From Hiroshima to the Negev: 86-year-old Kibbutz Photographer Becomes Internationally Renowned

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A photo taken by Misa Rusek.
A photo taken by Misa Rusek.Credit: Courtesy of Misa Rusek.

Eighty-six-year-old Misa Rusek’s collection of photographs is visual testimony to an extraordinary family story that spans generations, religions and nations. The story begins in the early 20th century in Japan and proceeds to the United States, to a detention camp for Japanese Americans during World War II and ends at Kibbutz Shoval in the Negev.

“I’ve been here for 60 years and now you remember me?” Rusek chuckles over the phone in a conversation from her kibbutz a month ago. The following day, in the yard of her home, while sipping Japanese tea, she devoted time to describing her long life’s journey.

Her photographs, contained in an extraordinary family album, were inherited in part from her parents who received them from their parents, two centuries ago, but she took most of the pictures herself. The pictures include a particularly forlorn portrait of her parents on their wedding day in 1928 in Hiroshima, Japan; a picture from Misa’s own wedding in 1950, when she married an American Jew whose family had emigrated from Poland; along with wonderful photos of her children planting trees on Tu Bishvat in 1961 on the kibbutz.

Rusek kept the photographs over the decades until she decided to lend them to her grandson, the photographer Matthew Richards, who works at the prominent Bruce Weber fashion photography studio. The special family history reflected in the album encouraged Richards to sit with his grandmother to hear the family’s full story for the first time, as she recalls. Richards showed the album to photographer Bruce Weber himself, who was impressed by Misa Rusek’s story and her work. Weber chose to feature it in “Leap of Faith,” the latest installment in his annual book series, known collectively as “All-American.” One of the photographs was quickly picked up for publication in November in the New York Times.

Misa Rusek.Credit: Courtesy of Misa Rusek

Rusek’s artistic talent is particularly apparent in illustrations and photography. She made a living as an illustrator for a time as a member of the staff of a weekly for children in the 1970s, but never translated her talent as a photographer into a profession. “I had a wonderful camera, a Roleiflex, that I brought with me from Los Angeles. I photographed people. I photographed my children, little things like that, not art photography,” she recounted.

In 1960, when she got to the kibbutz, at a time when there was a strong commitment to the principle of collective ownership of kibbutz property, the kibbutz management took the camera from her. “They told me there was no such thing as a personal camera. I didn’t ask questions,” she recalled. When she got the camera back, it was broken, and she had to repair it herself.

“When I decided to study photography and imaging at NYU in New York City, Misa gave me the Rolleiflex camera that I still have and use to this day,” said Richards. “My father’s baby pictures were taken with that camera, the family journey through Europe and to Israel was documented with that camera, and now, all these years later, I was able to capture her with that same camera.”

Rusek is still taking photos, mostly of her grandchildren, and Richards says whenever he and the other grandchildren see her, it’s with the camera lens directed at them.

Dor Ghez, who heads the photography department at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, said Rusek’s photos reflect the period and the “cultural fabric” in which she has lived and could be the basis of research. “The work of many female photographers was discarded from the cultural canon of the 20th century, such as the photographer Claude Cahun, whose work from the first half of the last century was ‘forgotten,’ but now her work is considered pioneering and challenging.”

A photo taken by Misa Rusek.Credit: ourtesy of Misa Rusek

Rusek showed embarrassment when asked about her photography techniques and her choice of subject. With a wan smile, she paused when asked such questions and then said she doesn’t see herself as a photographer, but has simply photographed people who seemed interesting to her.

“There’s something different in her photographs. It’s humanistic, sensitive, intimate photography. Rusek has a unique eye,” said photographer, photography curator and researcher Guy Raz.

The picture in the New York Times was of Rusek, her husband, Jerry, and their daughter, Jamie. Jerry Rusek was an American Zionist and communist whom she fell in love with and for whom she left the United States to come to the Negev desert. A decade after the picture was taken, their lives took a sad turn. In 1972, Jerry died suddenly of a heart condition during a volleyball game on the kibbutz at the age of 45. Misa was left at the time with three young children: Adam, 16, Jamie, 14, and eight-year-old Liat. Misa Rusek’s three children, and her 10 grandchildren, all now live in the United States, but she has chosen to stay on the kibbutz.

She was born in the United States to a father born in 1900 in Hiroshima and a mother who was a native of Honolulu, Hawaii. Until age 12, Rusek had a good life in the United States, but after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, everything changed. “My mother threw away anything that looked Japanese. She even burned the Japanese flag that we had at home,” Rusek recounted. “The police came and confiscated our radios and cameras at home. They treated us with suspicion. It was shameful. We didn’t know what we did wrong, other than being Japanese.”

A photo taken by Misa Rusek.Credit: Courtesy of Misa Rusek

One day the family was called to report to the train station. “Armed soldiers escorted us to a temporary camp,” she recalled. Nine family members went: her parents, her brother, five cousins and herself. “We all were in one room.” After three months, they were again put on a train to a more permanent destination, a massive detention camp in Arizona. “We lived in huts in the desert in a place so remote that if you just tried to leave there you would die. In the summer, it was so hot and in the winter, freezing cold,” she said. They were there for two years.

The only way to get permission to leave the camp was by moving further east. That was how her father managed to get her family out, finding night work in a parking lot in Chicago. There, for the first time, Rusek met Jews. She graduated from high school in 1947 and then the family returned to California, where she studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, later to become part of the California Institute of the Arts. She earned a livelihood as a commercial artist at a small advertising studio.

‘Oh really?’

At art school, she had met her future husband, Jerry, an army veteran from a New York Jewish family. In 1948, immediately after Israel’s establishment, Jerry came on a visit to the country. “He returned and said that we were going to Israel. I said, ‘Oh really?’ I couldn’t believe it, but that’s what ultimately happened,” Misa Rusek recounted. Ten years later, in 1960, by which time they already had two children, they made the move. “In the United States, we had a house and three cars, but Jerry was a communist and always went around with a book by Lenin,” she said. “The idea of a kibbutz appealed to him. I didn’t know what a kibbutz was and I didn’t know what the Negev was. I barely knew what Israel was, but I said, ‘Okay. What do I care? I’m always willing to try out new things. It could be interesting. Why not?”

A photo taken by Misa Rusek.Credit: Courtesy of Misa Rusek

“When I came to Israel, I was thinking that I was the only person in Israel of Japanese background,” she said, but she adjusted very quickly, learning Hebrew with ease. Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who later became a world-renown scholar of the Holocaust and who had joined the kibbutz eight years before, taught her the secrets of the language. Amid the work in the orchards, the vineyard and the kibbutz metal factory, Rusek maintained her natural optimism, her ability to adapt to change, and to work in the world of art.

At the end of our meeting, she said she is now not only Israeli but also Jewish. “When we decided to come here, Jerry’s mom told me, ‘I don’t care that you’re not Jewish, but you should know that if you go to Israel, they can make all kinds of problems for you if you’re not Jewish. For example, if you die, they won’t bury you,’” meaning that she would not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

“I thought, ‘Okay, what’s the problem?’ and I went and studied Judaism with a rabbi. It really helped.”

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