A photo show at the American Jewish Museum documents Israel's early days. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A photo show at the American Jewish Museum documents Israel's early days.

Israel, Then

On display in the central corridor of the Jewish Community Center's American Jewish Museum is The Forgotten Photographs: The Work of Paul Goldman from 1943-1961. The exhibition is so situated that one is likely to encounter the photographs peripherally, and in passing; yet everyone who came upon them while I was viewing the show was compelled to stop and ponder the scenarios that unfold in these photographs documenting Eretz-Israel in its early years.

Paul Goldman was born in Budapest, in 1900, and became a Jewish refugee to Palestine in the early 1940s, escaping Europe the year Nazi Germany won its greatest victories. Already an experienced photographer, he arrived in his new homeland during the turbulent final years of British control before the country was partitioned to become the state of Israel.

Goldman had served briefly in the British Army, then worked as a photojournalist who was befriended by Israeli leaders. His privileged access allowed him to document the British Mandate, Jewish settlements, immigrant camps, the arrival of Holocaust survivors, the 1948 war for independence and, in 1949, the "Magic Carpet" operation, which secretly brought Jews from Yemen to Israel.

While Goldman's work as a freelance photojournalist won accolades from colleagues, many of his images, as was common practice, were published with credits in tiny lettering, or uncredited. The archive of his work, owned by Spencer M. Partrich, consists of more than 40,000 negatives, purchased from Goldman's family. This exhibition, a version of which debuted in 2004 at the Eretz Israel Museum, in Tel Aviv, seeks belated recognition.

The 108 photographs on view -- surely colored by Goldman's own experiences and relationships -- document a more optimistic, and perhaps more innocent, Israel. They include three well-published images of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, doing a yogic headstand at Sharon Hotel Beach, in Herzliyah, in September 1957. In other buoyant images, thousands of Tel Aviv residents fill the square celebrating VE Day, and Palestine's high commissioner greets Jewish soldiers upon their return from German POW camps. Goldman also documented one of the new state's first major public works: a water pipeline to settlements in the Negev, the desert region of southern Israel. A 1957 image shows female soldiers, training for the Israeli Defense, smiling for the camera.

Goldman documented darker moments as well. A photograph from 1946 shows British soldiers carrying a corpse on a cot through the rubble of the King David hotel, which housed British administrators, and a military headquarters, both blown up by the Irgun, a clandestine militant Zionist group. In a July 1948 photograph, members of the Kibbutz Negba search through the rubble of their homes after an attack by the Egyptians.

Most shocking, though, is a 1945 photograph of an unidentified Jewish woman: The woman, who had been forced into a German army brothel, now displays the tattoo the Nazis inscribed on her chest -- "Feld Hure," meaning field or army whore. The tattoo alongside her identification number is full-frame in the image, her head empathetically cropped out.

Still, even when he was not focusing on Israeli triumphs, Israelis were not the only victims Goldman saw fit to record. A few images here, for instance, document the expulsion and flight of Palestinian Arabs in 1948 -- an historically momentous phenomenon, as it turned out, but something few photographers chose to cover in those early days of promoting the young state of Israel.

Today, when perpetual Arab-Israeli strife inspires harsh critiques (both internal and external) of Israel's policies, its days as a vulnerable, fledgling nation are hard to imagine. But in seeking to create images that were credible, that respected his subject's privacy, and that were free from unnecessary violence, Goldman was a press photographer deserving of admiration -- especially today, when sensationalism is rampant. His professionalism produced images that are no less poignant for it.

The Forgotten Photographs: The Work of Paul Goldman from 1943-1961 continues through May 31. American Jewish Museum, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, 5738 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-521-8011 or www.jccpgh.org/museum.asp

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