Picturing Conflicting Aspects of Israeli-German Relations

Renowned photojournalist Micha Bar-Am’s subjects included Adenauer, Deitrich and Eichmann.

Shlomo Arad

It’s not every day that an Israeli photographer finds himself at an historic meeting of two great leaders, in a shack in the middle of a desert. In 1966 it happened to Micha Bar-Am, who later became one of Israel’s leading photographers and a recipient of the Israel Prize for photography.

In May of that year, the former chancellor of West Germany Konrad Adenauer came to Israel on a visit. He was 90 at the time, a year before his death. Although he no longer held any official office his tall stature, lined face and lofty international status made him a well-known figure in Israel. Fourteen years earlier, in 1952, he had signed a reparations agreement with Israel.

David Ben-Gurion, who was then almost 80 years old and also a former prime minister, made the effort to meet Adenauer at the airport in Lod, inviting him for a visit to his home in Kibbutz Sde Boker.

It was a symbolic and historic meeting – but not their first. They had met in 1960 in New York, paving the way for the establishment, five years later, of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Bar-Am was hired by the German weekly “Stern” to document the meeting, alongside a German photographer who was sent here for the same purpose. Along with dozens of other journalists and photographers, he arrived at Sde Boker by helicopter.

“I placed myself on a watchtower close to the famous shack, in order to avoid the crush. I took pictures of the public reception from high up and far away,” Bar-Am reminisced recently at his home in Ramat Gan, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Germany, which will be marked next month.

When Adenauer and Ben-Gurion disappeared into the shack for what was defined as a “private meeting” the media crowd stretched out on the lawn and waited. Ben-Gurion’s wife Paula, who was renowned for her dislike of journalists, stood at the doorway to make sure no one slipped in, but later went in to join the closed meeting.

Two of Ben-Gurion’s bodyguards remained at the door. Bar-Am knew them from previous occasions on which he’d photographed “The Old One.” He convinced them to let him in to take pictures “quietly, with no invasive flashes and without perturbing the intimate nature of the meeting,” he recalls. “I slipped in and none of those present noticed me, even when I slowly drew closer. I was like a fly on the wall between the two giants, thanks to which I have some exclusive historic photos.”

Bar-Am remembers how Adenauer listened quietly as Ben-Gurion spoke dramatically. There was a translator between them. From time to time a smile crossed the elderly German leader’s lips. Bar-Am was the only photographer there. At the end of the meeting, when they finished talking, Paula cried out, “where is the photographer?” Someone called in the official photographer from the Government Press Office, who took some flash shots to obtain some formal documentation, thus spoiling some of the meeting’s special charm.

Bar-Am remained the only one who documented the event from an informal angle, not as part of a public relations drive. “Let’s call it a successful random stroke of luck,” he says.

From the shack the two leaders went to the kibbutz communal dining hall in order to raise a toast and taste some potato soup made by Paula. In another of Bar-Am’s photos, some soldiers who were supposed to be guarding the location can be seen peeking through the windows in order to witness for themselves the historic moment.

The finger froze

Another famous German personality that Bar-Am got to document from close up was the actress and singer Marlene Dietrich. She was a big star in Germany but left for the United States in the early 1930s, being a prominent opponent of the Nazi regime. “Today’s youth may not know her, but for the previous generation she was a legendary figure,” Bar-Am reminds us.

During Dietrich’s second visit to Israel in 1966, her impresario invited Bar-Am to accompany her on her visit, which included trips to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and Kibbutz Ein Gev on Lake Kinneret, as well as meetings with various figures and a few shows, including at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium.

Dietrich was 65 at the time. At the end of her visit, Bar-Am sat with her and showed her the photos he’d taken. He says that “she viewed them with much attention, tearing to shreds a few that she didn’t like. She was expecting aggrandizing photos, but I was never a public-relations kind of photographer or a court photographer for anyone. I photographed stories. When she saw photos that didn’t enhance her mythological stature she simply censored them by destroying them.”

Five years earlier, in 1961, Bar-Am documented Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Israel, after which Eichmann was convicted and hanged. This time he was working for the Government Press Office. “The work was in shifts and lasted several weeks, as part of the trial which lasted for months. It was an emotional occasion. The entire trial was very theatrical. When they finished reading the charges and Eichmann stood up and said “not guilty” my finger froze on the camera. Not that this particular moment had any special significance, but still, I didn’t photograph it. I’m not an analyst of history, but on a personal level this was a rattling experience.”

In Hermann Struck’s house

Like Adenauer, Dietrich and Eichmann, Bar-Am was born in Germany, in 1930. He changed his family name of Angoli to Bar-Am when he was 13. His father was a son of refugees from Odessa who had moved to Berlin. His mother’s family owned department stores in southern Germany.

“My father was a total Zionist, thus saving most of his family by deciding to immigrate to Palestine. He visited [Palestine] in the 1920s and became convinced that this was the right thing to do,” he says.

When the family arrived in the summer of 1936, the house that was intended for them in Kiryat Bialik (then a stronghold of “Yekkes,” as Jews from Germany were nicknamed) was not ready yet. “We thus found ourselves, a family with three small children, living in the laundry room of Hermann Struck, on a rooftop in Haifa,” he recalls.

Struck, a famous German Jewish painter, had settled in Haifa but was away for long periods and rented out his apartment.

In Germany, Bar-Am’s father dealt in commerce. In Palestine he first set up a factory for ice in Haifa’s lower town, but it was burned down in the great Arab Revolt (1936-1939). He then became a simple laborer paving roads.

Bar-Am came to photography by chance. “I never studied it formally – I’m an autodidact,” he says in a conversation held in his basement, which contains half a million photographs he took over several decades. These span a period covering the 1956 Suez Campaign, through the 1967 Six-Day War and the occupation of the West Bank, the peace process with Egypt, tempestuous election campaigns, immigration, the Arab-Israeli conflict and more.

On a Mac computer on the second floor, his wife Orna and assistant Sahar Roth (whom he calls the “optical axis”) are busy with a task of great importance for future generations – the scanning of his archives prior to its digitization.

On the computer are other photos connected to German-Israeli relations, documenting the difficult birth of the special connection between the two nations. Among others, there are photos from demonstrations held by Holocaust survivors who opposed having any relations with Germany. They are dressed in concentration camp inmates’ striped uniforms, holding signs in German and Hebrew saying “money won’t atone.”

A selection of some of his photographs documenting these relations will be shown in October, in a wandering exhibition that will open in the Bundestag in Berlin and later come to Israel.