Early 'Photoshopped' Family Portrait Offers Snapshot of German Jewry's Fractured Past

An Israeli woman's 93-year-old family portrait, pieced together from many individual photographs, offers a glimpse of German Jewish life between the wars.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

On Mathilde Mainz's 80th birthday, her extended family decided to get her a special gift: a picture of all 60 of them together.

The year was June 1919, World War I had recently ended and they were dispersed all over Germany. Mathilde’s grandson Alfred had died in battle in 1914 and her granddaughter Rebecca had died during the worldwide flu epidemic in 1918. Getting the whole family in a photograph was clearly impossible.

But this did not deter an unknown and industrious photographer who – almost a century before the invention of photo-editing software – created a fictional family portrait from dozens of separate photographs. The cuts and pastes are almost invisible and at first glance the end product really looks like a picture of a festive family gathering in a large hall.

Mathilde is, of course, situated in the center, surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, along with their spouses. Even the dead are featured. Alfred appears in a small frame on a table in from of Mathilde. And Rebecca and her husband, Lazar Mains, who died a few years earlier, peer from a frame on the wall behind her.

Of all the people in the 93-year-old photograph, only the little girl in the lower right corner with a big bow in her hair is still alive. Today, Flora "Katia" Shmueli is 101 years old and lives in Tel Aviv. After years of research, her daughter, Gila Shmueli, has succeeded in identifying nearly everyone who appeared alongside her.

As it turns out, the photograph represents two of German Jewry’s oldest and most prominent families, the Mainz family of Frankfurt and the Michael family of Hamburg. Shmueli says she has traced the family back to documents from the 16th century, some 340 years before the photograph was created.

“They were strictly observant Jews, but were also German patriots with open minds,” says Shmueli.

The Yakinton, the community newspaper of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin (the “Yekke association”), wrote about Shmueli's efforts.

“The photo is part of the effort to transmit the Yekke heritage through human interest stories,” says Devorah Haberfeld, the newspaper's director.

Much of the family managed to flee Germany before World War II, dispersing to England, Australia, the United States and Palestine. But not all of them were so lucky. Oskar Mainz, Mathilde’s son – who appears in the center-left of the photograph with a penetrating gaze and a pointed beard – was killed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and Mathilde’s daughter, Rina Sultzbacher – on the bottom left of the first row in the photo – and her family were killed in London by German bombs during the Blitz.

Shmueli believes there are now hundreds of descendants of the people in the photograph in Israel alone. She notes that the daughter of one of Mathilde’s grandsons who appears in the photograph, Dr. Max Michael, has nearly 40 great-grandchildren.

“It was an optimistic generation,” says Shmueli of those in the photograph. “They were the first to leave the Frankfurt ghetto in the mid-19th century. In 1919 they were all breathing sighs of relief that both the war and the epidemic were over."

She adds, “Despite the many difficulties posed by living in a country that had been defeated and impoverished, they were expecting a better future for their children in Germany. Of course, that didn’t last long.”

The Mainz family, in a fictional family portrait created out of dozens of individual photos.

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