My first morning in Paris, the morning of my humiliation at the courtyard pump, was also the first day of my career as a photographer. My choice was simple: use the camera to make a living, or pawn it and find work of some sort. I had a camera, a case, and two empty cassette canisters for film, but I’d never loaded the camera or used it. I had only a theoretical notion of the film. And if I had film, I had nowhere to process it. I was in a strange city with no resources, little grasp of the language, and only one friend. That friend was openly unimpressed by my secretiveness, clearly happier seeing me pawn the camera to repay him for his help. Certainly, he was making no effort to understand my mute and half-formed ambitions. But without the camera, all my adventure was for nothing. I was almost speechless with embarrassment at my treachery, and felt, at any moment, I would be weeping with shame and frustration. I was also afraid of Georgy’s rage at my deceit. But the anger didn’t come.
Instead, after I cleaned myself with a rag and a bit of soap in a pail at the spigot and after I used the toilet in the corner of the yard, we sat around the table in the courtyard and we weighed my choices. Georgy remained uncharacteristically quiet, watching and listening and smoking cigarettes, taking them one-after-another from a packet that belonged to Zivia, the old woman. Apparently, she was one of Georgy’s many aunts and had lived in Paris since early in the century. She told me, everyone knew her as Ciocia Zivia, Auntie Zivia. Auntie Zivia spoke four languages and some Yiddish too, and was a changeling of sorts, passing through Paris’s expatriate communities of Poles and Russians and Jews and Belarusians and Lithuanians as if she was one of them, or at least not one of their enemies, trading in cigarettes and vodka and operating our primitive hotel, along with other establishments. She also trafficked in the Milieux of the Gitanes – the Gypsies – and the Pieds-Noir, those North African Jews who controlled much of their community from Marseille to Paris. I learned later it was her wine and her vodka I had been sick on the night before, drunk in one of her establishments, and those were her cigarettes Georgy smoked, rolled and packaged into forged packets by children in her employ in a workshop of her own. In the coming months I learned of other, more and less innocent, enterprises. She was mother to Yvon, of the mismatched suit, and it was clear there were more like him. Like Georgy, Auntie Zivia had a charm that was disarming, and she was obviously as morally flexible as her nephew. She seemed flexible in other ways: her dull gray clothes were serviceable and clean and well made, and would pass without comment anywhere in the commercial life of a great city. And with a closer look, I saw she was younger than she first seemed, or at least she had a vigour that contributed to the illusion of youth.
Auntie Zivia drew a palm-sized notebook from her skirts, and after consulting it, methodically made notes on a fresh page with a stub of pencil she sharpened with a penknife drawn, along with the notebook, from out of those skirts. After making her notes, she scored the page with a thumbnail, tore it out carefully, and presented it for inspection, spreading it with her forefingers and thumbs so it lay flat and we could read the names written there. She was putting two names on the table, she explained: a Polish art dealer and poet named Léopold Zborowski, and a Russian Jew, Lubetkin the Photographer. Zborowski had grown rich being generous with artists who had come to Paris from everywhere, and he knew many people and was kind. Lubetkin was a photographer who made a living in the Parisian community of Russian Jews and others, making portraits, marriage photographs, and especially pictures of young men and women before they emigrated to America or went into the army. He also prepared special photographic blocks for other printers in his studio. As she described him, I came to understand that occasionally Lubetkin did special commercial work for Auntie Zivia, work that helped her, and others, skirt official oversight. I could be valuable to Lubetkin, and to Auntie Zivia, and if that was the case, she could overlook the rent on my bed, fifteen francs a night. Lubetkin could show me where to buy film and chemicals, and he might, in exchange for my special services, let me use a darkroom. Zborowski might, in the right circumstances, introduce me to photographers who were drawn into the City’s community of artists. But once more, and with greater care, I had to transform myself.
Beginning with a passport.