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Jüdische Weisheit


Rudi Weissenstein:
Photographer of the Declaration of the State of Israel

Von Shlomo Sheva

The manufacture in Germany of small, high-quality portable cameras at the end of the 1920s engendered the emergence of photo-journalism – a series of photos that told the story of an event or an experience. Many of the founders and leading photographers of this genre were Jews, such as Erich Salomon, who photographed Europe’s heads of state, diplomats and other personalities in unexpected moments; and Alfred Eisenstadt, who was to become a founder of Life magazine. With the rise of Hitler, the Jewish photo-journalists were forced to flee.

More than other professionals in the arts who left Germany, Jewish photo-journalists were able to find both refuge and a livelihood in Eretz Yisrael then. Language was not essential for photographers. At the same time, the major Jewish institutions in the country – the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, Keren Hayesod, the Histadrut and other public bodies sought photographers to publicize their projects throughout the world. Such well-known photo-journalists as Helmar Larski, Tim Gidal, Walter Zedek, Zoltan Kluger, Hans Pinn and Rudi Weissenstein produced high-level journalistic photography in Eretz Yisrael during the 1930s.

They were not press photographers, for the local newspapers lacked the technical means and the funds to use photos. However, they were international photo-journalists, for they documented newsworthy developments in Eretz Yisrael that were publicized throughout the world. Such developments were not lacking: the building of new settlements, violent riots, the arrival of immigrants from Europe, and the unfamiliar Arab milieu.

The photos also documented the Zionist agenda, and in this sense they were "commissioned" photos, parallel to the Soviet-produced photographs that were commissioned to glorify Communism. Yet, they may also be compared to the photos of the great depression in the U.S., which were commissioned by the government to serve social needs.

Rudi Weissenstein, born in Czechoslovakia in 1910, studied photography in Vienna and became a press photographer for a Prague newspaper. Arriving in Eretz Yisrael in 1936, he was immediately commissioned by various institutions to take pictures and within a few months time produced a body of documentary work of distinction.

That same year, violinist Bronislaw Huberman gathered Jewish musicians who had fled the Nazis and established the Palestine Philharmonic. The opening concert, conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini, nearly ended in disaster when a photographer used a flash to photograph Toscanini in the middle of a piece, prompting the infuriated maestro to walk off the stage. Only after considerable coaxing did he consent to return, and the event ended in success. Meanwhile, Weissenstein, unnoticed, caught Toscanini and Huberman in a series of rare candid photos using his small, flashless camera, producing some of his most unforgettable portraits. From then, he served as the Philharmonic’s photographer for a period of 40 years.

He photographed the international Levant Fair held in Tel Aviv in 1936, and the opening of the Tel Aviv port soon thereafter. Throughout the period of the Arab riots of 1936-39 he photographed the establishment of new settlements, the arrival by ship of European children as part of the Youth Aliyah rescue effort, and the clandestine arrival of other ships with “illegal” immigrants fleeing Europe, hastily disembarking at the Tel Aviv shore before they could be caught by the British police.

With the outbreak of World War II, the institutional demand for photos of Eretz Yisrael declined. Weissenstein and his wife, Miriam, opened a photography shop in Tel Aviv opposite the Mograbi Theater, while he continued photographing the city and its people. Only in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, did the local press begin to run photos of events and use press photographers. Weissenstein photographed everything that came his way, but people were his deepest interest. Over the years, he photographed all the leaders of the country at various stages of their lives, thereby compiling a documentary record of the history of the country.

Perhaps his most notable achievement was the request he received to photograph the ceremony of the declaration of the state, which took place on May 14, 1948, at the modest Tel Aviv Museum on Rothschild Boulevard at the height of the War of Independence. He took some 30 photos of the event, including photos of the crowd waiting outside, images that are well known to this day.

He continued to photograph for many years. Ambitious young politicians knew that to be photographed by Weissenstein meant to have arrived. His work was shown in exhibitions in Israel and abroad. He was admired by the young generation of photographers not only for his skill but for his gentlemanly manner. He died in 1992. His shop still stands in its old location, run by the energetic Miriam, the faces of the founders of the state still peering out of its display windows.

Kesher, No. 30, November 2001


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