Moments Before Their Fatal Mission, Jewish WWII Soldiers Took These Incredible Photos of Egypt

A rare look at photographs taken by Jewish soldiers in British Mandatory Palestine during a World War II mission to Egypt. For some, this was their final mission

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Chen Malul, National Library

When we began to look in earnest through the Bitmuna photographic collections on the National Library website, we noticed that the name Rudy Goldstein was linked to hundreds of the photos. His name was occasionally accompanied by the title “Dr.” At first glance, if we had to guess the occupation of this man, we might have supposed he had a doctorate in photography, or perhaps other credentials in the field of visual arts. At any rate, it was clear that he was a man who spent quite a bit of his free time traversing and documenting the developing British Mandatory Palestine: Here a picture of a beautiful flower in a meadow, there a photo of farmers toiling in the fields.

Since at first we only focused on the scenes he captured through his lens, we missed an important clue concerning the identity of Dr. Goldstein: On the back of each photograph he scrawled a short description of the scene he had captured - the man had the handwriting of a medical doctor.

The base where Rudi Goldstein served in Egypt, 1942. Photo: Dr. Rudy Goldstein.
The base where Rudi Goldstein served in Egypt, 1942. Photo: Dr. Rudy Goldstein.Credit: The Bitmuna Collection
In the military clinic in a military camp in Egypt (Dr. Rudy Goldstein with a nurse at the entrance to the clinic), 1942.
In the military clinic in a military camp in Egypt (Dr. Rudy Goldstein with a nurse at the entrance to the clinic), 1942. Credit: The Bitmuna Collection.

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Dr. Goldstein first met his loyal, most photographed model, in 1934. They met in Mandatory Palestine, a land to which he immigrated after completing his medical studies in Berlin. A year after the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, Goldstein decided that his true place was in the land of Israel and he started practicing medicine near the northern community of Rosh Pina. There he fought to eradicate a rampant fever that killed many pioneers of the Jewish community, also known as the Yishuv. Later, he moved on to practice medicine in the Jordan Valley, before eventually accepting a doctor's position at the Haemek Hospital in Afula, which had been established in 1930.

Goldstein, who left his German homeland after it linked its fate to that of the Nazi party, chose to enlist in the British army as Germany began to realize the monstrous vision of its leader. It was the onset of World War II, and the medical profession was in high demand. Dr. Goldstein was recruited and sent to North Africa, where he would spend most of his war years, much of that period in Egypt.

'Egypt - My vehicle,' 1946. Photo: Dr. Rudy Goldstein (seen driving a car in the picture).
'Egypt - My vehicle,' 1946. Photo: Dr. Rudy Goldstein (seen driving a car in the picture). Credit: The Bitmuna Collection
Photographs from 'Cairo Zoo,' 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.
Photographs from 'Cairo Zoo,' 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.Credit: Bitmuna Collection

The copious amount of photographs he was able to capture at the time show that the doctor managed to find quite a few opportunities to photograph his surroundings, even during the busiest of times. In his photography collection from that time, he also documented the many sights he saw in writing. He was able to keep up this active pace thanks to what he dubbed on the back of one of the photos: "My vehicle."

Rudy Goldstein was not the only Hebrew soldier in Egypt at the time, nor was he the only photography enthusiast among the thousands of other soldiers serving there. Another fresh recruit was Rafael Reiss. He captured dozens of pictures that can also be found in the Bitmuna collections.

Rafael Reiss and Zvi Ben-Yaakov in Egypt, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.
Rafael Reiss and Zvi Ben-Yaakov in Egypt, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.Credit: Bitmuna Collection
Rafael Reiss in Egypt, 1944.
Rafael Reiss in Egypt, 1944.Credit: The Bitmuna Collection
Haviva Reik in Egypt, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.
Haviva Reik in Egypt, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.Credit: Bitmuna Collection

Reiss had been detained at the British-run Illegal Immigrants Detention Camp in Atlit after his illegal immigration to Israel. If the name Rafael Reiss sounds familiar, it is because he is best remembered as one of the paratroopers from the Yishuv who jumped into Nazi-occupied Europe in an attempt to save Jews from the genocide taking place there. Reiss came to Mandatory Palestine from Slovakia in 1939 after studying medicine at the University of Bratislava, although he never earned his degree due to the Nazi takeover. In Mandatory Palestine, Reiss met his future wife, Naomi. She later gave birth to their only daughter, Edna.

Reiss began his military training in Mandatory Palestine in December 1943. As part of their training, Reiss and his comrades were sent to Egypt. Reiss, like Goldstein, was able to take in much of Egypt's landscape. Most of his photographs from this period were collected under the archival name, "Sightseeing Tours in Egypt, 1944.”

Many other photos by Reiss were marked “Cairo Zoo,” where they were taken.

Rafael Reiss and friends en route from Cairo to a leave back home in Mandatory Palestine, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.
Rafael Reiss and friends en route from Cairo to a leave back home in Mandatory Palestine, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.Credit: Bitmuna Collection
Photographs from the collection 'Sightseeing Tours in Egypt, 1944.' Rafael Reiss.
Photographs from the collection 'Sightseeing Tours in Egypt, 1944.' Rafael Reiss.Credit: The Bitmuna Collection
At the synagogue in Alexandria on VE Day, May 8, 1945. Photograph: Rudy Goldstein, the Bitmuna Collection.
At the synagogue in Alexandria on VE Day, May 8, 1945. Photograph: Rudy Goldstein, the Bitmuna Collection.Credit: Bitmuna Collection

From the notes found on some of the pictures we learn that Reiss and his friends were given a short leave back home in Mandate Palestine.

In the summer of 1944, Reiss and Haim Hermesh parachuted into Yugoslavia. Since the paratroopers sent previously by the British Army and the Haganah - Hannah Szenes, Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein - were captured by the Nazis in Hungary, the British ordered Reiss and Hermesh to enter Hungary through Slovakia, and there to join up with Haviva Reik and Zvi Ben-Yaakov, who feature in many of Reiss' Egyptian photos.

One of the most amazing photographs of the two collections was taken at the synagogue in Alexandria on the day of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945. The photograph was taken by Dr. Rudy Goldstein. Rafael Reiss, Zvi Ben-Yaakov and Haviva Reik did not get to see that long-awaited day. They were captured and executed in Slovakia in November 1944. The three were then buried in an unmarked mass grave.

Read more on the National Library of Israel's website

Photographs from the collection 'Sightseeing Tours in Egypt, 1944.' Rafael Reiss.
Photographs from the collection 'Sightseeing Tours in Egypt, 1944.' Rafael Reiss. Credit: The Bitmuna Collection
Haviva Reik and Rafael Reiss in Egypt, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.
Haviva Reik and Rafael Reiss in Egypt, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.Credit: Bitmuna Collection
Haviva Reik and Zvi Ben-Yaakov in Egypt, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.
Haviva Reik and Zvi Ben-Yaakov in Egypt, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.Credit: Bitmuna Collection
Haviva Reik and Zvi Ben-Yaakov at the Cairo Zoo, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.
Haviva Reik and Zvi Ben-Yaakov at the Cairo Zoo, 1944. Photo: Rafael Reiss, the Bitmuna Collection.Credit: Bitmuna Collection
Soldiers from British Mandatory Palestine in Egypt. 1944, the Bitmuna Collection.
Soldiers from British Mandatory Palestine in Egypt. 1944, the Bitmuna Collection.Credit: Bitmuna Collection

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