Ofer Kotler, a 60-year-old sculptor and designer from Tel Aviv, likes to collect things that people discard and leave on the street. “I have awesome things,” he said, noting for example, that he once found costume sketches for a production of “The Dybbuk” starring Hanna Rovina at Habima National Theater. People these days, he said, put everything out on benches on the street.
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Several weeks ago, Kotler said he found “a major treasure” just waiting for him. “I’m standing facing the bench near my house on Be’eri Street in Tel Aviv and see a photo album there,” he recalls. “I have a real affection for albums,” he acknowledged, “so I opened it immediately. When I saw what it contained, I closed it quickly and ran home with it.”
At home, he understood that he had happened upon an extraordinary find. The album documents the life of a German family with a son in the Nazi regime’s armed forces, the Wehrmacht, during World War II. It reflects a horrifying mix of the normal life of a middle-class wartime German family and the dark side of life in Nazi Germany.
At first glance, the contents of the album looks rather ordinary — pictures of summer vacations, the first day of school, ski trips, family meals and walks with a dog. But there are also pictures of soldiers in Nazi uniforms sporting swastikas on their arms and citizens marching with their arms raised in a Nazi salute. The most chilling of the photos, however, was one of three women sitting in a room, two knitting while the third reads a story to a boy sitting on her lap. Hanging on the wall above them is a picture of Hitler.
Kotler was astounded by his find and preoccupied with thoughts about where it came from. “Someone set this album outside so someone else would see it and take it. Even if the album was considered an abomination from his standpoint, for whatever reason he didn’t have the strength and courage to throw the album away,” he says. “Just as a secular Jew would not throw away a Bible or put it in a shredder, the owner of the album didn’t have the courage to throw it away.”
But to whom did it belong? It’s possible, Kotler surmises, that an apartment’s new tenant found it in an overhead storage space while cleaning, “even without knowing that it belonged to a Nazi family.” But he also raised the prospect that it might have belonged to a former Nazi who fell in love with a Jewish woman and moved to Israel with her. Or that a Holocaust survivor found it by chance after World War II and brought it to Israel.
“When I found the album, I felt like going out onto the street with a bell, like Santa Claus, ringing and yelling: ‘Whose is this album?” Kotler says.
German Jewish families that immigrated to Israel in the 1930s would easily be able to identify with the style of the furniture, the dress and the leisure activities reflected in the album. But as one continues to flip through the album’s pages and come to the pictures of Nazi soldiers, the situation changes.
“The people in the album went to work in the morning, walked their dog and enjoyed themselves as a family. And then you see these Nazis, and it's chilling and shocking,” says Kotler.
In an effort to find out where the album came from, Kotler contacted Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa of Jerusalem’s Ben-Zvi Institute, who directs a project through which thousands of pictures from albums of Israeli families are posted on the internet. This is not the first time she has seen Nazi memorabilia. She has come across material from the German Templer community, a community of German Christians who, among other locations established the Sarona village in what is now in the heart of Tel Aviv. The Templers were expelled by the British during the Mandate period after they displayed Nazi flags outside their homes.
But because Kotler’s album includes post-World War II pictures, it could not have come from a Templer family, Shalev-Khalifa concludes. “It was kept like a time bomb, like the best example of the expression ‘a skeleton in a closet,’” she remarks. “Someone decided that they didn’t want to touch it, and put it out on the street.”
The restoration staff at Ben-Zvi Institute has begun trying to unravel the mystery of the source of the album. They have also posted handwritten photo captions from it on Facebook. Many of the photos are dated 1941, but they range from 1936 to 1949. Some of the pictures also contain notations with the names of the women who appear in them, including Waltraud Potulski and Ingeborg Eisberner.
There is an indication on one picture that it was developed by the Foto-Leder photography shop in Friedeberg. There are or were towns of the same name in present-day Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland, although some go under different names today. Another picture was developed by Foto-Burow in Brussow, the name of two German locales.
Only time will tell whether such details will lead to the source of Kotler’s find.