Rudi Weissenstein Documents a State in the Making

By Hana Kofler | 2002

Shimon Rudolph Weissenstein was born in 1910 in the Moravian city of Iglau in Czechoslovakia. His father Richard, the owner of a carton factory, was an amateur photographer, and in his laboratory Rudi made his first steps as a young photographer, having received from his father at the age of eight a wooden Tuchlauben 9 camera which was invented by Moll and purchased in 1890. His mother, Emma, played the piano, and it was from her that Rudi inherited his great passion for music, a love which accompanied him throughout his life. Weissenstein grew up in a Zionist home infused with European culture. His mother tongue was German, and in his youth he was active in the German-Jewish youth movement Blau Weiss. In the high school which he attended in the city of Bergreichenstein, Rudi was exposed to anti-Semitism which gradually became more widespread, and due to which he left Europe when a decision was necessary. In 1928 he was admitted to the Kunsthochschule in Vienna, where he expanded his knowledge in the fields of graphic design and printing, chemistry, photography, retouching, optics and archive management, as well as in the humanist subjects which included music, psychology and philosophy. Upon graduating in 1931, he was hired as press photographer for the Czech Foreign Ministry journal in Prague, and concurrently worked in the European Photography Center which operated in the city. Between 1933 and 1934 he served in the Czech Army. His parents, who envisioned his future as a hotelier, enrolled him for studies in Switzerland, but having independently contacted Omanut press in Tel Aviv, he decided to travel to Palestine despite his parent׳s objection.

In January 1936 Weissenstein arrived at Jaffa Port, with a press photographer's certificate and a set of cameras. He went to a kibbutz but stayed only one day before deciding to leave for Tel Aviv. With the little money he had he rented an apartment which served him as both a home and a photo lab. His sister, Helli, seven years his senior, had already been in the country a year. The fate of the remaining family members who stayed behind was sealed with the outbreak of the war. His brother Theodore passed away in a work camp, his sister Bertha fled to France and was active in the French Resistance. His mother died in Theresienstadt, and his father, who survived the Holocaust, arrived in the country at the age of 75.

1936 was a very busy year in the life of photographer Rudi Weissenstein. Shortly after his arrival he chanced upon Miriam Arnstein in Tel Aviv. Miriam had immigrated to Palestine with her family from Czechoslovakia in 1921. Her father built their home in a Tel Aviv neighborhood, where he established an ice factory. Three years after their meeting, Miriam and Rudi were married in a modest ceremony. Miriam was his partner in the photography businesses, the mother of his three children, a private chauffeur on occasion, and a close assistant for 55 years. Since Rudi's passing in 1992 she has continued with the enterprise of documenting the photograph archive, despite her age. Her grandson, Ben Peter, has recently joined her, and been entrusted with the tasks of preserving the rare negatives and digitizing all the visual and textual information gathered in that archive.

Weissenstein documented the reality of the mid-1930s that he saw after his arrival in the country with a creative intensity that corresponded with the pace of the events in his new homeland. In those years the economic state in the country was in decline, and the papers reported on pogroms in Poland and the persecution of Jews in Europe. The British mandatory government separated the Jewish community (yishuv), which was divided in its views and positions about the land of Israel and its local Arab inhabitants, from the Arab majority at the time, which demanded that the British government stop Jewish immigration to Palestine, cease the transfer of land to Jewish hands, and constitute autonomous institutions with an Arab majority. In April 1936 a general strike was declared, and the armed anti-British, anti-Zionist Arab Revolt broke out, continuing for three years. In the local Jewish community, as well as among the many European Jewish communities in distress, acute disputes arose between the various Zionist streams, between those who sided with partition of the country and those who objected to it, between Zionists and anti-Zionists, between adherents of Greater Israel and supporters of bi-nationality or the region's division into cantons – ideologies whose voice was heard ever more forcefully as the power of the British mandate in Palestine waned.

In the second half of the 1930s clear signs of bourgeois tendencies became discernible, affecting the working public in the country. During these years tens of thousands of men of means and entrepreneurs, technicians, skilled workers and "working intelligentsia" came to the country. The immigration waves were largely urban, and concentrated mainly in the three big cities. Tel Aviv grew rapidly into a metropolis of 150,000 inhabitants. Urban development was tied with the development of industry. Established factories grew and expanded, and many new ones emerged by their side. Investment in the industry and electricity production increased substantially in comparison to the previous decade. The immigration of scholars and students raised the levels of education and research in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the Haifa Technion. The Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in Tel Aviv, and publishing houses and newspapers multiplied.

As a photojournalist by training, Rudi Weissenstein perceived himself as a quintessential press photographer, a field in which he had gained experience during his early years of work in Prague. He was an independent photographer and wanted to set up an archive. The circumstances of the time and place furnished him with fascinating photographic materials which occupied all the period's photographers, many of whom hailed from Germany and Central-Eastern Europe, and arrived in the country during those years. The institutional demand for documentation of the Zionist enterprise, the intense nature of the events in those days, and the personal initiative of the many photographers yielded an accurate recording of an existential, political, ideological, social, and artistic state of affairs, providing fertile ground for the research of local photography.

Weissenstein started operating in every possible field: he followed media coverage of news events from the country, which were mainly disseminated by the Jewish Agency, the JNF, Keren Hayesod Foundation Fund, WIZO, etc. in the Jewish communities overseas. He traveled throughout the country and photographed new settlements, the fifth wave of immigration, the civil unrest in Tel Aviv, the developing construction in the country, parades and processions, art events in all creative fields, industry, cityscapes and pastoral vistas, cafés and cinemas, urban life, national propaganda, immigrant ships, portraits, the first concert of the Palestine Philharmonic conducted by Toscanini, street scenes, and so on. Weissenstein's photographs started appearing on postage stamps and banknotes; they were awarded various prizes and merit certificates, and were presented in exhibitions locally and internationally.

In the summer of 1939, as the Arab Revolt subsided, the British published the White Paper, which stirred the Jewish community in the country. Tel Aviv became the focal point of the struggle against the plan that would have put an end to the Balfour Declaration. On August 28 that year the illegal immigrant ship Parita reached the country's shores and ran aground on Tel Aviv's Frishman beach; September 2, one day after the outbreak of World War II, saw the arrival of the immigrant vessel Tiger Hill.

The war temporarily stopped the struggle against the mandatory government, and many joined the British Army. All these events were captured by Weissenstein's lens. In the autumn of 1940 Italian planes bombed Tel Aviv. Many left the city, among them Rudi and Miriam Weissenstein, who were married that year, and rented a one-room apartment with a communal kitchen in Herzliya. Rudi used to travel to Tel Aviv on his motorbike every day. That same year he opened Photo Prior. In the wake of World War II the Jewish struggle against the British Mandatory government was resumed with excessive strength. Concurrent with the tension in the country in the 1940s, however, cultural life, and specifically the café culture, flourished in Tel Aviv. On November 29, 1947, the city's residents flooded its streets in anticipation of the UN decision concerning the country's partition. The next day Weissenstein reported with his camera at Mograbi Square, perpetuating the outbursts of joy and the Horah dancing. The war that followed the decision was inevitable. After months of bitter struggle waged by the Arabs of Jaffa and the surrounding villages, Jaffa was captured on May 13, 1948, as the last British left.

On the day of Jaffa's surrender, Weissenstein received an official invitation to attend the State of Israel Declaration of Independence signing ceremony the next day, May 14, 19`48, 4 p.m., at the Tel Aviv Museum, 16 Rothschild Boulevard. Weissenstein was asked to keep the contents of the invitation and the time of the session a secret. He was also asked to arrive in dark festive clothing. He was the only still photographer invited to document the ceremony (a claim disputed to this very day), and the historical photographs he took were published the world over. When he left the Museum building at the end of the ceremony, Weissenstein took pictures of the great crowd that waited in the concourse, and of the photographers who were left outside, cameras in hand, in the front rows. The next day the city of Tel Aviv was attacked by Egyptian bombers.


Weissenstein did not document wars, and shunned all political involvement. Beginning in 1936 he would travel throughout the country and photograph the exotica of Jewish and Arab life for his own pleasure, as well as distinctive cityscapes in Jerusalem. In 1938 he perpetuated the settling of Kibbutz Hanita and the Arab neighbors coming to greet its founders. In 1942 he was commissioned to photograph the residents of the Arab village that provided water for members of Kibbutz Dorot in the Negev. In the 1950s his photographs frequently touched upon the interaction between the Israeli establishment and the Arab citizens of Nazareth, Lod, Ramla, Haifa, the Galilee, Beersheba and the Negev. The commissioned photographs were intended to present the ostensible coexistence between the Arab inhabitants and the Jewish authorities and settlers. After the establishment of the State, Weissenstein continued to photograph the unique atmosphere in the nascent country: the first anniversary celebrations of the immigrants who settled in Jaffa, Communist Party gatherings, May Day demonstrations, pictures from the transit camps (ma'abarot), and the construction boom throughout the country. The austerity policy implemented in the State's first years, due to the massive immigration and rapid population growth, limited consumerism in favor of crucial national goals. The government's food rationing policy and its side-effects were likewise perpetuated by Weissenstein. He documented the steel workers' strike, Knesset elections, demonstrations, the job hunting market in the city streets, job seekers in the employment offices, shops for rationed provisions, relief work, road paving, construction and industry, inauguration of the train station in Tel Aviv, the opening of the first supermarket, numerous cultural events, concerts of the Philharmonic Orchestra with the greatest conductors and soloists who arrived from overseas, fashion shows, the inauguration of Tel Aviv Museum's Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, etc.

In the wake of the Six Day War, Weissenstein photographed landscapes and local figures in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Nablus, Hebron, and Jericho. Toward the 1960s he used to go to Jaffa to capture the city's romantic-mysterious facet, with its churches and alleys, the mosque, the Clock Tower, the fishermen returning from sea at nightfall, and the Tel Aviv shoreline and promenade.


On Allenby Street that curves to the sea new businesses opened constantly; Mograbi Square saw days of wild excitement, and Mograbi cinema house which had been the focal point of cultural life in Tel Aviv was razed, Herbert Samuel Square was renovated over the years, but remained rather negligible in the general cityscape, and the centers of events shifted location. Only Weissenstein's Studio remained in place, as a reminder of other times when the city's heart throbbed around it.

The time that passed only reinforced Weissenstein's consciousness of the value of preservation and the importance of registering and operating his photographic archive on which he continued to toil every spare moment. A comprehensive perusal of Weissenstein's archive illustrates his being a total and complete photojournalist, who left behind a record of rare and fascinating chapters of an Eretz-Israeli reality.