarters, presided over by the dreaded “Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie, who personally tortured prisoners and was responsible for the death of the Resistance leader Jean Moulin in 1943. (In 1987, Barbie was convicted of crimes against humanity in France and died in prison four years later.)

The two were kicked down a stairwell; Jean was let go, and Ms. Molland’s mother, ignorant of her daughter’s Resistance activities, implored Barbie to free her, in vain.

Barbie was in the process of obliterating the Dutch-Paris network.

Ms. Molland was tortured but “never spoke about it,” Mr. Dailler said.

On Aug. 11, Ms. Molland was packed into a train with 102 other women — destination, Ravensbrück. Punished for trying to escape during the journey, she was chained at the ankle and thrown onto a pile of charcoal.

The rest of her narrative is recounted in the same frank, matter-of-fact style as her paintings.

“It was iron discipline” at Ravensbrück, she said. “We were surrounded by a multitude of soldiers and guards.” She encountered Suzie, broken by torture, who revealed that she had inadvertently betrayed her and others in the network.

Transferred to Holleischen, a forced-labor camp in the present-day Czech Republic, Ms. Molland immediately organized a prisoners’ strike after discovering that the work consisted of making ammunition for the Germans. “If we all refuse, they can’t kill all of us!” she told them. “They need us too much for their work force.”

As punishment they were made to get up at dawn and stand at attention for hours. If anyone fell, she was immediately shot.

The guard assigned to the women was a common-law prisoner — not, like Ms. Molland, a political one — who had been convicted of killing her family. “She had the power of life and death over us,” Ms. Molland recalled. She earned the guard’s good graces by drawing her portrait.

On May 5, 1945, with German capitulation just days away, Polish resistance members entered the camp. The Germans were lined up against the wall. Those designated “salauds” — bastards — by the prisoners were shot.

The Frenchwomen sang “La Marseillaise,” the Americans arrived, distributed food and took the women away on trucks, all to be put on trains for France.

Ms. Molland was reunited with her mother in Lyon.

“What I lived in the camps, I can’t even describe it,” she said in her memoir. “Unimaginable. If you haven’t lived it, you can’t understand. Every day we thought would be our last.”

Josette Molland was born on May 14, 1923, in the central French city of Bourges, the daughter of Gaston and Raymonde (Joyarde) Molland. Her father owned a hardware store in Lyon.

After her return from the camps, Ms. Molland established a small clothing store in Lyon, moved to England with her first husband, a Polish officer, and later settled in Nice, where she married an exiled Russian nobleman, Serguei Ilinsky, who painted buildings.

She returned to her first love, painting, and helped her husband restore the Russian Orthodox basilica in Nice, creating numerous icons.

Josette Molland-Ilinsky — she added her husband’s last name — was buried with full military honors in Nice on Feb. 28 in a ceremony presided over by the mayor, Christian Estrosi.

Ms. Molland leaves no survivors. A brother died some years ago, Mr. Dailler said.

At her funeral, the “Marseillaise” and the “Chant des Partisans,” the anthem of the French Resistance, were sung.

Mr. Dailler recalled her as smiling and friendly, but also as “a fighter.”

“She had a very tough personality,” he said.



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